Blue Bloods. Miami Vice. T.J. Hooker. Police procedurals are a dime a dozen on the boob tube, but they are somewhat rare when it comes to computer games. Beat Cop, the first game from indie game studio Pixel Crow, combines the escalating stress of Papers, Please with Police Quest puzzling, a wink, and a nod.
In true underdog fashion, you play as disgraced detective Jack Kelly. Demoted down to the titular rank of beat cop, you have to survive the drudgery of handing out parking tickets and cuffing retail robbers while trying to solve the mystery of why unknown forces are trying to kill you. On top of all this, if you don’t Senator’s missing diamonds in 21 days, you’ll get fired. Oh, don’t forget to placate the Mafia and street gangs in the neighborhood while keeping your orders in mind from your morning briefing. Having fun yet?
Each day in Beat Cop has a similar structure. You get briefed by the Police Chief on your main goal for the day; this could be anything from writing 5 tickets for busted taillights to escorting a foreign dignitary around the city. While all this goes on, there are scripted events that happen with a tight time limit. If you’re not near the building that got robbed, you’d better book it to cuff the perp in time. Not failing your main mission for the day is critical because you are required to have money set aside for your child support payments every few days; miss this and it’s game over.
Beat Cop controls well, but does a poor job of explaining its gameplay mechanics. You click on the screen to let Kelly move around on the sidewalk. Double clicking allows him to run, but he has a limited amount of stamina to contend with. Much like the indie gaming darling Papers, Please, your inventory takes up the bottom strip of the screen. There’s your important digital clock (many side missions require you be in front of a store at a certain time), ticket ledger, gun, and notebook. Sequences involving shooting or cuffing the bad guys are have a very tight time limit, so it’s good to keep your mouse towards the center of the screen for easy access when you can.
Most of what you’re doing in Beat Cop is writing tickets for cars because of illegal parking, worn tires, or broken headlights. You’re not required to do a full check of each car before you write a ticket, but if you falsify tickets you’ll get your pay docked. Sometimes the car’s owner will offer your $20 not to write a ticket. Another thing to worry about is food. As your stamina drops, you’ll be unable to run from location to location. You can keep it up with pasta, donuts, a cheeseburger, or drugs. Choose wisely.
While it gets difficult juggling all of your different responsibilities at once, Beat Cop has a more gradual difficulty curve than Papers, Please, but it’s also more tedious. Writing tickets is a bit of a chore. Different store owners on your beat have little personalities that come out in side missions. Beat Cop’s town mixes broad physical humor with brutal crimes. One mission has you recruiting a donut shop employee to start in a porno while another one involves a satanic cult conducting rituals in the junkyard; the former feels like a Leisure Suit Larry outtake. The harsh language makes the game feel more like 48 HRS. than Beverly Hills Cop.
One of the smarter things Beat Cop does is give you more side missions than you can complete in a day. At a certain point, you have to start prioritizing. Do you help out the black gangs or the Italian gangs? Will either really offer the protection they’re promising you? At the end of the day, you can check out a rating to see how rank with these different factions. This gives the game a fair amount of replayability, not to mention that are several ways to lose. If you don’t reach for your gun quick enough, you’re dead. If you schmooze with either gang, you can get an offer to join them to get a “bad ending.” If you fail to pay your child support, you get fired. To quote The King and I, “Etc., etc., etc.”
Although Beat Cop uses the tried and true 2D pixelated approach, the graphics have an endearing 1980s jankiness. Characters have more human proportions, and much of the screen is dedicated to the crowded street and the towering buildings. It looks a bit like the Police Quest 1 VGA remake if everything was zoomed out a bit. Composer Piotr Musial nails the Jan Hammer vibe, but there’s not enough of his score here. You’ll hear bits and pieces fade in and out as you walk by certain buildings, which is a nice touch.
Developers Maciej Miasik and Adam Kozlowski both worked on games in The Witcher series, and Beat Cop comes across as a real passion project for them. There’s fine attention to detail and your city block is a living, breathing place. It’s sometimes boring and a little buggy (sometimes the ticket prompt won’t appear when you click on an illegally parked car), but it also made me feel a bit of sympathy for cops writing parking tickets. If you like work simulators or ever played a Police Quest game, you need to check out Beat Cop.