Review: Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1

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This game was selected as our June 2020 Reader’s Choice Review. Learn more on our Patreon page.

I hope everyone here understands that surrealism is about much more than just mashing a bunch of weird shit together. Plenty of aspiring indie games wither away from a lack of unifying vision and a clear feel, while games like this thrive in the universe they create. Tales From Off-Peak City is the kind of surreal that works, the kind that you feel in the small crevices of your brain and hear echoing in bones you don’t know the names of. It’s weird because it can be and because it has to be, and even so it manages to tell a story that’s both utterly bizarre and oddly familiar in places. For a supposed anthology series, this is definitely a strong start out of the gate.

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You arrive at the city by boat, ferried by a commanding woman and a quiet man. A flood has washed away much of the neighborhood you’re landing at but that’s okay, because the pizzeria still stands and you need the saxophone hidden within. Caetano Grosso was once a master musician, but gave it all up to sling pies in this run-down borough. Your benefactors want his sax, and they’ve given you an in as the next delivery person for the shop. So begins your adventures on the corner of July and Yam, cooking pizzas, delivering meals, listening to the dark history of the city, and navigating pitfalls both metaphorical and physical on your way to securing the instrument.

Tales From Off-Beat City is a first-person adventure game, with only a single button for all of your important interactions. You can pick up items, turn handles, and advance dialogue spoken at you all with left-click, and that’ll get you through all your deliveries and detective work. I won’t say too much about the structure of the game but you’ll generally be making pizzas to fill the orders that come in, delivering them and talking to the customer for a bit, then puzzling out what you can about your objective before moving on to the next delivery. The events that occur as you go about your odd business seem fixed, so don’t expect much in the way of choices or branching paths here, and the aforementioned puzzling is an extremely simple affair.

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That’s not to say this is a simple game, of course, only that the gameplay taking you through this fever-dream of a town is really secondary to the experience itself. Off-Peak City is a very different world from ours, filled with sentient buildings and giant dogs and still people with very relatable problems. The orders that come in will ask for pizzas that “consider beyond that which is in front of me”, leaving the actual recipe to your interpretations. Deliveries reveal all sorts of strangeness with the residents and also leave a profound impact upon them, and they also call down some attention that you’re probably not going to want. There are a lot of stories here to unearth, and while most of them are not particularly deep as stated there’s clearly a lot of symbolism here, and the central mystery of the pizzeria goes to some really neat places.

Along the way you’ll find additional ingredients to add to your prep station, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that some of these are a bit outside the norm. You can also buy a camera with some spare cash and find different rolls of film for it, which give your photos all kinds of strange effects. Neither of these things are necessary for finishing the game, nor is teasing out stories from some of the side characters scattered around the neighborhood. But all these things help give the game additional depth and texture, and tease out the length to a cozy two hours or so. Judging from the achievements there are also special conversations you can get by being in the right places at the right times, and I can only imaging what oddities are shared if you can swing that.

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The main thing here is that the look and feel of Off-Peak City just work. It’s a surreal aesthetic with some genuine thought behind it, guiding the bizarre book titles on shelves and persistent cow imagery and lo-fi jazz pumping through speakers found in the strangest of places. It feels like playing through an old subversive 90s cartoon or falling into a modern art exhibit, and that feel dovetails nicely with the tale of loss and mistrust being told here. The experience is linear and won’t last you too long, but it’s absolutely worth it for the creativity on display. Tales From Off-Peak City is a compelling start for this surreal anthology, and begs many questions about what could lie ahead.

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