I’ll be honest, I have no idea how to introduce what I feel or think about Frog Detective. Based purely on the name alone, I admit I absolutely would not have even given a second glance to it if it had scrolled into my view on Steam. It reminds me too much of that miserable era of stupid non-games that found their way onto the internet, titles like Amazing Frog and Goat Simulator, where the purpose was just to mess about in a pointless sandbox. But, I do also trust my friends, so when Frog Detective came well recommended I put my misgivings to one side and gave it a spin.
The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game (PC)
Released Nov 2018 | Developed / Published: Grace Bruxner
Genre: Adventure, Interactive Narrative
What is Frog Detective? Well, I guess we should start with the basics: you’re a frog, who is a detective (well, obviously). As the game begins you’re contacted by your supervisor, a penguin (I’m struck by thoughts of whether this has shades of Bojack Horseman, or are penguins just the creature nature intended to be long-suffering phone conversationalists?); anyway, the supervisor explains a case has come up and he’s pledged to put his best detective on it. Naturally, both he and our hero agree that means Lobster Cop should handle it, but unfortunately the crustacean is absent, so it falls to our stalwart second-best, Frog Detective, to solve the mystery. And so, with little other fanfare, we grab our best magnifying glass and set sail for the titular haunted island.
You’ve probably gathered that this game is a wee bit silly. There’s probably not a better word to describe a game like Frog Detective, or the events that transpire during it. It belongs quite squarely to an age of very internet-centric humour, although I have to say it does a better job of being funny than I expected. I’ve spoken about comedy games before; it’s a genre that I sometimes struggle with because often they completely live or die on whether your humour gels with that of the writing team. It’s why I tend to find AAA games that try to be funny really hit-or-miss; because big releases now cost tens of millions of dollars to make, they can’t take risks and as a result higher-budget comedy tends to be corporate-fuelled, focus-tested, lol-so-random humour or internet-friendly zaniness, and I just can’t laugh at comedy written by a committee. It’s why the games that have made me laugh most over the years have been indie games, since the risk isn’t as great when your budget is like, a tenner and enough energy drinks to keep your one programmer sated. Frog Detective’s humour, then, is gentle, and I found that it really resonated with me. While it obviously has some roots in random humour – let me remind you, the main character is, after all, a detective who is a frog, and their investigation brings them into contact with an equally goofy array of animal people – it mostly gets by on smart writing and prodding harmless fun at its own premise. There’s not a hint of sarcasm or cruelty in its jokes, and no-one is ever the butt of them, and I genuinely love that about it; often I see comedy falling into the trap that it must in some way be predicated on the subject being humiliated or failing in some way, but Frog Detective eschews it in favour of a much more homely, cozy feeling.
Frog Detective also eschews violence in its gameplay. This is another subject which I’ve talked about before, with games like Abzu, Submerged, and AER, and the thing I noted with them was that when you remove violence from a game, it does need to be suitably replaced by some other effective way of marking a player’s progression. We’re now in the space year of 2022 at time of writing, and there have been many years of indie games trying to get this right; we’ve come a long way since the days of games like Dear Esther where pure story progression was used as the sole advancement point. Frog Detective comes from adventure game stock, so the game is instead driven along by its puzzles, or more accurately, its puzzle. The game is essentially just a trading sequence baked in amidst a bevy of amusing conversations between its characters; there’s perhaps a very token effort at pretending there’s a puzzle to solve as you have to keep a vague track of who wants what item, but in practice once you start talking to the characters on the island, the items you need fall into your lap simply by exhausting the conversation options. I should say that’s not a criticism; the gameplay here comes a distant second to the writing by design, and that’s okay. Frog Detective won’t satisfy anyone looking for a hardcore challenge, but that’s not really the audience it’s going for.
Every generation has developers searching to tap into a retro charm. That typically takes the form of pixel-style graphics to recall the days of the NES, the SNES, the MegaDrive/Genesis. However, as time marches on we’re now seeing developers around my age who are nostalgic for the PS1 and the N64, so games that hearken back to those glorious days of blocky limited polygonal models are starting to crop up more and more. That’s certainly where my mind first went upon loading up Frog Detective as I stared around the Detective’s office; everything you see is angular and made up of single block colours, while characters have huge round bug-eyes. That said, while Frog Detective’s models might not have dynamic expressions, it doesn’t stop them being expressive, and often the fixed smiles and wide eyes accentuate the comedy, making the dialogue hit that much harder.
I don’t know if there’s much more I can say about Frog Detective. There are many things that it isn’t. It’s not a long game, clocking in at under an hour (in fact, Steam tells me I spent 37 minutes on it), but that works in its favour. It’s like a single episode of a funny TV show, taking up 40 minutes of your time one morning or afternoon, but then it sat rent-free in my head the rest of the day as I mulled over just why I enjoyed it so much. It’s not a challenging game; it doesn’t ask anything of the player in terms of performing feats of skill or dexterity, but instead it just wants to absorb yourself in reading it, chuckling along when it tells a joke or has a goofy moment, and gives you the simplest of puzzle strands to follow along, with nary a failure state to be seen. It almost certainly doesn’t warrant a ton of replays, but I suspect it’s a game that can be returned to in the same way a favourite book can be picked up again and re-read, even in part; it’s simply the act of coming back to something you love that stirs the warmth and nostalgia. What The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game is, though, is a charming little story with a beautiful, cozy chaotic energy that I adored.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.