Alligator New York will eat you up and spit you out if you don’t keep a thick hide. Luckily most of its residents do, and nobody in Pillowfight’s Later Alligator really seems to be having a bad time.
Except perhaps for Pat. He’s harbouring fears that his family is planning to murder him. Our pinstripes and black-and-white Oxfords don’t do much to dispel any old-world-vendetta aesthetic, not to mention the knife in our briefcase, but you know? I can’t imagine Pat’s family wanting to hurt anybody. They seem content to talk and exchange information for little favours like beating pinball scores or protecting infants from ghosts.
Let’s back up. Pat’s in trouble, and he may have contacted our totally canonically visible and uniquely-faced presumed gumshoe for help. It’s Pat’s birthday, you see. He likes to treat himself to a stay at his favourite hotel, but he’s overheard murmurs amongst the family of something referred to as The Event, something for which he is squarely in the crosshairs. That can only mean one thing in Alligator New York City, probably, and he’ll eventually need to go home and face the music.
So we help. What can a sympathetic ‘gator do? We’ll travel the city, notepad in hand, talk to this family of his, and keep Pat apprised of what we learn. He explains that if we want to squeeze people for information we may need to loosen their leathery lips. Naturally, that is best accomplished by way of a minigame, a fact that the self-aware Later Alligator is happy to point out.
From here we’re exploring the city by trolley, soaking up sights and sounds and making friends. Pat’s story will progress in intervals as each full interaction passes time toward the next distressed text he sends us. We could boil the proceeding down to a minigame collection and the text in between – everybody has the same dialogue options, games arrive after they’re exhausted – but we’d be brushing aside so much of what’s on offer.
There is – has been for a while, perhaps – a trend toward recognizing and exploring the idea that games don’t need to be about skill and scores and mastery and accumulating experience points. Video game is perhaps a bit limiting. Later Alligator has its toys, yes, but they’re pieces that fit into a lovely little menagerie alongside music, animation, and writing, each worthy of note on their own merits and important to the experience beyond accompaniment
Slick Mickey is a phenomenally bad Three-card Monte grifter, but he’s got dumb charisma in spades and has the most wonderfully, innocently stereotypical New Yorker gestures. Sweet Geraldine knows how cute a kid she is and had no qualms in leveraging it to get some chump adult to execute her big claw game score. Side characters and bus trips, too, are persistently enjoyable little events. Charm would be exuding from the game’s pores if alligators had any.
Smallbu, the team behind the game’s hand-drawn, comic-strip-in-motion, gently vibrating animation style has drawn a diverse, fun range of gators. They come in uniquely delightful shapes and animate with uniquely delightful animations to a degree where much of the joy is found in simply meeting people, watching them move, and soaking in the visual representation of their personalities. Background art bears its occasional gag but is less interested in quick jokes than conveying a sense of place. The washed-out antique scenes lend an impression and frame our eccentric, relatively saturated green splashes of characters their visual focus. The game feels a certain way to look at – classy coffee counters and seedy bars more akin to small-town diners with colourful faces poised to say goofy things.
Music ranges to suit. On one end we have jaunty, old-timey swing with horns, bass strings, and quick drums – something you might hear in a speakeasy if an alligator-y one where a police raid would oh so fun to watch. Maybe some slow jazz over the papery texture of gramophone or wistful transit-car brass.
On the other end our piano is accompanied by kazoos and slide whistles. Pat’s theme suits him.
The writing is occasionally brilliant, but not quite on par with the rest of the presentation. It’s not straggling far behind, mind you, but some characters are too on the snout and a few lines are a bit threadbare and noticeably written. The grillmeister dad, for example, lets his thick self-aware-put-upon-dad shtick relegate him to a joke where others are more, er, human if cartoonily so. Most of the time, however, it’s blending rather beautifully with the rest of the vibe, dialogue popping with bubbly little water drop noises timed to give emphasis or pause where intended. It, too, seems less concerned with cracking jokes than being overwhelmingly loveable. For what it’s worth to you, I audibly cooed with affection in several places.
The games you play with the family are the least consistent piece. Mixing soda fountain cocktails in the park is hard to mess up if you possess more concentration than our teen friend with the recipe book, but I am terrible at anything in the Flappy Bird cadre. It bears whatever degree of condemnable sin you consider a tile-sliding puzzle to be, but pulling aside the velvet curtain in the recesses of Nana Rue’s antique shop and contacting the dead via ouija is terrific. The afterlife beyond the viewing piece reveals a whole little world of drama and dice games; you’re supposed to be hunting The Black Widow’s husband against the threat of building suspicion, but the hidden scene is so tempting! Luckily the consequence of failure is low: time will advance, but you probably won’t need whatever would have been discovered if you’d prefer to move on.
It’s a game about a mindset. Or a feeling. Something to sit with for the duration of a tea or sink into for an hour or two with trust that you’ll be smiling through most of it. It’s nigh harmless, only the faintest suggestions of genuine consequence wisping in from occasional details and NYC caricature. It’s a world where raggy low-fi billiard-room blues sing about the woes of biteable tails and chewing beef with missing teeth rather than something identifiably blue, a loving mishmash of generations spanning prohibition-era starch, greaser street-toughs, and clamshell cell phones. It’s sweet and earnest and huggable. For any weird pieces of writing or less pleasant minigames, it knows exactly where its heart is and what kind of thing it wants to be, and that thing is marvellous.