We live in a volatile world, one that’s full of unrest and oppression. In our day to day lives, different members of our society deal with unequal amounts of discrimination, racism, and hostility. It’s an ever present fact, regardless of your country or creed. In the United States, a constant issue is that of police morality and trustworthiness. Over the course of the past decade, we’ve seen an increase in distrust for the police. This is for a variety of reasons, many of which don’t belong in a video game review. However, This is the Police plops itself firmly in the midst of all this controversy, and attempts to tell a story. Is that story successful, offensive, or somewhere in between? Let’s hop into the shoes of the boys in blue and find out.
A Day in the Life of a Police Chief
This is the Police follows the story of Jack Boyd, a 60 year old retiring police chief in the corrupt city of Freeburg. Due to some oversights, Jack’s retirement fund is lacking the 0’s he desires. In an effort to make himself comfortable, he pledges to skin $500,000 of illicit funds in his last 180 days as chief of police. The main narrative of Jack Boyd stays pretty solid throughout, and I was always interested to see the next cut scene. The story is mainly told through comic style panels, accompanied by voice acting. When it comes down to these sequences, I have absolutely no complaints. I really enjoyed the cut scene style and the quality of voice acting. In fact, these quick cut scenes were some of the strongest parts of the entire game. As a gameplay mechanic, the pursuit of $500k offers the player plenty of choices.
This is the Police is a mix between Papers, Please and your average time management game. For those who haven’t played Papers, Please, the entire focus of that game is making hard decisions and questioning your own morals. Often times, these decisions have no “good” option, but rather two bad options that benefit the public or yourself.
The game is broken up into days, with two shifts of officers and detectives to work with. On each day, you’ll send your staff out on calls, investigate larger crimes, balance requests from City Hall, and much more. This is the Police tries to be realistic, often pulling story beats right from the headlines. You’ll receive an emergency call, and read the statement provided. Then, if you think the call is worth following up on, you’ll choose who you want to send and how much support they’ll have. Each officer has a reliability number, a rank, as well as stamina to keep track of. Additionally, some officers might be lazy, have alcohol problems, or constantly call off work. This affects who you put on what shift, and how you handle your management. You can hire and fire employees (budget and space permitting), but you’ll have to have a legal reason to do so. Alternatively, you can have your staff murdered in cold blood, transferred to another facility, or overworked and forced to quit.
The bread and butter of the game are moment-to-moment decisions. Sometimes they’ll come in the form of a multi-choice question, asking you to make a definitive decision on how the officers act. Other times you’ll have to decide between sending officers out to aid the public, or send them to private clients who will pay you under the table. Out of all the various aspects of gameplay, I most enjoyed the multi-choice decisions. These can sometimes be funny, interesting, or rather serious, depending on the original call.
All while you do this, you’ll have to slowly work towards collecting the $500k Jack Boyd needs for retirement. Managing these funds isn’t as easy as you think, as you’ll often have to spend money on dirty work. You can pay for different services as you unlock them in the story, all making things a bit easier. For instance, you might need a certain police officer fired because they’re going to snitch on you. For a meager $1,500 you can arrange a hit, sending up to three officers to their death at a time. These services aren’t always as bleak, though.
You can spend money on a variety of things, such as training or relaxing parties for your staff, falsifying evidence, and hiring a personal snitch. I often found myself using these services, often to the dismay of my bank account. Furthermore, too much corrupt action and you’ll be investigated by the Labor Union or other entities. Found guilty, and you might see your bank account split in half or your salary cut.
Here’s where This is the Police loses points. As a story about a police chief and him managing to scrape by, the game is fine. However, This is the Police goes for the big topics, often handling very sensitive and controversial discussion points. For example, an early request from City Hall asks you to fire all your African American staff. In the early game, it’s fun to balance City Hall’s outrageously offensive requests as you try to do right by your city and job title.
Unfortunately, This is the Police isn’t really a game about major choice. You’ll discover early on that it’s incredibly hard to play by the rules, at times even impossible. Early on, the game asks you to work with the Mafia. After explaining just how corrupt and violent they were, I chose to not work with them and save face. This is the Police has a story to tell, though, so they force your hand and make you work with the Mafia anyway.
I started playing This is the Police with a careful touch, trying to balance morality and necessity. Early moments with the game had me questioning my own convictions and judgement, and I really like when a game is able to have that sort of impact. This loses its luster over time, as it quickly becomes apparent that “completely corrupt and horrible person” is the only viable option for success. Later in the game, the City Hall ordered me to send several officers and a SWAT team to forcefully end a peaceful LGBTQ protest. I did it without hesitation. Not because I dislike the LGBTQ community in real life, but because the game had already made the choice for me.
A Rigged Game
That’s my biggest complaint with This is the Police. Everything feels just a bit too rigged. Building up a solid police force is tough, and maintaining it is even harder. After I had got my footing and started to enjoy the normal gameplay, I was able to overlook the obvious attention seeking with controversial topics. Unfortunately, This is the Police rewards your hard work by setting you back. At about 25% of the way through the story (and 75% as well), your solid staff of dedicated officers will flip flop and become completely useless. Then, you’re back to square one, building them up all while balancing unfair circumstances. These long stretches of rebuilding your squad are annoying and unrewarding (especially the second time around). I really enjoyed the user interface, the game’s “choose your own adventure” moments, and the normal management aspects.
A lot of the systems in This is the Police are connected, too. Once one domino falls, the rest are quick to come. For example, there was one point where I had an issue with officers dying. On one unlucky set of days, I managed to lose 6 out of my 16 officers. Due to this, I was under staffed and unable to sufficiently answer calls. The next day, City Hall sent me a notice stating that due to my ineffective performance, they’d be cutting my budget (this means you’ll have to fire an officer). This started a cycle of failure and frustration that made me want to stop playing. I still pushed through, and was able to strengthen my staff once again. This amount of work only caused me more frustration when the game threw a wrench at me late in the game, once again rendering my staff useless.
Choice and Consequence
Ultimately, This is the Police evens out into a sometimes enjoyable but often frustrating game. For a management simulator, I rarely felt in control. This would be excusable if the story was compact and purposeful, but most of true narrative is delegated to cut scenes and brief interactive events like press conferences and the like. At first, it was interesting to see such controversial and hot button topics being explored. After a while, it seemed like shock material rather than trying to create an active dialogue. It’s not offensive or glorifying discrimination, but at times it comes dangerously close. The game would be better off with more focus, and less time wasted on cheap shock moments. After a while, I became frustrated with the idea. Why does the game bother asking my character their thoughts on “black rights movements” when it will never be accurately represented? Why put all these loaded topics in your game if you’re not going to respect the player’s choice?
The Bottom Line on This is the Police
This is the Police is a hard game to judge, because when all is said and done, I had a decent time playing it. The quick judgement calls needed to properly manage your staff, along with some key story moments, all made for fun game play. However, they spend way too much time with the illusion of choice, often dealing you harsh consequences no matter how hard you try. Initially, you expect some interesting social commentary due to the subject matter. You’ll quickly learn that it doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, you’ll have to do some pretty disgusting stuff to maintain your power.
I feel like This is the Police is two games in one, and a bit too lengthy for its own good. You’ll be able to finish off the game in roughly 15-20 hours. If choices truly mattered, I’d think about going back and playing some more. Unfortunately, This is the Police forced my hand too often to feel like I was making any real decision. As a time management game, it’s actually pretty fun. As a serious social commentary on the state of the police, it drops the ball.