Bitter, Like Good Tea
Despite the obvious price pressure, chronic unemployment, overabundance of corporate fraud and all-round shittiness that the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008 (yeah, I didn’t know they had it called it that, either) has brought about, these unforgiving economic times have given rise to something far more subtle: misanthropy. I, for one, take pride in being a jaded misanthrope, despite being about four decades too young for it. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but watching share values and retailer profits plummet into a downward spiral of chaos appeals to a misfiring humour centre in my brain. I believe something similar afflicted the Joker, so perhaps I should see a psychotherapist about it before I run amok in my local town and question everyone’s seriousness.
Misanthropes, like everyone else on the planet, need videogames to survive and despite what you may think, there isn’t a great slew of interactive entertainment appealing to the pessimistic demographic. Shooting terrorists in Call of Duty is far too brainlessly patriotic. Performing drive-bys on a gaggle of hipsters in Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV, while entertaining, is far too overt. No, for the real misanthrope, there needs to be something a good deal more tactful – a game with an evil base, symbolising the bitter core of the player, filled with traps and laser beam doors, perhaps? Even better, a base far away from the world on an uninhabited volcanic island of undisclosed location, a place where the misanthrope could begin a journey towards becoming a wicked mastermind with the ultimate goal of Earth’s destruction in mind. Cudgelling baby seals on live television and lasering the crotches of irritating and pretentious superspies would also be added bonuses. This, dear readers, would be the perfect game of misanthropy.
This game is Evil Genius.
Do You Expect Me to Talk?
Of course, if you aren’t the sort of gamer inclined to sit down at your favourite chair and click through construction and hiring menus for hours without frequent explosions, Evil Genius is probably not going to leave you deviously ruffling the fur of your googly-eyed Persian cat in pleasure. It is a game which, of course, falls into that strange ‘management’ genre, one that enthuses a certain stock of gamer in the placement of fire-extinguishers, the erection of toilets, and the hiring of cleaners. If you don’t have this sort of mania, you’re probably not evil genius material. Alas that when this sadly overlooked title was released in 2004, most reviewers agreed that it was ‘average’ or barely above so. My then fourteen-year-old self couldn’t’ve disagreed more.
Joking aside, there’s certainly no denying that Evil Genius glows with charm. Seven years has done little to demean its attractiveness, thanks mostly to its unique and cartoony art design, nuanced with brightly coloured ‘60s fashion, hairstyles, and decorations, all ideally befitting of what is essentially a parody of every camp “No, I expect you to die” spy movie ever conceived. It is obvious that the developers, Elixir (now defunct), put a great deal of effort into crafting a friendly, captivating experience that both looks and sounds exactly like its cheesy subject matter.
Over-the-top, absurd evilness is what you will spend your time dabbling in. Be it shrinking the Eiffel Tower, building the ultimate doomsday device, or making your avatar character (in my case, a short, stout, bemonocled German named Maximilian) cackle in the face of an imprisoned superagent, Evil Genius is not to be taken seriously. Indeed, it is a game that is often hilarious. A pressure pad-triggered wind machine can be used to blow the less spatially aware intruders onto a hidden treadmill which in turn flings its unwitting victim into a tank of piranhas. If you imagine your least favourite social clique embodying said intruders, watching your traps in action never gets old. For the sophisticated, tartan dressing-gown wearing brandy quaffer, less slapstick humour is evident in the casually stereotyped radio bulletins read by heavily accented newsreaders after your minions successfully complete acts of infamy on the world map. Your henchmen – your elite, anti-superagent guards, ranging from Jubai the samurai, taken straight out of a Kurosawa film, to Lord Kane, a grim British aristocrat with a taste for murder and Victorian clothing – are not only extremely handy in a tight spot, but also entertaining in their diversity and witty one-liners.
Humour even permeates through to construction and items. The ‘archives’, a room used to replenish your minions’ ‘smarts’, contains a literal brain washing device (which cleans its user’s grey and white matter in a soapy liquid before firing it back into its owner’s head) and movable bookcases used to crush (without any gore, of course) agents in interrogation; in the armoury, meanwhile, the player can place a holding cell with its own rolling pins which can be activated to flatten its prisoner into a human pancake. I would usually be averse to this sort of silliness, but Evil Genius pulls it off absolutely wonderfully without ever trying too hard.
Not a Quantum of Solace
Unfortunately, though Evil Genius executes its design, style, and humour perfectly, the core gameplay often leaves a lot to be desired.
In the run-up to its release, I was an avid follower of everything Evil Genius. I lapped up screenshots, videos, and played the demo so much that I’m surprised I didn’t adhere to my chair. When I finally got my hands on the full game, I was completely engrossed. In the hours I wasn’t playing obsessively, I was formulating or contemplating new room designs and trap layouts. But here in 2011, with my eyes opened to the world and, alas, with my rose-tinted glasses stowed away forever, I realise Evil Genius has one major, glaring flaw, one which I overlooked as a young adolescent: it is slow. Very slow. You’d think that growing older would, aside from bringing anxieties, phobias, and dysfunctions, also bring with it a healthy dose of patience, but in my case, I found myself drumming my fingers on my desk, idly panning the camera around my base watching a few workers dawdle about as I slowly accumulated cash to hire a force large enough to take on a mission (which you have no direct control over) and build enough traps and distractions to keep investigators and tourists out of my lair.
Certain key mechanics are broken, too: Because room construction is not instantaneous and is instead a step-by-step process, getting a fully functioning base up and running often takes so long that it warrants a tea break; the ‘World Domination’ screen, where your minions are sent across the planet to perform various naughty misdeeds, is a rather uninspiring, dull affair, its excitement hinging upon the amount of map-revealing, but power-hungry control panels you have manned and maintained. Minions, for what they are worth, are also overly complex creatures, with health, endurance, loyalty, and a number of other needs that require constant attention and specific rooms and items which, of course, cost money and power. Indeed, most of your base will be filled with rooms dedicated to keeping your lackeys in check and amused, and it often feels like you are building a giant, underground crèche as opposed to a bastion of evil full of cool gadgets and tech for the furthering of your despicable schemes.
It’s a shame, really. Evil Genius’ excellent premise is so exciting and fresh that being forced to build up often painfully slowly with a minute force of minions inherently detracts from the notion of being a power-hungry egomaniac. I appreciate the need for steady progression – and by the time you’re building your doomsday device on your second island, things certainly heat up – but overall, the game’s pacing is all wrong. Splitting your minions between defending and maintaining your base and away missions is an extremely fine balancing act, one made particularly difficult in the early stages of the game when your worker cap is so low. Though there is definite satisfaction to be had from beholding a fully functioning, completed base, getting to that stage takes more endurance than what the game gives back in enjoyment.
Save or Delete?
In the opening paragraphs of this article/potential evidence in a future psychiatric evaluation, I said that Evil Genius was the misanthrope’s game. It is. However, despite its lofty status, it is also flawed. Most of the game’s appeal lies in its style in design and humour and the actual planning of your evil base. It stumbles, tragically, in key areas. It is slow and overly complex from the start, a trap many management games fall into. Despite the fun to be had in the capture of intruders, the pressing of the noisy ‘red alert’ siren, and the chaos of a full-on assault by the forces of justice, these are superficial elements on an unstable foundation.
That said, I can’t quite bring myself to uninstall Evil Genius. Though it might not hold me quite as riveted as it did seven years ago, there’s something timeless about dropping a cage of knockout gas onto a group of over-eager saboteurs, then ordering their unconscious bodies dragged into lockdown. Huh, I really do have issues.