Beat Cop had been on my radar for some time as a somewhat Papers, Please-like pixel-art game in which you perform a menial job replete with a branching story and multiple endings based on your decisions and performance. I finally picked it up on Steam and completed it in around 8 hours over several sessions. Whilst I don’t remember watching cop dramas in the ‘80s, my consciousness seems to know all the tropes and common lines thanks to the parade of parodies that were available in my formative years; this should be viewed like those, a conglomeration of the various tropes and ideas of that time rather than trying to be an accurate simulation. The developers (who made popular survival game This War of Mine) even go so far as to put a notice at the beginning to explain that this isn’t meant to be a historically accurate piece but rather a game based on their memories of watching cop shows as kids.
You play as Jack Kelly, a homicide detective with the NYPD who gets demoted down to a beat cop after a failed attempt to stop a robbery ends up with one man dead and a large number of diamonds stolen from a powerful senator. Your goal is to get back to the life you once had by solving the mystery of who has the diamonds whilst also having to work the streets issuing out tickets for various violations. Throughout your working day, you’ll have to make decisions which can alter the plot and affect you later in the game.
The core game is set on the street that Kelly patrols, a long pastiche of ‘80s life with multiple apartments, shops, and restaurants. Every building can be entered often leading to a snippet of conversation with the locals who will come to you with their problems. On the street itself, you are generally tasked with issuing a certain number of tickets per day for parking violations or vehicle malfunction in the form of poor tyres or broken lights. Occasionally someone will try and perform a robbery at which point you can give chase and cuff them; sometimes you’ll be allowed to go for your gun rather than your cuffs leading to a quick shootout.
At the end of each day you’ll be given your salary so long as you hit your quota. If you go under, your pay is docked; if you double your quota, you are given a bonus. When issuing tickets, it is fairly common that you’ll be offered a sly $20 to turn a blind eye; doing so can net you a quick boost to your cash but if you don’t end up hitting your quota you could be docked more than the bribes you took. It is also possible that the undercover cops are patrolling the streets and you’ll be fined for taking bribes.
Your money typically disappears fairly quickly as you can use it for food, to get a better resolution of a particular quest, or it’ll get taken in the form of alimony payments to your ex-wife. Quite often you’ll start your day being told that you owe a certain amount within a few days time which may either make you take dubious deals with people on the street, take more bribes, or try and double your quota for that precious bonus. I also saw a quest which would allow me to collect a large amount to then flee the country.
In addition to your money, there are also three meters which will adjust depending on the actions you took throughout the day to reflect your standing with the police, the crew (a local gang), and the mafia. Whilst I played fairly straight and kept a good ranking with the police whilst maintaining a careful balance between mafia and crew, I imagine different quests and endings will appear if you let your ranking fall to far with any faction. Whilst there isn’t a clear numerical meter for it, your standing with the people on the street is also important and will affect which quests come to you. I managed to maintain a good relationship with them throughout my playthrough but if you always take the side of the crew or mafia or you never let people get out of their tickets then the relationship can sour very quickly.
There are numerous individuals across the street who you’ll get to know whilst also teasing out the story of their pasts. The main people you’ll talk to are the shopkeepers and restauranteurs including one memorable mission with the owner of the sex shop that sees you making a porno on the cheap. There is also a local drug dealer and a prostitute who can improve your mood for a few dollars. You’ll need to eat regularly at the various food outlets in order to keep your stamina up; if you don’t, you’ll find you can’t run far without needing to take a breather and that can be fatal during a shootout.
The trickiest part to all of this is the slow march of time. In the same way that you are constrained in Papers, Please by the looming clock, so you are constrained in Beat Cop. In fact, it is slightly harder as some actions will eat up your precious time such as stopping to have lunch or waiting for a patrol car to come and pick up a perp you’ve busted. Such delays are part of the continuous battle between trying to be a good cop but needing to cut corners in order to hit your quotas and costs.
The quests you are given tend to be fairly simplistic; tear down some posters around the neighbourhood by interacting with them, call in at a certain apartment to tend to a mad old lady and her dog, or inspect the trunk of a car to find a package of drugs. Some, though, are more complex with an individual you need to tail around the street and call in to central whenever he does something suspicious. There is also a huge amount of detail to the game with the ability to manually inspect the tyres, lights, and trunk of every car or to literally be able to buzz any of the 10 flats in each apartment complex.
In a way, it is almost a shame it is so detailed as there is a sense of rushing that forbids you the opportunity to look at the world in any real detail. You are always having to push forward for the next ticket or to crack a case at the detriment of just enjoying the world. Thankfully, conversations freeze time and so you can enjoy some of the wonderful writing that permeates the street from the wise-cracks of your team in the morning briefing to the bizarre ramblings of the local priest.
Whilst I didn’t experience any major issues, there were a few areas that caused frustration. The first (forgivable as a US-centric game) is that I didn’t realise there were parking meters on the street that turned red when the time was up for each car. For the first couple of days, the only parking tickets I was giving out were for those cars in no parking areas when I’d probably missed 20-30 expired meters. The only specific bug I encountered was that cultist members had black bounding boxes around them for some reason; this made it fairly trivial to spot them in a section where it should have been much harder. More generally, the difficulty gets fairly brutal towards the latter stages of the game with “game over” messages triggered if you don’t speak to the right person at exactly the right time; this was made all the more frustrating by the lack of a save system so if you lose towards the end of the day you have to do the entirety of the day again. These are generally minor gripes though and didn’t spoil my enjoyment too much.
On the positive side, Beat Cop comes with lots of achievements based on both the story mode and some of the optional bits and pieces you can do. There are also Steam trading cards available and I was pleasantly surprised when everything bar cut scenes worked at my full ultrawide resolution of 3440x1440px.
Whilst I played for just over 8 hours, it seems like I’d been in the world of Beat Cop for a lot longer. The amount of detail and the wonderful dialogue stuck with me long after I finished the main story. That said, even though I didn’t get the ending that I particularly wanted, I don’t think I’m ready to jump back and try for a different ending again mainly due to the save game issues. If I could quick save or have multiple pieces of progress I’d likely try a few variations (make deals with the mafia or the crew, play as a crooked cop who takes all the bribes, etc) but without that it can quickly lead to frustration.
I’m mainly left thinking that this would be a great experience on the iPad. Touch controls would work well with the UI that exists and I could see myself enjoying this on a long-haul flight. It also seems like a game that could easily accommodate some extra DLC or even a spin-off about a different cop. If you enjoy games like Papers, Please or you’re a fan of ‘80s cops, this is certainly a hard experience to beat.