I remember back in 2013 when I played Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, I thought it was a daunting and dismal prospect, but valuable nonetheless. Here was a game where it was all too easy to fail, but its message of rigidity was clear and it gave you just enough leeway to make due and work your way around it. Even then I thought, “could any other game get away with this much trial, error, and failure and still be playable?”
That was a re-occurring feeling through OverGamez and Wooden Monkeys’ Save Koch: a game where you play as a crime lord who has discovered someone is trying to kill them and must uncover both the mastermind and a traitorous mole within their organization by way of directing operatives, following leads, and uncovering clues. But Save Koch misses something that was very important to Papers, Please: a reprieve, any kind of cushioning… even just a save game system, and without those things, you ultimately realize just how forgiving even a game like Papers, Please was by comparison.
Back against the wall in a bunker
As mentioned above, you’re a crime lord named Jeffrey Koch in a city of regular and anthropomorphized people and factions that keep a shaky peace with you. Somebody decided to pull the trigger on Koch, to which his trusted security got tipped off and took him into hiding. From a saferoom, you have seven in-game days with Koch to determine the mastermind, as well as sniff out a mole in your organization who is purposely sabotaging you for your would-be killer.
To this end you get to pick three operatives outside your security chief, each with specializations. You actually only start out with three operatives available, but can unlock more (more on that later). Paying attention to their specialties and backgrounds is paramount because as the game commences, leads will start to appear around the city for you to chase. Need a crime scene looked over? Better send the former detective. Need something discreet? Send the thief. Success can mean a new clue or lead in ongoing investigations. Failure can mean anything from simply missing an opportunity to a dead operative. As the game goes on (in real-time for the most part barring pausing the game), you have to think fast. Some leads are on timers and if you have an operative on one lead, they can’t hit another.
The effort to convey chaos and force you to quickly manage your resources in Save Koch is maybe the most compelling part of it. Every success feels like a breakthrough and a breath of relief. Every failure feels like a thin grasp of control slipping away. And then there’s the aspect of the mole. You have to make a very careful decision because once you decide who the mole is, mole or not, they’re removed from play, which is especially crippling if they’re one of your operatives. Every decision in Save Koch carries tremendous weight all the way from beginning to end… Sometimes a little too much.
The weight of an empire and the city around it
Save Koch has an impressive narrative to it. There are a lot of branches that can play out depending on how things go. Is the sentient, hive-mind creature that wants to infect everyone trying to get you to join and meld your powerful organization into her own? Is the Mayor of the city trying to oust you once and for all? Is the media using it influence to destroy public opinion of you and turn citizenry against you? Any of these branching paths and more can play out based on the mole, the mastermind, and how fast you can figure out enough to accuse them both.
That said, the weight of each decision is a double-edged sword in Save Koch. There are no saves in the game short of quitting to the main menu and picking up where you left off. You cannot go back to a certain part in the narrative. You simply play to the end, whether it’s your triumph or death, and then start again.
The issue with this is that it’s horribly easy to make a bad choice and ruin everything at every juncture of Save Koch’s 40 minute to hour long sessions. Sometimes, it doesn’t even feel close to clear that you’re making the wrong choice. I sent my interrogations and medicine expert to try to pry info from a prisoner as the game suggested and the prisoner killed our agent. There wasn’t anything to indicate I was making a bad choice. It just happened that way.
Save Koch is filled to the brim with choices that turn out just as rotten despite your best judgement, and losing an operative can be deadly to the rest of the session too. It turned out I needed a chatty medical type to convince the Mayor to support me in a crucial end game moment, costing me the scenario. You take what you learned, go back to the start, try harder, and often end up finding a new branch that leads to a dead end. In fact, in over 20 playthroughs, I garnered only one survival, though I discovered a wealth of the game’s secrets. Even with so much information gleaned from playthrough after playthrough, Save Koch is just that unforgiving to even the smallest misstep.
It’s not for nothing sometimes though. As you play through the game, certain character specific leads will open up to you. If you pursue them to their end successfully, you can unlock various characters to use as operatives from the start that have their own strengths, such as the boxer Vicky, who is also a gossip queen full of information. It opens further narratives both with them in your squad and for the characters that you leave on the sidelines that become active in the ongoing world, which is neat, but still not quite rewarding enough for how hard any form of success is to find.
There's also the matter of the UI on the Nintendo Switch though. For the most part it works well, but when things get hectic, it really doesn't do you any favors on the city screen. Multiple leads can crop up over eachother and you have to navigate them via one choice at a time. There's no cursor. More than a few times, I wrestled against the game's controls, trying to work my way between a pile of leads to grab the crucial one I wanted before its clock could run out. You can use the touch screen to poke items if you have the system undocked, but a cursor or mouse icon would do far better in such a case where there's so many leads in a small amount of space.
The trials and tribulations of a crime boss
If Save Koch was meant to impress upon me just how hard it is to be a crime boss who has their back to the wall, then the message is loud and clear. Save Koch is a web of deadly storylines with so many pitfalls upon each thread that even a single victory will feel like the most glorious thing (even if I lost my crime lord’s daughter to a bomb and his livelihood to a government raid in the process). And that’s kind of the rub. It’s horribly punishing for even the slightest mistake.
This is maybe something that could be alleviated by a save system that allowed you to bookmark a day and go back and try from that spot with all the choices you made so far, because having to play through an entire session only to realize you can’t take that path to a reasonable end over and over gets deflating after a while. That’s maybe the biggest crime of Save Koch. I should want to chase down all these paths and clues and explore all possibilities. As it is, I feel like I have to genuinely and methodically take notes of where each failure lies so as not to do it again, barring the fact that a mole and mastermind, or a grapple with a persnickety UI, won’t heck up my plans anyways. Save Koch is impressive in the weight of its narrative choices, but a little cushioning could have gone a long way in making unraveling its mystery more enticing.
- Intriguing branching narrative
- Different possibilities every play session
- Unlockable characters offer new twists
- Decisions carry intense weight
- Crushingly difficult to "win"
- No save features
- One bad decision can ruin a whole session
- Difficult UI control on city map where time is most crucial
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Save Koch Review - Try, try, try, and still fail
Sounds like you might just love really, really hard Koch, Wikus.
I loved the narrative, pressure, and randomization. The difficulty could easily be overlooked if there wasn't a UI that can and will cause mistakes in a game that doesn't tolerate them and the lack of a save feature that forces you to start pushing the boulder up the hill from the beginning each time. Really made the long session game overs intensely deflating.