Project Pastorate is a visual novel from PsyOp, and possibly the most genuinely entertaining thing I’ve experienced all year. You play as Leonard, a junior member of a religious secret police force known as The Devoters. Along with your senior partner Vinnie, you get involved in a murder case and a big pile of drugs and corruption that takes you all the way to the top rungs of society. The premise doesn’t sound too unusual on paper, but the execution is so face-meltingly surreal to make Project Pastorate unmissable – in the same way that The Room or Plan 9 From Outer Space is unmissable.
The game is split into two halves: a visual novel with occasional choices, and a card based combat section. During conflict, your enemy plays a card that describes their attack, and you choose the correct counter from a hand of five. So, if they chuck a throwing knife at you, you pick the dodge card and they take a hit. Pick any of the other four cards and you lose. Lose twice, and you’re treated to a sketch of a boot stomping on your bloodied head, and the game takes you back to the start of the encounter. Lovely.
These sections are most reminiscent of Monkey Island’s insult sword fighting, but with shivs and homemade explosives. It’s trial and error, effectively, but with some seriously bizarre logic that would be enjoyable if you had a bit more room for error. If your opponent chooses to mock you, for example, you can counter with a truncheon, but not a crossbow. Crossbow bolts bounce straight off insults, apparently. Project Pastorate does, thankfully, allow you to skip these sections. The learning process might be enjoyable for some players, and the monochrome sketches that bring these fights to life is some of Project Pastorate’s best, but they weren’t for me. That said, I’d like to see more visual novels try this sort of thing.
Although it reuses several locations in its sixty minute runtime, there’s something about the art style that’s genuinely harrowing. Detailed and maudlin, the backdrops evoke poverty and hopelessness, hinting at the spectre of a rich setting. There’s some great bits of sound design too. Workers toil in dimly-lit mining camps while whips crack through ambient despair. Cicadas chirp in lavish government building courtyards over tinny, moody hip-hop jams. Together, the painterly backdrops and thoughtful audio design establish a pretty consistent mood. Then the character’s start talking.
The dialogue and plot in Project Pastorate is at once dreamlike, intentionally hilarious, unintentionally hilarious, tone-deaf, deeply misogynistic, sympathetic, inspired, and nonsensical, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. Here’s some personal favorites:
“The administrative territory is flooded with the riot of a violent mob. Looking like a mad porcupine, dreadfully bristling with hastily whittled spears, the gang presses on”
“Go ahead, stab me in the ribs! I ain’t know shit!”
“My first wife always bitched about how she lacked space. So I kicked her out to the street”
It’s a trip, in short, in case you couldn’t tell that already. All of the emotions. All of the sensations. The entire spectrum of human experience, run through google translate and then stepped on a bunch of times. If you’ve got a few quid and a hour to spare, I beseech you to try it out, and I’ve never even used the word beseech before.
You can find Project Pastorate, if you’re so inclined, here.