Like every form of entertainment, from Broadway musicals to the latest Hollywood blockbusters, video games are often inspired by and emulate, pay homage to, or literally steal from previous material. In the case of American Fugitive, the obvious model are the early top-down Grand Theft Autos. Since the indie game world has produced more than enough pixel art/retro/platformer/roguelike games, I was happy that American Fugitive took a different path.
Although it develops along the way and introduces more than few interesting characters, American Fugitive’s story begins with an abrupt and not entirely convincing premise. The main character has been framed for his father’s murder, setting up a story arc of investigation and retribution. Along the way, you’ll pass through many strata of society, from trailer trash through the snobby one percent-ers, completing main missions and side quests that are often mundane or repetitious. You’ll do a lot of reading, too, since the dialogue is not voiced and it ranges from blandly expository to occasionally witty. Completing missions usually involve quite a few detours to find consumables or earn experience.
Of course, the early — and later, for that matter —Grand Theft Auto games weren’t played for their stories, but for the ability to cause lawless mayhem and revel in the fantasy of being an outlaw without scruples. To its credit, American Fugitive’s mechanics encourage and allow for a slightly more nuanced approach. For example, you can check to see if there are people inside a house you need to break into or eschew violence in favor of simply restraining the residents. And, there is always the underlying premise that no matter what crimes you commit, it’s ultimately in the service of righting a wrong. Right?
Where American Fugitive hits an unfortunate spike strip is that its moment-to-moment gameplay can be frustrating and perhaps unnecessarily unforgiving. The story and many RPG-like elements suggest a game focused on character progression but the mechanic of losing everything upon death — and the relative ease in which the character can find himself in peril — is a bummer. Borrowing from GTA, the character has a wanted rating meter. The law in American Fugitive is all over the map, being alerted to a crime even when there are no witnesses but equally being fooled by a change of cars or clothes. Since nearly all the missions in the game involve breaking and entering or stealing in one form another, there are precious few stretches of game when you’re not worried about the police.
Like in the game that inspired it, there is a lot of driving in American Fugitive. You will be stealing, driving and ditching many vehicles, often as part of a mission, but also because it’s the best way to get around the relatively large open world. The driving isn’t great, though. It’s imprecise and the limited field-of-view map makes it difficult to anticipate changes in the road. Negatives aside, I really liked the relatively detailed look of the isometric, semi-3D world. in general, the controls, too, made sense and the UI was unobtrusive. Some bugs and framerate drops and an overall lack of polish kept reminding me that the game was made by a small team with a modest budget.
American Fugitive is an enjoyable homage to GTA of the distant past, with a good deal of content and a story that does a good — if rarely memorable — job of moving game through its paces. Some regrettable mechanics and repetition in mission design steal some of the game’s good will but American Fugitive is engaging simply for competently exploring an under-represented genre and style.