Tax avoidance is not much of a compelling subject for any story, let alone an interactive one, but that's what Divide by Zero has chosen for Innocent Until Caught. This underrated adventure game from 1993 puts you in the decidedly sketchy shoes of Jack T. Ladd whose only goal is to pay off the hefty tax dodging fine. And get a stiff drink.
After our hero is caught mid-flight by the Interstellar Revenue Decimation Service (IRDS), he's grounded on Planet Tayte. Tayte is much like our Planet Earth, filled with the vile and virtuous at once. Jack, not being one to walk the straight and narrow, heads straight to a seedy part of town where bar fights, bikers and prostitutes are the norm. He has 28 days to find the money to pay back his copious amount of taxes, and he can't even afford a pint. Through some strange coincidences, Jack soon gets involved in the criminal underbelly of Tayte that somehow puts him on course to rescue a space princess and prevent a galactic war.
The plot is interesting enough, though not particularly stellar. The script on the other hand is very good. Every character has their own personality, even if what they are saying is a blasé dismissal. Text is displayed in speech bubbles which add to the charm, even if the text can overlap the borders on occasion. For a more in depth conversation, the screen switches views to present the portraits of each speaker. The replies are not only a series of options, but also verbs from the conversation itself. It's represented in the text of whoever you're talking to and isn't highlighted until you wave the cursor over it. In fact, if you're not aware you can do this it might pass you by for some time, hindering your progress for no apparent reason. Once you're aware though, it does make for a more involved conversation.
The main controls are also a little outside of the norm, though what they've decided upon is novel and intuitive. Verbs are represented by symbols at the bottom of the screen, though you can also cycle through them with the right mouse button. For those familiar with a more traditionally designed adventure, many of the icons will confuse you. The walk, take and talk are obvious enough but the eyeball doesn't inspects objects as you would expect (that's reserved for the magnifying glass). Instead, the eye will bring up a focussed view of the area in the bottom left of the screen with a label for any interactable objects. The icons will flash to give you an idea of what you can do with it, preventing any desperate trial and error combinations. It also helps with pixel hunting too. If you can see the label, you know you're in the right spot so hold still and right click to your favoured action. It may be a bit cumbersome for many, but I thought it was a great re-invention of the traditional LucasArts style formula.
If there's anything that's wrong with this scheme it's in the inventory. The bottom right area is reserved for all of the items you've collected and will become cluttered fast. They're not placed on any sort of grid, but instead can be picked up and placed upon each other however you choose. It's a good idea in theory - it prevents overlooked items and endless scrolling - but the execution is a mess. The frustration reaches fever pitch when you have to combine items. For example, you have to combine a walking stick with some string to make a bow, but the point of interaction is insanely confusing. If it weren't for a walkthrough, I would be mistaken in thinking they couldn't be combined at all.
In fact, in some places a walkthrough is almost an imperative. Characters, while well written for the most part, offer no hints on how to progress. It's especially bad when you consider the moon logic required to solve some of the puzzles. Did you know, for example, a mushroom can explode with the same force as TNT? All you need is a fly to land on it and BOOM! What wonders the natural world gives us.
The ambiguous point of interaction also rears its ugly head on the main screen too, particularly when walking through certain doorways. Jack will often get stuck at the entrance if you haven't clicked in precisely the right place. After a few frantic clicks, I found that the trick is to aim at the top half of the door. This is a programing oversight that I can forgive (now that I know the trick), but it's nevertheless an oversight that shouldn't be there. If you're in doubt as to whether you can actually enter the door, a handy map is located on the bottom left of the screen indicating all of the exits.
In the first section of the game, you'll find yourself going back and forth to various areas via the subway. For a futuristic cityscape on another planet, it's surprising that it looks exactly like the ones found on earth. Every time you want to travel, you're required to take the subway, counting the stops along the way to find your destination. It took me too long a time to realise I could've skipped a lot of this by looking at the map on the train car and simply select my destination. Bear in mind, though you have to visit each station at least once for this short cut to take effect.
The graphics are very good for 1993. There's even some spiffy opening cinematics to set the scene. The look reminds me a little of LucasArt's Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis with the pixelated sprites and backgrounds layered with an eye for comic-book realism. Each screen has a fair amount of movement as well. Whether it be the frantic patron of the space port forever waiting for that special someone to show up or the bar's ever-present pool player, seemingly trapped in limbo as he sets up his final shot, destined never to take it. You can't complain too much about this as it was 1993 after all and Innocent Until Caught was developed by a smaller developer. Nevertheless, I had fun imagining that Tayte was some weird planetary purgatory, especially when you consider all of the reprobates that inhabit it.
Innocent Until Caught is not for children. Swears may be cut of like a Die Hard movie edited for TV, but the subject matter is often far from family friendly. The brothel, which plays host to many women of the night, proudly displays some pixelated boobs above the doorway, not to mention some of the un-PC responses Jake can give in conversation. Despite this, the plot itself isn't exactly noteworthy. It's an obvious attempt to mimic Blade Runner, but end up being closer to Flash Gordon. This makes the rare blue humour seem juvenile and out of place, like a schoolyard kid who thinks boobs and curse words equal mature storytelling.
Again, I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. Just a little disappointing. With a little extra attention to the story, a focus on adding hints to the admittedly decent script and a wiser look at the demographic they're aiming for we would have an absolute winner on our hands. Instead we have a game that's been unfairly maligned for exactly these points, but one that still ultimately rises above to become a highly enjoyable hidden gem.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the game to modern systems. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
Innocent Until Caught is © Divide By Zero
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me