*We initially stated that the game was available on Game Pass, but that is incorrect. Apologies for that!*
\If you were a teenager in the ’90s, it’s hard to believe that they started over thirty years ago. It was a simpler time when people still used payphones, the internet was in its infancy and you could actually get away from the reporting of bad news just by turning off your television or radio.
Times have certainly changed but developer and publisher Mighty Yell have taken it upon themselves to create a game that allows players to go back in time and experience those halcyon days for themselves. It is time to get our ‘grift on’ in the XboxEra review of The Big Con.
You play as Ali (or ALISON BARLOW as her mum calls her when she is in trouble) a smart-talking slacker teen who lives with her mother above their small independent video rental shop in Lisbon county, a sweetcorn obsessed small town somewhere in the US. After overhearing loan sharks threaten to take the shop away from her mother unless she repays a ninety-seven thousand dollar loan Ali decides to put her Trombone playing aspirations on hold, skip band camp and try to pay off her mother’s debt.
Hanging out by the suddenly rat-infested ‘Two Scoops’ ice cream parlour she soon meets a grifter called Ted who takes her under his wing and not only teaches her how to pickpocket people for easy cash but also sets out to educate her in the finer arts of the con. Together they then set out to make lots of money by dubious means on a trip across the country which reaches its climax in a casino situated in a thinly disguised Las Vegas clone called Las Veganza. To say anything else about the story would spoil it so I will leave it there for players to discover for themselves.
Looking like a bright visually arresting 2D cartoon the game certainly stands out from other titles and has a style all of its own. The way Ali runs and walks is totally angular and made me chuckle whenever I moved her around. Although you could describe the animation as having a ‘slacker’ aesthetic it is obvious that considerable thought has gone into the designs incorporated within it. The corporate logo of the in-game coffee shop ‘Bean Spirit’ for example is really eye-catching and would look great on a T-shirt.
Having a script made up of only thirteen words and several non-verbal grunts it is quite amusing that a big-name vocal talent such as Erika Ishii signed on to play Ali. Most of the in-game interaction takes the form of talking to people so I ended up reading a lot of text in speech bubbles while this economic script was used to add nuance and emotion to what was being discussed.
Once on the road trip gameplay revolves around the grifter rules. After identifying a mark, you need to first build a foundation on them by learning about their needs and desires. This can often be done by listening to their conversations from a distance and specific eavesdropping spots are signposted by a giant yellow ear. Next, you need to physically find what the mark requires in your local surroundings.
This may entail searching rubbish bins, stealing from shops, or pickpocketing other hapless victims. Being a petulant teenager, you can kick most solid objects and this can sometimes have surprisingly beneficial results. After collecting the required items, you then need to approach the victim in a way that attains their trust. One example of this is by using the knowledge that you have learnt from listening to or conversing with others. If you seem to be an expert on something the mark is interested in, they are more likely to trust you and this will convince them to exchange an item with you or pay big money for what you are offering them.
Whilst searching surroundings ranging from a train, a desert, and a mall you also come across various other items that can be either sold to a very strange character known as the Collector or used to disguise yourself. These disguises can be used to intimidate people or sneak your way into prestigious areas but they have another primary purpose. The pickpocketing mechanic is a fairly simple system of holding down a button for a certain amount of time until a gauge is filled. As you move through the game’s locations the NPCs carry larger amounts of money as standard but among these certain individuals have even larger amounts or required items that have to be attained to progress. In these cases, the gauge is more difficult to fill and being caught red-handed ends with Ali being busted. She then is unable to even attempt to pickpocket that person again unless she is wearing one of the disguises that she has previously discovered and stored in her very nineties fanny pack (or bum bag, as we call them in the UK). These are a welcome and amusing touch, ranging from a Monocle to a bearded wizard outfit, a cat mask, and a paper bag with holes cut in it. It is a surprisingly fun part of the gameplay wearing each of these different items to avoid suspicious eyes.
Being busted three times results in Ali being removed from her surroundings and punished. This punishment takes the form of a period at the local chain video rental shop rewinding tapes that customers have returned without rewinding. This was considered to be bad form back in the day to the extent that the phrase ‘Be kind, rewind’ was often seen on posters in video shops. Ali hates doing this chore for her own mum so there really is no finer punishment for her. She does however get her confiscated ill-gotten gains returned to her after carrying out her sentence.
Ali has a notebook that is used to note down useful information or details that need to be remembered for later on and is often visited by her imaginary friend Rad Ghost. Made up of a bedsheet with sunglasses, a backwards cap, and sometimes a Skateboard this character is pretty much the embodiment of nineties slacker culture. He was obviously real at some point and became her personal hero as he sometimes shows up in the videos that Ali is being forced to rewind and appears to offer advice on how to complete a level if you are struggling with it.
Lots of nineties tropes have been placed within the game in the form of subtly changed movie posters for films like Dazed and Confused, shops full of Plaid clothing, a random foodstuff called Horm made up of truly disgusting ingredients, and the chance to pickpocket Wayne and Garth from ‘Wayne’s World’ which I found to be an incredibly satisfying experience. Some required items such as the gold fanny pack can also be created from scavenged materials if you are unable to steal them from more difficult pickpocketing targets.
There are extra puzzles to solve for Ali to move between the stages at a level. For example, on a train, she is required to move between carriages with the rewards growing larger as she heads towards the first class section at the front. These puzzles consist of finding ways to bribe or con individuals blocking your way or working out security pin codes. These puzzles are not particularly difficult but are fun to solve, particularly the first class pin code one. In some places, luggage can be discovered with three-digit security locks. In my playthrough, I found no evidence that there was any other way to open these apart from using a process of elimination and trying all of the possible number combinations. This was slightly time-consuming but the rewards gained when you succeed (as well as a great sense of accomplishment) made bothering to do this worthwhile. The only puzzle I found annoying involved navigating your way through the desert without passing out at a feverishly imagined chain store called Video Hell. In the end, I chose to make a note of direction choices that were successful and it did not take too long to escape my surroundings.
There is also a secondary story built into the narrative about a teenager growing up and learning life lessons such as whether you should keep in contact with the people you love, should you lie or tell the truth, who should you trust, and how important it is to do what you want to do rather than what others expect of you. This is subtly and nicely handled by the developers as is another thread about Ali being in love with her best friend and the confusion that this has caused within their relationship. This is another example of the mature handling of LGBTQ relationships that are becoming more and more commonplace in gaming.
In terms of accessibility, the game does not offer much apart from the option to turn off the pickpocketing minigame to make things easier. The game credits have some very interesting thanks at the end which are worth hanging around to check out, as is the official The Big Con website which exactly duplicates how websites looked in 1994.
In conclusion, This is an unusual game with a unique visual appearance and gameplay that revolves around interacting with everyone that you come across. There are lots of nineties references, some comedy moments, and a serious story at the bottom of it all. Criminality has never been so much fun, and thankfully, in The Big Con, no one really gets hurt. Available on Xbox and with a roughly six-hour completion time this is a title well worth checking out.
Played on Xbox Series X, code provided from the developer for review.