Curve Digital's new Nintendo Switch game American Fugitive calls back to the original GTA series, with a healthy dose of B&E and country carnage.
American Fugitive clearly targets those glory days of the Grand Theft Auto games, well before that moniker became synonymous with sprawling and immersive crime sims bursting with Hollywood budgets and uncanny mo-cap. No, this new Nintendo Switch title hearkens back to those original GTA titles, those top-down action sprees steeped in cartoon criminality and bad behavior, providing an arcade flair in lieu of stark realism, modest in its pursuit but also an outright guilty pleasure of sorts. It’s certainly strange how far crime sims have come in 20+ years, but this newest throwback holds a few tricks up its sleeve, despite the fact that it’s sometimes hampered by a feeling of waywardness. Still, for those who haven’t had their fill of this format — it’s a relatively rare one, relegated to games like Retro City Rampage and GTA: Chinatown Wars, though neither approach a similarly modern sheen — American Fugitive excels and experiments in some key areas which we’ll dive further into below.
To its credit, American Fugitive doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time prepping you for its flavor of mayhem, with a quick prologue showcasing the basics of its most prominent new mechanic: B&E. You play as William, a country guy with a shady past whose father is murdered by a mysterious criminal presence, quickly framed for patricide and shuttled off to prison. Upon a presumptive escape, he returns to town in pursuit of the puzzle pieces that will point to those responsible, a journey that will leave a bevvy of cashed-in side missions, burgled homes, held-up gas stations, and stolen cars in its smoky wake.
There’s nothing here that’s meant to outright challenge those aforementioned AAA sandbox sims on equal, but there are a few interesting new inclusions all the same. The most striking are its B&E mechanics, an unexpected blend of role-playing and RNG, where nearly every house and property on the map can be effectively cased, invaded, inspected, robbed, and escaped from, hopefully before the police arrive. The bad news is that this isn’t presented just like the game’s action portions; players can snoop in windows and check doors, but entering a home shifts the perspective to a blueprint-styled cutaway with Will represented as a simple token, similar to a board game. From here, you select an adjacent room to move that token into, and can choose to search for loot and even stumble into an occupant, who will need to be tied up or killed, incurring additional roll-checks. It’s a unique bit of business but ultimately works, with most houses’ alarms triggering police presence and forcing you to stress under a ticking clock before they arrive.
Sure, it’s hard to imagine that anybody wouldn’t prefer a more active form of engagement in this criminal behavior, and it thereby serves as a lower-tech shorthand for the act in question. All the same, it’s fun and unusual, and the risk of authorities on their way heightens the energy of the crime, with surprise events establishing an entertaining risk-reward gambit.
So far so new. It’s somewhat tragic that one of the most damning downsides to American Fugitive is its clearly confused police department. Cops and the wanted-level mechanic feel scatterbrained, and individual police cars will chase you across the entire county for splintering a fence or dinging another car. Realistic? Possibly, but hardly fun in terms of basic gameplay. This never brings things to an abrupt halt, though, since those same tenacious cop cars will also give up chase after spending enough time outside of their view, even with five stars, SWAT vans, and helicopters menacingly circling the area. This doesn’t mean that one star is as easy to shake as five, but when the stakes of triggering police are as simple as mistakenly knocking into a garden wall, they become a fretting nuisance instead of a complex and intelligent enemy made to be outmaneuvered.
All the same, it’s exciting to case a house, invade it, and fuss with a discovered safe while a police timer ticks down. Escape in time and you can even watch from a distance as a cop car stops by your quarry, the ticker on the screen indicating whether a witness has seen you committing the deed or not; if spotted, police will know the clothes you’re wearing or car you drove, which can be quickly remedied by finding a nearby clothesline or parking lot.
There are also upgrades which cost quest points and cash that boost things like health, sprint duration, and inventory size — you’ll certainly need ample room to stash all your pawn-worthy goods and weapons. There’s even a high-cost upgrade which enables casing B&E targets to occur automatically, making this mechanic all the more natural and vibrant. It’s a good mix that makes end-game Will feel much more capable than early-game Will, requiring some diligence to max out throughout its dozen-or-so hours of play.
Dialogue isn’t really American Fugitive’s strong suit, but conversational choices and basic dialogue maintain a certain country flavor. William is expectantly snarky about all the cats he’s asked to herd by each overly-demanding quest-giver, and character portraits transition to fit the mood or slightly animate as the situation requires. The same anachronisms you’ve grown to love (or at least tolerate) from this type of game are present throughout the narrative, with wanton murder and destruction scraping against William’s sudden hesitation to, say, dig up a body or steal a painting, but it’s all in good fun.
The soundtrack is an unexpected treat and, although the game dispenses with pricey licensed music, it sports a suite of original instrumental tracks that align with most in-game activities. These pieces are terrific, full of dramatic slide guitar and country air, and manage to add gusto and meaningfully align with American Fugitive’s overall texture of southern Americana. Lazily driving through town may inspire a meandering guitar-strum, while investigating the cemetery prompts a loping, playfully macabre waltz. It really is an inventive, well-thought-out component that provides the environment a flavor that the writing never quite fulfills.
It should be mentioned that, by its finale, American Fugitive seems a little half-baked, always appearing a little creaky and rough-around-the-edges here and there. Sometimes missions don’t trigger properly, and may require a restart or some nudging to fully complete. This doesn’t imply that the game is on the whole unfinished, but its mechanics don’t feel fully tested and confirmed, either, but it’s entirely possible that further updates will smooth out those jagged areas. Despite these qualms, it’s an entertaining romp, and doesn’t have a tremendous amount of competition in its specific genre on the Switch, making it a definite recommendation for players who want to steal precious jewels in fast cars while evading the fuzz.
American Fugitive releases on the Nintendo Switch on May 24th, and is also available on PS4, Xbox One, and Steam. Screen Rant was provided with a digital Switch copy for purposes of review.