The Grand Theft Auto series has undoubtedly changed quite a bit since the launch of the original in the late '90s, for the better most may say, but there's still a lot of players that miss the old-school, top-down, real-time gameplay that Grand Theft Auto revolutionised. Fallen Tree Games has taken the base idea of the Rockstar original and has brought it to 2019 with American Fugitive and we've both played it and loved it.
When we sat down to play, after not hearing much about American Fugitive, we figured it'd play much like InXile's Wasteland series since the two are similar in terms of visual design, as in it looks like a deep RPG with lots of dialogue and turn-based combat, and while American Fugitive does have some RPG elements, the other aspects we guessed would be there were definitely not. This game is certainly unique. The sources of inspiration are clear but the experience you face when playing differs from anything we've seen before, as the game mixes and matches aspects from both the action and RPG genres.
The game has you controlling William Riley, common thug and petty thief, as he leaves his wife and home to go check up on his father, Peter. A suspicious vehicle, a Dodge Challenger (or Buzzard, as it's called in the game) stands parked in front of the old man's house and protagonist William immediately senses that something's wrong. After knocking on the door with no answer, he smashes one of the windows and goes inside only to find his dad dead on the floor. Then the local police force arrives.
The player's task throughout the game is to find out who killed Peter and to clear William's name - at any cost. After having been caught in an act he didn't commit, William is found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison at the Redrock Penitentiary and we swear we're not mentioning this to spoil the fun, as William being an escaped felon is very much integral to not only the narrative but to the gameplay as well.
To find out who committed the horrendous crime, you'll take on tasks from various different handlers, starting with your brother-in-law Dwayne (who's in some deep crap himself), mysterious femme fatale Ana, and a strange undertaker. These jobs you take on require you to commit more crimes to clear the one you were unjustly sent to prison for, like beating up crooked cops, stealing valuables and covering up murders - all to get on your handlers' good sides. What makes it all more difficult is that some people in the city will recognise you as the escaped felon that you are, resulting in some intense instances where you have to fend off and/or escape from the cops.
You also need plenty of cash, both to be able to proceed with your tasks and to upgrade your character, and to get some quick money you can do a multitude of things. The easiest way to collect money is to case out people's homes, break in and steal their stuff, which you do by peeking through their windows to check if anyone's in the house, smashing a window with an object like a tire iron, a rock or a crowbar, and rummaging through as many of the rooms within as you can, although there's a timer that starts when you enter a house after breaking in unless you have a key. Every house will be displayed as a blueprint, with rooms, doors and windows mapped out. Moving between rooms drains the timer at an alarming speed, as does searching through them (which you do by simply pressing X on your DualShock), but more often than not it'll be worth it.
When playing burglar, of course, there are several different potential outcomes. You might find a number panel-locked hidden stash that to open you'll have to enter a code you've found somewhere in the house, a startled homeowner who could either beat you up and throw you to the cops waiting outside, or get tied up by you or another burglar looking for the same potential loot as you. Casing out a joint is important, we'd say, if you don't want unexpected company while the timer's ticking, and there's even a skill that automatically peeks through all the windows of a house as you approach, negating that headache altogether.
If being a burglar isn't for you then you can get paid in other ways as well. Not only do the various missions bring a tasty cash-reward, but you can also complete timed vehicle challenges that are spread across the vast map, search for hidden stashes, or hold up stores (which is sort of a rock-paper-scissors/dice roll type of deal).
Although it didn't occur very often when we weren't on a mission, there are times when you'll have to use force to take enemies down and the combat in American Fugitive plays out in real-time. Whether you use a firearm, a melee weapon or no weapon at all, you'll aim with the right analogue stick and shoot or punch with the right trigger, while being able to move freely with the left analogue stick. If you find that you're in over your head you can either dash to a vehicle and drive away as fast as you can, run by holding X (but keep track of your stamina meter) or try to sneak away by pressing O while keeping to the shadows.
Escaping the law is somewhat easy, and while it's most definitely a question of preference, we very much enjoyed the fact. A chase can go on for however long you want it to, maybe you've beaten up some cops and sat in your car just to get some car chase adrenaline pumping, but if you've hit a fence by accident while driving to the pawn shop (there are more things to get in trouble for than killing others, you know) and just want to go on with what you were doing, you can just hide in a bush, drive your car into the woods or go fast along the railroad to lose your pursuers.
If you want to make everything just a tad easier you can take a look at the skill tree, where you'll be able to upgrade various different attributes such as stamina, health and regeneration as well as more special abilities or gadgets like a metal detector that'll give off a beeping sound when you're close to a hidden stash or the 'instant house casing' ability we mentioned earlier. All abilities are unlocked with a number of upgrade points (which you get as and when you level up) and money, but both of those are relatively easy to acquire.
There was one thing we found to be quite fascinating. We have always had difficulty role-playing as a bad person while playing (with the exception of Grand Theft Auto, and even then we'll feel genuinely bad at times). American Fugitive has a system in place where the player isn't all bad and the characters around him, his victims, let's say, aren't always "good people". Even though we were fully immersed the entire way through, we never once questioned having to rob Person X's home or holding up Person Y's store, because we never got the chance to get to know them - and we're okay with that.
Apart from this, American Fugitive is a simple game with simple mechanics but, with all its simplicity, it brings back something nostalgic and has it adapted it to the current generation. The graphics are great and the design is delightful, the simple gameplay is well-crafted and the narrative engages the player while never getting too heavy. We didn't encounter a single bug during our time with the game and we spent countless hours completely immersed. Honestly though, if we weren't so excited about the world and the many things you can do within it, we'd probably feel like the main narrative went on for a bit too long and got a bit too repetitive. However, when spacing the missions apart and planning our own heists between them we never got bored or restless. The music is sometimes great but at other times really out of place (and we're pretty sure we heard one or two songs from classic online "copyright free" music banks) but that's a small flaw in an otherwise fantastic game.