Speaking Simulator is a unique game where you control the facial movements of a robot attempting to infiltrate humanity by conversing like a normal human. It’s hard to classify the game into a standard genre. It’s like a rhythm game without music, or a fighting game without an opponent. Basically you quickly react to prompts on the screen to progress, with wrong or slow inputs resulting in failure (in retrospect, this basically describes most video games, but there ya go).
The game progresses through a series of levels, which each playout a conversation between the robot and one or more people. The game is silly, looks silly, and will probably get at least a smirk out of you.
As mentioned, you play a robot that’s trying to infiltrate human society. The robot’s ultimate goal being world domination. Each level starts with some text stating what the robot has done since the last stage, and why it’s in its current predicament. Each level does build upon the last, creating some continuity. You start out on a date with Karen, the HR manager at a local office. You then apply to a job at said office, start working, and so on.
Realistically, the story isn’t too exciting, as it mostly serves as a way to get your robot from level to level.
The main game loop involves controlling facial movements on the robot to make sounds, and otherwise look like a normal person talking. Various prompts (mostly arrows) appear on or around the robot’s face. You need to do certain things based on which prompts you see. For example a downward facing arrow on the jaw of the robot means open the jaw, with an upwards facing arrow meaning you need to close the jaw.
I played on the Nintendo switch, so up and down on the right stick moved the jaw, while left and right on the same stick narrows or widens the cheeks. The left stick was a bit different, as that controls the tongue. In the mouth of the robot are three buttons: two on the roof, one on the bottom. When one of those buttons turns green, you need to move the tongue so it presses the button. If a button turns red, don’t press it or you’ll cause a malfunction (which is a silly visual effect) and increase suspicion. Once the suspicion meter maxes out, you lose the level.
Successfully controlling the robot will allow it to speak a word. You repeat this whole process for the entire sentence. Each level is basically a conversation with another person, so you’ll have multiple sentences to work through in each outing.
The game piles on urgency with a timer. Each word has a timer of generally 6-7 seconds. If the time runs out you fail the word and increase suspicion. If you’re able to form words quickly, you get a score bonus, which is used to level up your robot.
Leveling up the robot is somewhat deceptive, as instead of giving you new abilities that make the game easier, these upgrades generally give you new abilities that make the game harder. An early upgrade is the ability to smile. Once unlocked, your robot can move between neutral and smiling faces by moving a slider, which is controlled by the X and Y buttons. Once unlocked, moving between these states becomes a mandatory part of each level, so failing to smile at the right time will count as a word failure.
Thus, the real challenge in the game lies in the upgrades, which each make the levels more difficult. Later on you’ll have to maintain eye contact (with the arrow buttons/d-pad), but don’t maintain it for too long because that’s suspicious, so look away. But don’t look away for too long! That’s also suspicious! Also, you need to move your eyebrows now!
The upgrades are actually mandatory, as you can’t start certain levels without upgrades, so you’ll eventually need to unlock all of the facial controls anyways. Honestly this is a good thing. The added complexity is welcomed, as the base movements aren’t enough to entertain you through the whole game.
Overall, I like the game loop. Being able to move through each word quickly feels nice, while multiple failures is stress inducing. Although I do have my complaints.
The tongue in particular is finicky and easily the most challenging part. It’s real easy to accidentally hit a red button if you close the mouth while the tongue is hovering over the bottom button. I found myself spending time moving the tongue to the back of the mouth just to avoid accidental presses. Worst still, I ran into a couple of occasions where pressing a green button would progress to the next word, but immediately after pressing it the same button turned red, which counted as a failure.
Controlling the tongue just never felt right. I’m assuming it’s because the tongue is actually a 3D object with loose physics, but you only control it with two dimensional controls. Regardless, there was a clear lack of precision with the tongue, as it would sometimes roll over buttons without actually pressing them, resulting in a failure. Ignoring that I spent four seconds just moving the tongue back-and-forth over the button in an attempt to press the darn thing. This is a shame because the rest of the controls are simple yet responsive. The tongue just didn’t do it for me.
Visually, the game is very busy. Once you get past the initial giggling from the goofy physics on the robot, you’ll start to see that there’s a lot going on the screen in each stage, but you only really need to pay attention to any bright green prompts, which is more difficult than it sounds.
Bright colors abound in a dissonant manner. Between everyone’s bright clothing to the neon UI elements, everything on screen is simultaneously screaming for my attention. Even though the onscreen prompts are bright green, I find that I would occasionally miss a prompt because it didn’t stand out enough from the rest of the screen. The overall style supports the lighthearted premise of the game, but it was fighting me the whole time.
The character models are somewhat simplistic, but work. It’s hard to judge when the character’s face keeps twitching from malfunctions. While not malfunctioning, the robot has a distant stare, which is somewhat unsettling but appropriate for the story. The robot is a soulless husk attempting to act like a human, and the blank look on its face sells the idea.
The audio for Speaking Simulator is enjoyable. As mentioned, the robot actually speaks each word, and sounds like your generic text-to-speech voice (although I’m told they used a voice actor for the robot). Surprisingly, it never becomes irritating. There are enough tonal changes to the robot’s voice to keep it fresh, such as when it starts to yell over loud background noise, or talks in a quick higher pitched voice when spouting a list of things quickly.
Each stage contains background music (as you’d expect), and there are several different tracks. Without going into spoilers, there’s a level that takes place in a dance club. There’s a part where the music becomes very loud in the club, making it so your robot has a hard time communicating. This is preceded with the music actually picking up in intensity incrementally, which was thoughtful. That’s not to say the music will change your life, but it was pleasant and acted in support of the rest of the game.
Overall, for a goofy game about moving a robot’s tongue, there’s a considerable amount of thought put into the sound design, which I appreciated.
Ignoring my complaints about the tongue controls, the game had me chuckling the whole time. The physics are goofy. At the beginning of any stage, if you push the tongue towards the top set of teeth, you have a chance to knock the teeth out, which you can see fall out of the robot’s mouth on the right. The fact that this doesn’t raise suspicion with the other person tells you that this game doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it shouldn’t!
It’s a weird, fun little game about finding joy in making faces. It’s juvenile yet interesting enough to keep you playing. While replaying a prior stage to check something, I was shown a “Banana Incoming” message, where the robot stopped conversing to put a banana in it’s mouth (which of course I could try to chew). The banana was without precedent, and had nothing to do with the stage. The other person in the conversation didn’t mention the banana. I never saw this banana event again, and I have no idea what prompted it.
If you read that banana paragraph and smirked, then you’ll enjoy the humor in the game. It’s far from sophisticated, but who cares? The game knows what it is and reveles in it’s own silly absurdity.
Overall, Speaking Simulator is a fun, short, silly, and shallow game. I absolutely enjoyed my time with it, but it’s not the kind of title that I’ll be revisiting frequently because there really isn’t too much depth to it, which is a shame. The concept behind the game is unique, and knocking out several sentences without messing up feels great. For what it’s worth, I liked it.