‘The Big Con’ review: a refreshing take on nostalgia and the art of the heist

Be gay, do crimes

If you’ve ever thought to yourself “well, I like crime, but I don’t know how I would make it work with my ‘90s nostalgia obsession that otherwise consumes all of my time”, then The Big Con is for you. If you’re thinking what I just said was nonsense but you’d like a cheerful, moving, witty, reference-filled game that crosses ‘epic journey’ with ‘petty crime’, then it’s also probably for you.

Learning to love this game did take me a hot second. The controls are… unwieldy at times, and there is very little in the way of customisation in the options menu (although there is a fab font choice for us dyslexics). There were a few graphical issues, and interacting with items was, frankly, janky. I decided I’d just drop into it and see what it was like for half an hour before dinner. Four and a half hours later, and I was reading the credits, having finished the game, along with most of the optional questlines.

So why the turnaround? This game just hits all the right buttons. From its clever-but-not-too-obtuse puzzle mechanics to its unrelenting obsession with corn jokes, The Big Con is the kind of game you just want to keep playing, even when dinner is burning in the oven (true story).

The Big Con. Image Credit: Mighty Yell Studios
The Big Con. Image Credit: Mighty Yell Studios

There is something in self-referential, or even nostalgic, humour that can grate on the nerves a little. It’s a hard thing to get right, without coming over all “how do you do, fellow kids”. The Big Con just kinda gets what’s funny, using ridiculous puns and throwbacks to create a cast of utterly charming weirdos. Even background characters and side-quest folk all have something witty, interesting, or downright bizarre to say. Sometimes they’re just muttering to themselves, sometimes they’re searching for something, and sometimes they randomly blurt out their PIN number. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

The premise is a simple one, but conveyed with such childish glee that it adds a kind of thrill to the proceedings that is hard to pin down. You play Ali, a ‘90s teen who skips out on band camp and hustles her way across the country in various disguises, hoping to raise enough money to save her mother’s video rental business. The business has come under threat from some unpleasant mobsters, who demand her mother pay up by the end of the month. Ali takes matters into her own hands and teams up with a pink-haired con artist named Ted, travelling the rails and pickpocketing her way to almost $100,000.

Ali can raise this money through various schemes. Pickpocketing is usually the most lucrative, but also the riskiest – and sometimes people just need something specific to reward you with that sweet dollar. Whether they’re searching for a sold-out cuddly toy, or a long-lost love, you can choose to eavesdrop on people’s conversations to give them what they need. Although your motives are purely mercenary, each story gives you a chance to bond with these strangers and feel a bit better than if you’d just swiped the money right out of their purse. That being said, after you’ve given them what they want, you can always pickpocket them too, for good measure.

The Big Con. Image Credit: Mighty Yell Studios
The Big Con. Image Credit: Mighty Yell Studios

Sometimes you’ll get caught too many times, and your punishment is to rewind videotapes. I’m not joking, you quite literally have to sit through several rounds of video rewinding to get your money and items back.

Along the way you’ll meet a collector of strange things, who tasks you with themed items to find. These can be found in bins or pockets, or lying around on the floor. It isn’t always obvious enough where these items are, some I found purely by luck, stumbling across them when looking for something else. He’s one of the few characters you can’t con out of their cash, but he rewards you handsomely and has tales of his own to share.

If you’re playing a game this rich in nostalgia, the odds are you like collecting things yourself – and The Big Con has certainly got you covered. The more tapes you find lying about, the more posters appear later on, choices you make along the way come back to reference themselves at the end, and disguises can be worn and swapped out to give a bit of custom chic to Ali’s look.

The Big Con felt so… fun, and silly, and just the kind of game I would have loved at any age but can appreciate more now. The representation of LGBT+ characters is also welcome, with Ali’s same-sex romance being a normalised footnote in her personality rather than a Big Deal for publicity. The swirling ‘90s patterns in the background, the unusual map format, and the simplicity of the inventory all contributed to a smooth aesthetic throughout, along with a great purpose-written soundtrack that will be in my head for weeks.

The Big Con. Image Credit: Mighty Yell Studios
The Big Con. Image Credit: Mighty Yell Studios

It wasn’t a perfect game, some things began to grate on me as I played, but it didn’t seem like anything a few patches couldn’t fix. Items, as mentioned before, don’t always present very clearly, and dialogue bubbles can get lost in odd places. The fixed-angle map means you – and other characters – can sometimes get lost out of sight, which can be frustrating if you’re looking for a certain character. Personally, I would have wanted an actual map that can be pulled out and referenced throughout the game, perhaps even with markers. I think that is all my griping though, which doesn’t seem devastating given the praise I am going to continue to heap on this game.

Levels can be finished pretty much whenever you’re done with them. If you just want to arrive, get the money, and move on – you can, although I’d advise against it. The side-quests and quirks that will reveal themselves with a little bit of exploration really add to the depth of the story, and the emotional impact the ending will have. It’s a relatively short game anyway, about five hours, so to indulge a little extra time getting lost in the scenery doesn’t seem too much of an ask.

The Big Con somehow manages to keep the pace up, even when you’re wandering around locations looking for something to do. Nothing is ever insurmountable or too complex, and hints are scattered across the landscape if you’ve the time to search them out. It’s a game about travel, family, love, betrayal, and corn. Lots of corn. And it’ll be one of the most heartwarming experiences you have this month.

The Big Con is out now for PC and Xbox One – we played the PC version.  

The Verdict

Despite some technical glitches, The Big Con succeeds in telling a moving story with plenty of wit and charm. The aesthetics and humour are spot-on, each character brings a new dimension, and this is a world worth getting lost in. If you’re looking for a healthy dose of ‘90s nostalgia and a throwaway attitude to petty crime – give it a go. I swear I’m not having you on. This time.

Pros

  • Funny and charming script
  • Immersive and rich levels
  • Nostalgic in the best way

Cons

  • Issues with item interaction
  • No way to get around clunky controls
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