I am a stalwart border agent in Contraband Police, and I serve as the last line of defense between the great nation of Acaristan and nefarious smugglers and weapon dealers. I am given a few simple tools, like a folder full of regulations, a flashlight, a clipboard, and perhaps most handy of all, a gun. It’s a lot like indie darling Papers, Please, except I occasionally have to leave my post to lay down the law and shoot some criminals.
Contraband Police is a little janky but deeply compelling, and the game is a surprise hit on Steam. It’s the 1980s, and I’m starting my new job as the border agent in a Soviet-style totalitarian state. My corrupt predecessor was thrown out of his job, and my new co-workers kind of suck. I have to open up a car’s trunk and hood, search for cigarettes in the front grille, and discover ceramic chickens stuffed full of drugs. Meanwhile, my coworkers are enjoying a nice smoke break.
It’s the kind of game where it’s easy to fall into a fugue state. I wake up in my teeny tiny camper to find a line of cars waiting to enter the border. I call them in, one by one, and check the driver’s papers to make sure they meet regulations. The game likes to throw me curveballs when I’m most at ease — a guy might speed past the border post and into Acaristan, and I have to sprint to my official work truck and chase them down. Or a band of rebels might ambush my post, and my colleagues finally come in handy as the border crossing becomes a battlefield.
This is why I have the most powerful administrative tool of all: a gun. I start with a humble service pistol, but I can upgrade over the course of the campaign to shotguns, submachine guns, and sniper rifles. This ends up being somewhat moot, as I discover the real art of border enforcement, for a pro gamer anyway, is to run up to a guy and poke him aggressively with a pitchfork or shovel until he silently crumples.
Contraband Police also occasionally takes me away from my post. My superiors might call me in to assist on an urgent matter, and I have to stalk a known rebel through the gloomy woods or investigate a local murder. Sometimes I have to haul all the smugglers I’ve caught down to the local labor camp, where they can make up for their crime of having a flask in their car by mining ore for no pay. All of this seems very moral and normal!
The game’s shooting and driving mechanics are very floaty, and as long as you occasionally duck into some kind of cover, it’s rare you’ll lose a conflict. But it’s also not the real meat of the game; it’s a side dish to the main course of doing some border stops.
Sometimes, when I’m processing a guy’s documents, he might give me a sob story. “Oh no, my loved one is in Arcaristan, and they’re in mortal peril!” or “If you don’t let me through, a bunch of children will die in a terrible mining accident!” Do I let them through, and take a fine from my superiors? It will give me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but I also have to pay all the bills around here, and my Soviet superiors aren’t keen on me building up any level of debt.
I also have to pay to upgrade all of my stuff, and I don’t exactly make a competitive wage. Therefore, I’m incentivized to really look over everyone’s vehicles with a fine-toothed comb. It’s weirdly soothing to scan over a guy’s car and search for hidden goodies — like cigarettes or cocaine. Sometimes people offer me a bribe, which I don’t take — it’s way too easy to get caught and penalized. But no one cares if I trade contraband with other drivers. I have a nice little side hustle going, because it’s important to diversify income streams. With enough work, I can upgrade my little camper van into a lovely home with a tin tub to bathe in and a couple of state-approved posters!
The game currently has a campaign that plays out over the course of a month in-game, and the player is periodically presented with choices — do they stay loyal to glorious Acaristan, or do they cast off their shackles and choose to be an inside man for the rebellion? Developer Crazy Rocks is working on an endless mode with more paperwork and police ranks, which I’m looking forward to. The campaign can be completed in a few sittings, and it’s punctuated by some fun choices — but I’m hungry to keep checking for contraband.
Contraband Police is available on Steam for $16.99 (discounted from $19.99.) The game has since picked up over 4,000 reviews averaging to “Very Positive” and sold more than 250,000 copies.