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Sunday, 3 May 2020

Why You Should Play Horace (A Failed Video Review)

Why am I randomly posting to this abandoned blog that nobody reads? In a nutshell: I tried to make a scripted video review for the first time ever. I failed, but I wanted somewhere to share the original script.

Longer explanation: I recently played a game called Horace - feeling a certain connection having played a demo on my Let’s Get Itchy series, I recorded all of my gameplay and then started working on a review. After writing and recording a script I started assembling a video. I realised it was going to take longer than expected, despite the bags of covid-lockdown-induced free time I now had, so I parked it after doing an unfinished pre-render of the first few minutes:


Then I accidentally deleted all of my gameplay footage... Yeah, so perhaps the whole scripted video review format isn’t for me. But, hey, it was worth a try. So, rather than try to finish the video, I’m instead sharing the full transcript, which hopefully works well enough in written review format. So, without further ado…


HORACE REVIEW:

Brace yourselves, I’m going to do something that’s never been done before: I’m going to review a video game. Horace is a video game. About a robot. Called Horace. It’s really good. End of review. 

I’m sorry was that too brief or do you need me to arbitrarily assign a score? I give Horace 8.5 panic bought toilet rolls out of 10. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: Why Horace? I’ve never heard of Horace. Why out of all of the countless indie games that fly under the radar every single year are you choosing to make a  video about Horace? I dunno.

Well, ok, there is a bit of a story there. Let’s rewind back to 2018. Hello itch.io my name’s Tom and I’m looking for quick / quirky / fun video games to play on my YouTube channel for, like, 5 people to watch. Recommendations come flooding in. I play them. There’s… an interesting range of games. One day a guy called Paul replies:

Hi tomcheshire (all 1 word)
Try the free demo for my story-driven, pixel platform adventure game, Horace. There is approx 2 hours of gameplay available in the demo blablabla

2 hours of gameplay? Wow that’s generous, I can’t wait! I play the game for 10 mins instead. But during those 10 mins I like what I see. I really like what I see. So I put the video up, about 5 people watch  it: ‘Thanks tomcheshire (all 1 word) for the positive feedback’ blablabla job done!

A few months pass. Let’s see what’s going on in the games industry today… Wait… I know this guy… I guess he finished the game. And it’s actually here on a mainstream site, people are talking about it - even Yahtzee’s done a review of it? Well I should definitely play it now. So I buy Horace and… forget about it for half a year.

A few more months pass. Now it’s November. Game Awards are coming up and it seems like now people only care about games with Norman Reedus takes a shower. What became of Horace? Was it all just a fluke? Horace free on the Epic Game Store. That’s cool. Oh wait, I already bought it months ago. Yeah, ok, I should probably play it. You know how these indie story platformers are, it’ll be over in, like, 90 mins tops. (Yeah I guess I kinda forgot about how the demo was 2 hours long.)

Horace is an epic video game passion project built by just 2 people. It’s set in a sort of semi-dystopian version of Britain in which everything seems very quaint and low-tech at first but also robots are a thing and everything is rendered in pixel art because indie game.
Yes, Horace is another entry in the story-driven platform adventure Metroidvania genre (or as I like to call it, SPAM). It feels like SPAM is one of the most popular genres for your critical indie darlings these days, but Horace feels kind of different. Its focus on story goes beyond just having the odd cutscene here and there. It’s the driving force of the entire game. The titular Horace starts off acting as a sort of robot butler for a rich old man and his eccentric extended family. Everything’s all very charming and heart-warming in a sort of ET meets WALL-E sense but pretty early on things start to escalate. A lot of things. There’s a time jump and Horace finds himself in a world that’s similar but also feels kind of wrong. The family has all vanished, a lot of places seem abandoned and there are signs of some kind of major world changing catastrophe having taken place. Sounds familiar doesn’t it. 

I’m not going to spoil the story as it’s really one of the game’s strongest suits. It covers a LOT of ground. There are tons of characters that are really well developed, the scenarios constantly evolve and it’s pretty consistently funny too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many British pop culture references show up in one piece of media. And honestly, don’t worry if obscure British trivia isn’t your thing, there are references for just about anyone. Whether you find it obnoxious or not, Horace’s charm is always on display.

Cutscenes are all done with 16-bit sprites but there’s no attempt to animate them according to 16-bit rules, with constant motion tweens, panning and general trickery to make things a bit more cinematic. I dunno, I guess I’d describe it as the ‘flash animated fan film’ look but that’s doing it a bit of a disservice. I do think the camera’s zoomed in a bit too much sometimes though, with giant pixels everywhere I don’t even know what I’m looking at some of the time. But honestly, considering all the art was done by one person, with so much content to make, the game is pretty damn nice to look at and compares pretty favourably to much more expensive productions. The soundtrack is also really fantastic, remixing classical music and original tunes to give it a really distinct personality.

Gameplay feels pretty standard at first with running and jumping and climbing and collecting junk (you’re gonna be collecting a lot of junk in this game.) But early on you get access to gravity shoes - kind of the game’s signature ability. These let you walk on walls but in an interesting twist they also lock gravity to the direction of the wall you’re currently touching. This leads to quite a few interesting platforming spaces to navigate, as well as letting you do stupid stuff like fall into outer space. Also, I’ve got to give props to the design decision to have Horace’s tie always face the direction of the ground, that’s got to be one of the smartest little design things I’ve seen in a while.

Horace is a long game and even with cool ideas like the gravity shoes, it does start to feel pretty repetitive. But that almost feels weird to complain about because there’s actually an insane amount of variety in the game. From boss battles with unique mechanics to stealth sections to chase sections to completely insane psychedelic interludes. What’s perhaps most impressive is how many different one-off mini-games there are. You’ve got sports games, driving games, minecart games, retro games, job games that remind me of the Rhythm Heaven series and literally an entire arcade full of fully-fledged parody games. I don’t want to sit and count how many separate gameplay styles there are but it’s probably close to what you’d see in, like, a Mario Party or something. I’m pretty sure the dev just had 500 ideas for games but rather than release them as short little itch games, he was insane enough to just save them all for one giant passion project.

And passion project is definitely a fitting description for Horace. The different gameplay styles are executed competently but I’d be lying if I said they were all perfectly polished. The game can glitch out in some quite noticeable ways, from imperfect collision detection to wonky item behaviour and strange sound bugs. Disclaimer: All of these might have been fixed by now, I don’t know, I don’t care.

Also, while I’m a fan of most of the game’s design in general I can definitely poke holes in it. Just as a random example: I’m not sure about the way the health pickups work. The game saves how many of these floating hit points you have whenever you enter a room. If you die and respawn you’ll have that same number of hit points when you respawn. Horace is not an easy game, so constantly while playing I’d be trying to keep as much health as possible while moving from room to room. If I got hit once, I’d just give up, because it would only be making the next room harder if I continued. I dunno maybe that’s just on me for playing like an idiot -  I like that it makes concessions if you die too much by spawning more health. But I just wonder if these kinds of systems could have done with a bit more tweaking.

The game has purchasable upgrades which puts all that collectible junk to good use - but there are definitely some upgrades that are more useful than others. Trust me you really want to get the junk vacuum as soon as possible to stop annoying stuff like this from happening: (Show clip where Horace is swimming underwater and is unable to collect a really small can in an awkward position.)

Pacing can sometimes be an issue - while I called the game a Metroidvania earlier it’s only the middle third that fully commits to this idea, suddenly throwing out an enormous map screen that’s a bit of a chore to navigate. I dunno this section is still full of great stuff but it feels like it goes on forever - I was pretty happy with the more linear flow from earlier.

But I digress. Horace is just so full of stuff to like it’s actually pretty hard for me to criticise it. So much time and effort has gone into this game that I kind of just have to sit back and marvel at it all. So while on the quantity vs quality scale for giant indie passion projects this does by definition sit more on the quantity side, it’s all done with such love and care that I genuinely don’t mind all that much.

And yes, over time you’ll probably find yourself getting attached to the characters and feeling some kind of vaguely human emotional reaction when shit goes down. And shit does go down. See, Horace has a tendency to keep things generally at a family friendly state of ‘warm ’n fuzzy’ but it’s also really not afraid to dial things up to 11, randomly dropping in some adult humour or extremely dark turns from time to time. Normally that kind of varying tone doesn’t sit well with me but here, I dunno, I found it kept things quite engaging. It’s all grounded in Horace’s child-like naivety towards the world, which anchors things to an extent.  Still, your mileage may vary on the way he monologues the dialogue for all the characters in the entire game with a repetitive synthesised voice.

Well, I feel like that kind of covers everything I wanted to talk about. Horace is a really good game. You should probably play it if you like the sound of any of the stuff I said. I’m sure you have time. You’re watching (reading) this. You definitely have time.

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