Yahtzee reviews Hob and A Hat in Time.
(Okay, Yahtzee, you can do this. One more week before the big releases start; then you can stop pretending anyone gives a shit about indie ga-) Oh, hello there, viewers! I noticed that Steam has had another bountiful week of dry-looking strategy games and upbeat cartoon pornography; let's look at a couple of games that were neither of those things and so leapt out at me like a half-killed grasshopper from the mouth of an unwarrantedly self-satisfied cat!
Hob was the first, a minimalist-but-effective name bringing to mind folklore, gas cookers, and popular brands of oat biscuit. It's a hack-and-slash-y, explore-y sort of thing with something halfway between a top-down and isometric viewpoint, like the camera's glued to a drunk seagull. It was recommended to me because "Ooh, Yahtzee, we know how much you like your atmospheric exploration games and your dialogue-free storytelling." It's true, I do; I'm just not so keen on story-free storytelling as a concept.
The premise of Hob is, you're one of those mysterious wanderer-types wearing a red hood and a cloak because don't they fucking always, and you're following around Bastion from Overwatch who seems to think it's jolly important that you run around a ruined city turning all the lights back on. What are we, the fucking caretakers? A jobbing door-to-door electrician business? With no dialogue, we might as well assume as much. Hob does do a good job of executing what it sets out to do: the air of wandering adventure, of secret purpose, of boredom, and exploring the ruins of strongholds and cities once mighty, if boring, atmospheric boring, boring, boringly boring.
Don't misunderstand me, Hob-- "It sounds like you think I'm boring, Yahtz." All right, I guess you haven't misunderstood me! Yes, it's well put together, has probably added some impressive stuff from the concept artist's portfolio, and would probably take home the "Ooh, Bless Them, Aren't They're Trying So Hard Best Indie Game Award" from a regional game dev convention. But haven't we been here many times before? "Explore the remnants of the ancient advanced civilization that now manifests as a load of partial walls and bits of statue jutting up from the overgrown foliage"? "The lone wanderer wandering lonesomely"? "All silent but for the wind, the understated sad music, and the grunts of primitive monsters that now use the place for their Girl Guide meetings"? It's Breath of the Wild, it's Metroid Prime, it's Journey, it's every bloody Team Ico game, and I was distinctly un-gripped. Maybe I'd get enough sense of "lonely atmosphere" from looking at my social calendar.
So I also downloaded another game later in the week that had some ominous red flags about it called A Hat in Time. Firstly, the title's rubbish! "A Hat in Time". "A-Hat-in-Time". Just saying the words feels like I'm biting down on the side of a plastic cup. Also, it's a Kickstarted project that pledges to evoke the spirit of retro 3D platformers, and that rang particular alarm bells, which sounded like this: "YOOKA-LAYLEE! YOOKA-LAYLEE!" But what the hell; it was this, or hire a speed-metal guitarist to keep me awake through the rest of Hob.
A Hat in Time is about a rather-alarmingly unsupervised little girl in a series of hats exploring a fantastic world of adventure to find fuel for her spaceship. Since she starts the game in bed, probably safe to assume this is all a dream, or perhaps that she's descending into fantasy in the last few moments of brain activity before dying of starvation or neglect in a forgotten hospital basement. Blimey, that was uncalled for, and completely contrary to the spirit of A Hat in Time, which is nice and lively and upbeat, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Which came as a relief, 'cause you may recall last week, I was concerned that only liking miserable, violent games was flagging me as a candidate to be reprogrammed by the C.I.A. for political assassinations.
A Hat in Time cites Super Mario Sunshine as an influence, and that's pretty clear from how you repeatedly go to big hub levels to attempt different challenges, the nuanced platforming mechanics that starts with a jump and turns into a double-jump, a dive, a wall-run, denial, bargaining, and finally, acceptance that we're going to have to fall into the lava now. It's even got those pure-platforming interlude levels that Mario Sunshine had that are like we've dropped acid and stuck our head in a bucket of Duplo.
But A Hat in Time also can't seem to hold a single idea in its head for very long; we establish the Mario Sunshine tribute in the first hub world, but then it throws its toys out of the pram and goes, "I'm bored! I want to do a tightly-scripted intrigue set in a movie studio for owls that's closer in tone to something from a Paper Mario game." All right, is this the sort of thing you want to be sticking with now, Hat in Time? "No! I want to do some horror out of fucking nowhere! No, wait, I want to do a free-roam-y platforming world as well!" Christ, this is like getting the current president to type up his fucking manifesto! But it succeeds where Yooka-Laylee failed because it keeps the pace up and has some decent funny writing that can be self-aware without having to constantly suck its own dick for being so clever, and physically flexible.
The first obvious comparison between Hob and A Hat in Time is that both of them seem to treat standard combat like some unwanted dullard colleague who reliably brings the mood down at every fucking office party, but they have to keep him around because he knows the Wi-Fi password. In Hatty Time, it's just a matter of pressing the "Homing Attack" button whenever something waddles up wanting to start something, and in Hob, you just get set upon by nearby wildlife on your way to pressing the next button. For you see, that's what the core mechanic of Hob appears to be: you press a button, a huge piece of ancient machinery slides into or out of something, and now you have to figure out where the next button you have just opened access to is. It's like trying to bring off a lady in a pitch-black room wearing very complicated underpants.
Hatty Boom Batty isn't above having a lot of missions where the goal is "go to the place and get the thing". In fact, when you need to find four hidden keys for a door or whatever, the game just gives you a bunch of glowing lines leading to directly where they are, just in case you were worried there'd be an ounce of challenge involved. But then you look away for one second to roll your eyes at your Twitch followers, and the game knees you in the toddler activity center with surprisingly difficult boss fights. See, Hob is the more tightly-designed experience; it's clearly got all its ends tied up and its cracks diligently sealed. I mean, in Hat in Time, I managed to drop out of the map more than once from staring at an exterior wall too hard. Also, A Hat in Time isn't very long; it's only got four worlds and an end boss, and only forty Shine Sprites, I mean, Time Pieces to get, which, by standard measures, puts it at 1.1 demi-Marios.
But there's a simple metric to determine which game is best: I woke up on Thursday morning thinking, "Oh Christ, I suppose I should play more of that boring Hob game today. Oh well, maybe I'll find a piece of forgotten architecture that looks vaguely like a tit," whereas I woke up on Friday morning thinking, "Oh boy, I get to play more Hatty Time today! I hope I get to jump on a penguin!" I play Hob, and I stroke my chin and think, "Hmm, yes, very atmospheric. What an artful, tacit lesson on the excesses of civilization," and then I play Hatty Time and, conversely, feel like I'm having fun. Fun? Fun. Fun... Oh, yes, I remember that; isn't that the thing we're not supposed to have any more, that's supposed to disappear on our twenty-fifth birthday to be replaced by very serious concerns about fiscal stability?
- A hat in a box: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I just don't get if it means the hat is inside the physical concept of time or if the hat has appeared at a very appropriate juncture
- If Hob goes on Steam Sale they could call it Bob-A-Hob Week