This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Horace.
Well, as Mrs. Hitler must've thought as she fucked up her first attempt to shoot herself, you'd think I'd be used to disappointment by now. As a game critic who, despite the industry's best efforts, maliciously and persistently remembers when games were good and not about fully embodying the content of the banality of evil, disappointment strew my path like a shiny carpet made of every condom that was ever optimistically stored in a wallet that eventually had to be thrown out when they went a bit manky.
But this was a week of new flavors of disappointment! My attention was drawn to a new indie game, and shortly after I started playing, I was hooked by its unique charm and the staggering amount of effort that must've gone into it. I couldn't understand why the game didn't have more exposure; yes, it was swimming in the eternal ocean-sized grease trap that is the Steam indie game market, but the really interesting new titles usually find a way to break surface. Maybe I could be the one to bring it the exposure it deserves and then all the little indie game-developing pixies will carry me shoulder-high and finally acknowledge me as their god. That was Day 1; after two weeks, I still hadn't finished the game and had realized that I completely didn't want to play any more of the bloody thing, which, if all you future game critics are taking notes, is what we professionals call a "con".
So the game we're talking about is Horace, just in case you got to this video by rapidly clicking the screen or some other method that precludes reading the fucking title, and of all the games on Steam that carry the user tag "Story Rich", Horace is one of the few that deserves it; it's riding a fucking story limo down Story Street, braying with laughter and flicking crumpled dollar bills to the story crack whores. The story concerns, predictably enough, Horace, a sentient robot who was raised by an eccentric English scientist, and for the first part of the game, we watch them develop from trembling newborn to beloved family member through strategic use of pixel-art platforming, the effect being somewhere between Bicentennial Man and Fantasy World Dizzy.
Horace bears something of a resemblance to Fantasy World Dizzy, which might've been what made the game speak to me so much; that, and the dense number of references to retro British television, which might make it a bit niche. I appreciate an Auf Wiedersehen, Pet reference, but I wonder how much the Steam user base would? Anyway, Horace's life with his family is just a touch too harmonious, so obviously, disaster strikes, Horace is shut down and wakes up years later to find everyone gone and the country a war-torn dystopia, and from here, the combination of retro British quaintness and harsh, violent cynicism lends an almost Kubrickian Clockwork Orange-y sort of vibe to proceedings, all seen through the filter of Horace's childlike naïveté as he narrates everything with a synthesized voice reminiscent of a ten-year-old reading aloud their deconstructive essay on The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and this only makes the shiny little bastard more endearing.
So, the all-important question: Having gotten me on board, how does Horace fuck it up? Well, mainly in the gameplay, as the same care with which the story and cutscenes were crafted is not reflected in the structuring of the platforming challenges. The story can be as good as it wants, but without a good structure, it's like a statue being mounted on a huge pile of broken matchsticks or a painting framed with taped-together Weetabixes. First of all, the jumping doesn't feel great; if you're not holding down the "Run" button, Horace can barely clear a drawing pin. Furthermore, the game aspires to a level of Super Meat Boy difficulty comparable to steering a motorized skateboard through a hedge maze constructed entirely from the rare electrified-whirring-sawblade bush.
So this causes a catastrophically loud grinding of gears when it intersects with the very strong context the story has established; one might reasonably wonder why everyone has a gauntlet of whirring sawblades and exposed sparking wires in their house and/or workplace. If security was the concern, they could've locked the fucking door! After a while, I had to consciously will myself to keep playing rather than spend the afternoon immersing my hands in bags of rice instead; there's not much sense of challenge ramping up, unless the north face of the Eiger counts as a ramp now.
It felt like the game would introduce a hazard and then immediately start using it to make things as hard as possible; yes, it never dwells on failure, and you can restart in seconds, but after a while, perfectly getting past a roomful of whirring egg whisks and vats of corrosive Fanta only to die at the last moment because your toe lightly brushed a corn flake on landing, well, it wears me down. I try to suck it up and enjoy the story, but it's like trying to hold a conversation with someone who alternates between encouraging nods and smiles and ringing smacks to the head.
But even the story fails to live up to the promise of the beginning once things get going. The main issue is consistency; I honestly don't know if Horace is post-apocalyptic or not. Right after you wake up, everything's in ruins and apparently evil robots killed the vast majority of humanity, and then you hop on a train to a nice sunny town, where everything's lovely and you take a part-time job washing dishes in a tea shop, complete with slightly annoying, fiddly minigame just so you don't get too relaxed and think the smacks to the head have stopped. Various attempts at broader themes are made but swiftly glossed over and forgotten about. There might be an oppressive government in power; it's hard to tell. We occasionally have to rescue someone being held in some secure facility or other, but they also might've deserved it or been there willingly; it's all very confusing.
Even more so for the one chapter where we go on a time-travel adventure to ancient history out of fucking nowhere, fight a giant Egyptian robot, and then come right back to the present and never mention it again, except as a diverting anecdote to tell the old ladies in the tea shop. And I think that was where I realized what Horace was; Horace was somebody's baby, presumably the same somebody whose name appears in massive letters with a musical sting on the first ident screen, a game they were probably working on for ages, long enough to get bored and need to distract themselves with time-travel adventures and weirdly elaborate minigames that could've been serviceable core mechanics in themselves, but were overindulgently thrown into darling baby as an aside. And the result of overindulgence is bloated baby; no 2D pixel art game should be a 14-gig download, for fuck's sake.
Throwing more stuff into baby's trough was clearly more important than testing or refining what was in there, keeping the applesauce separate from the bacon grease; perhaps they could've fixed some of the bugs, like the one that made me stop playing. At the point when the game gets bored again and decides it's going to be a Metroidvania for a bit - which made the platforming even more demoralizing, 'cos now, I didn't know if it was even taking me the right fucking way - I accidentally glitched through a puzzle I didn't have the means to solve and soft-locked my whole fucking run. And I was sad, viewer, 'cos I still think Horace is worth a chance; in contrast to AAA games, there's clearly actual love in it, but there's such a thing as too much love, as my ex once told me as I wanked off into the trifle.
- Longs to be a real boy: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Also the music's quite good, although again I wonder how many players they expect will understand the Camberwick Green Day joke
- Respect your kitchen appliances