Review: Superhot

Superhot for me really falls into another criticism on value.  It's $25 for about 2 hours, maybe an hour and a half of game play, with an expanded end game that's just the same levels over and over.  The story is interesting, but nothing spectacular, the graphics are boring, but the game is fun despite all of that.  If it were cheaper I'd definitely recommend it but overall what the game delivers isn't worth the price point.  Its only real claim to fame is a single game mechanic, which makes this game feel more like a demo, or concept video for that one idea rather than a full-blown game.  I would love to see this idea expanded on, turned into a bigger interactive story experience, but as is, it's just not there.  If you see it on sale, or part of a bundle, definitely give it a shot, I just can't say that as it stands right now.
Review: Superhot
Date published: Mar 24, 2016
2 / 3 stars

Superhot is an first-person shooter developed by the Superhot Team and published by IMGN.PRO, marketed with as "most disruptive FPS in years."  Despite the tagline, Superhot is not the most innovative shooter I've played in years, and depending on how many games you play it may not be the most innovative one you've played either.  That's not a bad thing by any means, but I play shooters, a lot, and frankly this game is not a first-person shooter any more than Portal was.  Putting the player in the first-person perspective, and giving them a gun, does not automatically classify the game as a shooter.  The other reason I'm convinced it's not a shooter is that you can't play it like one, which was something I had to learn when I first started playing.  If you play this game like a shooter it will be a frustrating experience.  You have to play it like a puzzle game, similar to Portal and other games like it.  Once I figured that out it actually became less frustrating.  It has an interesting sort of meta story within a story going on, which was kind of cool as well.  The game was originally part of a 7-Day game challenge to create an FPS game, and later expanded to a Kickstarter campaign to release a full game.

Bare Bones

The production of the game is just about as simple as one can get without going black and white, 2D pixelart.  It's pretty close though, with a three-color palette and no textures to it's flat polygonal landscape.  The environment around the player is all white.  White cars, white walls, steps, floors, all of it is white.  Anything you can use, weapons, bats, crowbars, guns, bottles, etc are all black, and your enemies are in red.  This gives the player very little to focus on other than the weapon you have and the targets in front of you.  Unfortunately it doesn't take long before the visuals get boring because of this.  The developers do mix it up with different environments, office buildings, cubicles, train stations and the like but even that variety becomes just more of the same when it's all white.  The purpose, according to the developers, is to keep players focused on the puzzle rather than the distractions of a detailed environment that a lot of other games have.  It does serve its purpose exactly as intended, but it's a bit like making a flavorless cake, with flavorless frosting, because you want the person eating it to focus on the chocolate brownie you bake into the middle.

The sound is also pretty spartan in the game.  There are few sound effects, limited to weapons like gunfire, and the exploding glass sound as your polygonal enemies are destroyed.  There's some static in places, and the computerized voice that ends each level with "Super!  Hot!", but other than that the sound pallet is pretty sparse.  What's there works for the design of the game.  It's intended to be the inside of a computer system, as the story progresses from being just a 'game' to being a sort of virtual reality hacking adventure.  All the sound is slightly distorted, and actually does a good job of creating the feel of the story for the player.

Overall the production of the game, the visuals and sound, left a lot to be desired.  I get what they were going for but unfortunately what works in concept didn't work long-term for me.  I couldn't imagine playing a game like this for more than the couple of hours it took me to complete it for this review.  I like the idea of the game a lot, and it could be used for so much, in much more detailed games to continue creating almost a new genre of FPS-like puzzle games.  This could be a great concept for a Matrix-like game, or something similar to Portal, or even as a side-game in Shadowrun to simulate decking, but unfortunately in its current form it comes off as more of a demo, or concept design, and at the $25 price point it shouldn't seem like you're playing a demo.

Simplicity in Action

Superhot's claim to fame is the unique game mechanic where time only moves when you move.  That's a bit misleading however, because time does move, very slowly, while you're standing still.  You don't have all the time you want to think about your next move, but it's close.  It's a very cool concept, and changes the entire play dynamic of what appears, at first, to be a first-person shooter.  This is the key mechanic in the game, and the only one really worth note.  Overall the game is easy to learn, how to play that is, but, like I mentioned above, if you go into it thinking you're playing a shooter rather than a puzzle game you're going to be frustrated.  The game teaches you how to play, control-wise, as you progress through the levels, slowly adding more weapons, environmental obstacles, jumping and possession, but at first it's just you and a pistol.

Early on your controls are limited to w.s.a.d. movement and firing the single pistol you have.  More abilities and weapons are added over time, including being able to pick up objects to throw, use bats and swords, and more powerful guns.  For the abilities eventually you're allowed to jump over obstacles, and 'jump' from one body to another to take possession of an enemy from a distance.  Progression through the levels is basically a combination of shooting red enemies while using the 'time freeze' mechanic to slowly move, one step at a time, out of the way of oncoming fire.  The enemies are just too accurate to play the game at full speed but of course I wasn't thinking that at first.  If you use a sort of stop-and-go technique, pressing your side step button and forward buttons, one press at a time, you can pretty much dodge bullets until you get in range of your target, or are able to line them up for a shot.  Once I figured this out the game became quite easy and the only trouble I had was with enemies showing up outside my field of view, or the moving environment killing me, like cars and trains. 

The trouble with the basics of this mechanic is you don't want to look around, but you have to.  Time moves when you turn, as well as move forward, side or back.  Enemies can come out behind you, but if you turn to check, they come at you from the front as well.  There were a few times I got blind-sided by a red fist while focused on the guys in front.  Of course, due to the zero health mechanic, that meant instant death and restart of the level.  It seemed like the game was meant to be played by taking in your surroundings, obstacles, and enemies, then planning a way to overcome it all.  Unfortunately since you could only take in about 60% of the environment without causing it to change by turning, and the fact that time doesn't actually stop, it didn't quite work out that way.  There were a few times I had to restart levels simply because I was shot in the back by unseen enemies while I handled the guys in front, but if I'd turned to see those guys coming, the ones in front would have shot me.

The most glaring flaw in the design, however, was the AI.  It wasn't buggy at all, that's not what I mean.  The AI was redundant, sometimes stupid, and ultimately predictable, all of which makes the game boring once you realize it.  I learned that if you got an enemy to notice you for the briefest of moments, then got behind cover, he'd run right up to you and not raise his weapon until he saw you again, which allows you to surprise them every time with a punch, slash, or shot.  If you gave them more than a second to see you before getting behind cover they would raise their weapon and start shooting, which prevented you from surprising them.  It became my go-to tactic through most of the game, especially when I started a level unarmed and vastly outnumbered.  I'm used to AI in games becoming predictable, but in a puzzle game where the objective is basically to outwit the computer AI, I'd expect a little more variation in that AI to raise the challenge as I progressed through the game.  There are other flaws in the AI, like getting them to shoot or hit each other by timing moves just right, and the fact that some stationary enemies never move to shoot around cover, no matter how long you stand behind it.  Most notably was the bartender with a shotgun in the first bar level where you come out of the bathroom.  I hid behind that pole, disabling the others while he shot that shotgun at the pole over and over again.  I'd have had a much harder time had he moved over just a bit to try and get me.

Story Within a Story

The game's story is actually pretty interesting, though very short, and reminds me a lot of games like Portal, and movies like The Matrix.  It's a story within a story, where you begin watching a message from a 'friend' come up on your screen urging you to play this new game.  As you progress through the game more of the 'file' is 'downloaded' when your friend sends it to you.  I thought this was a great feature to the story, making it seem like you were actually getting this experimental file a piece at a time.  You literally can't play ahead, the menu options build as you go so it does require you to play through to get the full content.

Over time you come to realize that this experimental VR simulator is actually the inside of a real computer system, and your actions are being watched, and even controlled by the system, or some mysterious watcher on the outside.  At one point the system even demands you stop playing, making you promise to do so, but again you have to keep playing to unlock the rest of the game.  In all honesty at this point I thought I was done with the game until someone else told me otherwise.  After the system forces you to confront a virtual representation of yourself in the game, it shuts down again, admonishing you to give up.  This time I was wise to it and I jumped back in to complete the last bit of the story.  Overall the plot is good, I just wish it had been longer.  A fully fleshed out version of this game, complete with textures, more levels and options, and a larger story with more twists and subplots could be quite fun.

Is it Replayable?

As a means to perhaps make up for the shortness of the story, and since the game is in a way a meta-story, the developers have added some end game content like challenge missions, endless levels, and the ability to go back and play whichever level you want from the main part of the game.  For a lot of people this added replayability to the game, for me it didn't.  

The challenge missions allow you to play the levels with limitations.  For example the first ones you unlock are the katana challenge, allowing you to play through the levels but you can only use the katanas.  The endless levels put you in the game and just throw enemies at you until you lose, and then you can go through and choose any level from the main game and play those as well.  The problem for me is the main part of the game grew a bit stale quick, so going back through it, even with these variables, really wasn't an appealing concept.  I played a few to get the gist of what they were going for but honestly I had to talk myself into doing that more and more and eventually I just didn't feel like it.  Some gamers may really enjoy this aspect of the game, I'm just not a fan of repetition, especially when the delivery is so very uninteresting.

The Final Word: Neutral - This rating for me falls into another criticism on value.  It's $25 for about 2 hours of game play, with an expanded end game that's just the same levels over and over.  The story is interesting, but nothing spectacular, the graphics are boring, but the game is fun despite it all.  If it were cheaper I'd recommend it but overall the delivery isn't worth the price.  Its only real claim to fame is a single game mechanic, which makes this game feel more like a demo rather than a full-blown game.  If you see it on sale give it a shot, I just can't say that as it stands right now.