HAYDEE REVIEW – “BEEP BOOB”

Well. That was… Something.

In light of the controversy surrounding Haydee, it almost feels pointless to offer a critique of how it holds up on the level of gameplay. After all, everybody who’s played it or seen footage of the titular protagonist (and I choose that word very carefully) has already formed their opinion. Either you hate it for being sexist, you admire it for being subversive, or you love it disproportionately because a group you don’t like hates it. Or, contrarily, you hate it for the same reason. Or maybe you just have a fetish for women with buckets on their heads. Que sera, sera.

The point is that writing around the subject feels somewhat irrelevant, but that never stopped me before. So I’ll come right out and say it – a few gameplay ideas in Haydee are basically OK. Doesn’t matter if the main character is a sexist throwback or a powerful gender-icon when it comes to that angle, any more than Hideo Kojima’s sub-par writing skills change the fact that it’s fun to choke Russians in MGSV.

The game prides itself on insane difficulty, and that is certainly warranted. You meander around the sexbot research zone of Aperture Science Laboratories, and a number of things will contrive to kill you before you find the way out, or at least locate a loose, comfortable sweater. Evil robots, lethal drops, your own stupidity – given time, one of them will finish you off. At their best, these deaths usually feel like challenging but justifiable failures, in the manner of my lovely, lovely Dark Souls. My masochistic urge for a game that won’t put up with any nonsense is well-documented, and I was kinda hoping that Haydee would scratch that itch between sessions of Super Meat Boy.

20161001170211_1

<THE AUTHOR DOES NOT FEEL BRAVE ENOUGH TO WRITE A COMMENT OF OBSERVATIONAL HUMOUR REGARDING THE ABOVE IMAGE. PLEASE SUPPLY YOUR OWN HUMOUR AS NECESSARY.>

But at their worst, the deaths feel cheap and frustrating. I’m happy to admit that when some long-limbed android rattles towards me and I put five bullets in the wall next to his head, the fact that he proceeds to kick my notably ample arse is only because I wasn’t good enough to stop him. But when his brother sidles up alongside me with no warning and caves in my head before I know he’s there, that feels cheaper than a pre-sucked penny sweet. And with save points being few and far between, getting mangled unexpectedly is almost as annoying here as it is in real life.

Which is to say nothing of the camera breathing down your neck the whole time, because god forbid you find yourself unable to examine Haydee’s body at any point in the game. I’m sure that’ll mitigate the rage of being tackled to the ground by HAL 9000’s big brother, especially when climbing up platforms is done in two stages – the first one of which ends with Haydee awkwardly bent over the surface, just so we can see right up her exhaust port and embarrass ourselves when somebody comes into the room.

But I realise I get ahead of myself, and must describe the core gameplay ‘ere I ramble off into total irrelevance. Well, it’s not easily summarised. I suppose I get flavours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with a tiny bit of ‘dat Dark Souls added in and some classic elements of old Metroidvania, all set in locations from Portal that were considered too boring to be included in the final product. You scrabble around a clean underground lab in third person, picking up every gun, medkit, keycard and bit of ammo you can find. You also climb and jump around from platform to platform (which as mentioned, manages to feel more uncomfortably pornographic than Debbie Does Dallas) in order to move on and explore non-essential areas for more equipment that’ll help later.

The story is far less comprehensive. Our hero, presumably named Haydee, is seen in an enormous science facility, where the only inhabitants appear to be aggressive robots and dead, mechanical blow-up dolls. There are some elements we can piece together, for Haydee herself is one of these buxom sexdroids, and the fact that her unmoving predecessors can be found up ahead, all damaged from some sort of attack or fall, implies that you are not the first to try and find your way out.

20161001171415_1.jpg

But which one of us is really in a cage? Oh, it’s the robot. Seems pretty obvious now, but it’s quite hard to see with no eyes.

Or something like that, I guess. The game honestly didn’t seem to give a rotten fig about the possibility of narrative for the time I was playing it, and the broken iHookers only seem to exist to highlight which areas are fatal to fall into. The game clearly has its own opinion on what demands more attention than story – namely white panel walls, removable ventilation grates, and jiggle physics. Lots and lots of jiggle physics.

But there are things about the game I can appreciate. The minimal HUD feels nicely unobtrusive, and clearly somebody took inspiration from Dead Space and stuck Haydee’s health bar on the back of her helmet, making it an organic part of her design. Well, not organic, strictly speaking – oh, you know what I mean.

I also appreciate the fact that the game has some genuine ambition to present real challenge. Sure, I’m not too hot about the infrequent save points and the fact you have to hunt out the items needed to unlock them, but I always love a game that actually asks that the player wake up and pay attention in order to succeed. And though some deaths feel cheap and unwarranted, most of them do feel like my error and not the game’s.

And of course, I am completely on board with an emphasis on exploration, which demands the player make note of their surroundings and return to previous areas in order to be as well-equipped as possible.  Yeah, you can charge ahead and try to smother enemies with your ridiculously-sized chest, but you aren’t likely to succeed if you haven’t been snuffling around for ammunition like a Texas-born truffle hog. There’s also something rather effectively creepy about the robotic enemies, which silently move on you with clear purpose in mind, in a manner that can only be described as “advancing.” They even generate a few organic jump scares as they lurch into view, so I can’t say the game didn’t effect me.

20161001170155_1

Day 3 in the Kardashian manufacturing facility…

That being said, the things I don’t like are more frequent, and start to get on my plums pretty quickly. The too-close, lecherous camera is one bugbear, and the unwieldy controls are another. I also don’t appreciate the fact that the plain, unremarkable environment gets old to look at very fast, and that there’s something rather unfinished and lazy about certain aspects of the game. Character animations are few and far between, the creators seem unwilling to give the player any information about what’s going on or how to play, and the lack of story feels less like a stylistic choice and more like nobody could be bothered to properly contextualise the events.

Is that everything? It is? Because I can’t think of anything else to address before we OH FINE I’LL TALK ABOUT IT.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Is this game sexist? Well, for a while I didn’t want to think so, partly because I was still kind of enjoying the gameplay and didn’t want to be seen to associate with something unseemly. After all, I have a paltry façade of a reputation to vaguely maintain. What could be more important than that?

At first I was mainly wondering if Haydee were some subtle, elaborate satire. Our protagonist is literally a set of sparsely-covered curves with no head, voice or obvious agency. Most notably, the heroine is sporting a blank plastic panel instead of a face, which in itself is so absurd as to imply self-aware, wink-wink acknowledgement. It comes across as ridiculous to consider, so defiantly backwards in tone that it makes me wonder how seriously this was all being taken. For god’s sake, the two difficulty modes are named “hardcore” and “softcore.” Could it be that all those sputtering Tumblrites were getting their piercings in a twist over nothing more than a simple satirical statement? It wouldn’t be the first time that people on the internet went insane for something that didn’t really matter either way.

But on reflection, I’m not convinced that Haydee is a satire. It’s actually not outrageous enough to come across that way, and with no story to tap into that parody potential, it feels more genuine than anything else. When I saw that the keycards all had pictures of topless women on them, I realised that this was exactly what it looked like to begin with – an unremarkable game with a few titillating elements added to draw people in. Whether that’s fine or not is up to the individual. You might call it harmless exploitation of the kind all entertainment has been engaging in since cavemen could first draw blood and nude stick figures on rocks. Or you might call it a regressive, demeaning fantasy that we should’ve gotten over around the same time. I can understand both, but it’s probably not empowering either way. But maybe it’s not trying to be. Maybe it’s happy to be stupid, sexy fun. Maybe it’s at too high an ethical price to be worth another depressing female archetype. Honestly, I’m starting to lose interest in both this subject and the game as a whole.

20161001171324_1.jpg

It’s an easy joke, but somebody had to make it.

Which can act as my closing point. Haydee is a little too rough, a little too minimal and a little two unimpressive to be anything more than a time-waster, unable to capitalise or develop the good ideas that dwell within it. I couldn’t be bothered to play beyond a certain point, so maybe it picks up later – but I don’t care. I have limited recreation time in my life, and I ‘aint putting those valuable hours into watching Cave Johnson’s secret fetish fall into pits and perform revealing gymnastics routines. Maybe pick it up if you see it on sale, or find yourself attracted to mannequins. Otherwise, I can’t really recommend.


4/10

Haydee is a somewhat solid premise that isn’t refined enough to hold up on its own terms, so it throws in the headless Playbot as the heroine and hopes the bouncing jubblies will distract you from your growing boredom. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

PONY ISLAND REVIEW – “MOUTH LASERS ARE NOT ENOUGH”

I have a soft spot for indie game development, as everybody who reads my work knows. I tend to be kinder in my reviews, more encouraging in my feedback, and more willing to part with my money when it comes to that final choice of buy/deny.

And that’s because indie game development is very important to the gaming community, perhaps more so than the big AAA stuff that gets the most attention. Gaming was founded on small projects made by people working out of their homes and universities, and even now the indie stuff feels like the most creatively liberated section, willing to take risks and make artistic statements – so good on them.

And because of that, I was approaching Pony Island with a certain amount of hope and expectation. After all, the information I picked up was certainly positive, and it all seemed to gel with the sort of things that I like. Classic arcade gaming with a subtle depth beneath it? Intriguing. Subversion of traditional visuals by infusing them with a darker edge? That can certainly work. Shooting Jesus in the face with a laser made of Matrix code?

… Well, now I’ve got to try it, right?

So Pony Island is a very short game that uses fourth-wall humour and underlying metacommentary in the main story, with a deceptively cheery old-style arcade game appearance presented as a façade over the whole thing. The façade falls away as we progress through the game, and as it becomes more clear that certain forces, both good and evil, are trying to manipulate you into performing actions that will have far greater consequences than achieving a new high score.

20160917104325_1

BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAActually, this rather hurts my throat to do.

Now, I double-checked the timing on Pony Island’s release, and saw that it came out only three months after Toby Fox’s modern classic, Undertale. So I certainly won’t say that Pony Island was made out of some rushed attempt to leap onto an existing bandwagon, because most game development takes longer than three months. And like I said: it’s indie development. I want to be kind here.

But if it’s not guilty of being a copycat, it may be a victim of unfortunate timing. It certainly hits a lot of the same notes as Undertale. There’s a villain who seems exaggeratedly cute at first, there’s retro-gameplay altered in theme to meet modern sensibilities, excessive levels of games-talking-‘bout-games and even the same ending as Undertale, with one of the characters speaking directly to the audience and asking them not to player the game anymore.

An instruction I was all too happy to follow, as this is the question that was plaguing me throughout the two or three hours necessary to win: if Pony Island is a spiritual successor to Undertale, why do I love the latter whilst finding this new pretender rather insufferable?

It might be because the story feels a little bit too much like a gimmick, and doesn’t really know what to do with the good ideas it does have. To begin with, the game is way too excited about throwing away the initial illusion of cutesy “My Little Pony” visuals, which barely lasts five minutes before we get the darker stuff overriding it. We’re not even half an hour through before they’ve broken out the demonic pentagrams and creepy music. Oh look, a game about unicorns jumping over gates is actually a scam utilised by the Devil himself to gather souls. Man, that’s not something I’d expect Uncle D to be using. What? No, I’m not yawning. I’m, uh, silently gasping in terror. Yeah, let’s go with that.

20160917110819_1

Lovey the Flower! No, hold on.

Which brings me to my second point – shouldn’t the antagonist be more threatening? Shouldn’t I feel more of a motivation to win? Undertale made me scared of a smiling yellow flower, and Reigns was clever enough to make a lovable dog seem unaccountably creepy. But the devil here just feels like an annoyance, something that throws a multitude of inconvenient (but by no means concerning) obstacles in your path. It’s like trying to write an essay, and every couple of hours somebody pops up and deletes a random sentence. Pretty weak stuff, I think you’ll agree. And with no real characterisation for either the player character or the NPCs, I never get the sense of anybody actually being in danger or grief. At one point the player is allegedly sent to sleep and trapped for three centuries, but so what? We see no consequences; we don’t become bothered by anything. We just sit back down and keep playing. Why is this supposed to concern me?

And the metanarrative is just as shallow, highlighting why such ideas can either turn out as gold or mould. Maybe I should stop belabouring the point, but Undertale was wise enough to initially keep its bigger ideas in the background as underlying subtext, and then had them emerge forward as the game progressed. So it starts off by drawing us in with characters, then doubles down by connecting the more philosophical stuff to the main plot later on. It also had much more interesting ideas than this game. What would the ability to save and repeatedly reload your life do to a moral mind? How would the ideas of grinding for experience or trying to reach total completion look in a real-world context?

Pony Island doesn’t seem to have any thoughts on that level, or even any real thoughts at all. There are moments where you step away from the fictional arcade machine you’re playing, and bits where you get on the developer’s nerves by cheating or playing unfinished levels, but there’s no deeper meaning to any of it. It’s just… There. I guess it’s meant to be funny, but I didn’t find myself laughing – the ultimate nail in the coffin of the comedy game.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t parts I like. Or perhaps I should say part, singular. It’s just one scene, but it’s a very clever scene where you have to keep your eye trained on a certain entity to see how it changes, and the game tries everything it can to distract you, to make you look away. I won’t spoil what happens, but needless to say that the game really does pull out all stops and makes it near-impossible that first time you try, utilising the kind of tricks I’d never expect, yet somehow manages not to feel cheap in its tactics. There’s no deeper meaning behind it, but that doesn’t mean the basic idea in that scene isn’t clever and well-made, so due respect there.

Because it’s better than the gameplay, which was definitely getting to be a chore by the end. I suppose it’s in keeping with the joke that this is silly, shallow arcade gameplay, but let’s remember something – you’re still making me play a shallow arcade game. For lengthy periods of time. That might not have been the smartest move to perform on somebody who’s already losing patience with your creation to begin with.

20160917103046_1

Don’t let me type stuff into video games. That never ends well.

There are two forms of core gameplay: the platforming sections and the hacking sections, and they both suck. The former is briefly entertaining until the developers run out of abilities to give you (two), having you jump over obstacles and blast enemies with your mouth laser in 2D side-scrolling perspective. But once it’s gotten those bits out the way, the game has nothing more to offer action-wise, except for the occasional alteration in who you fight. But considering Code Genie, Angry Flying Skull Thing and Lord Giant Boss Demon Monster Sr. all go down with a hearty dose of tonsil beams to the face, there’s no real change that comes across as significant to the player.

But it’s better than the hacking, which is represented by that age-old pipe-water game AGAIN. The game does its best to hide it by adding a heavy computer-code aesthetic, but it’s still steering an object around a grid by swapping out directed sections of a maze. Pony Island, we talked about this just a few days ago. I know Bioshock was an incredible game, but it’s now widely accepted that hacking the vending machines was the one element that sucked more cock than a hungry leech in a chicken coop. Out of all the Bioshock aspects you could’ve taken inspiration from, why that one? It’s like deciding that the best part of National Lampoon’s Vacation is that racist scene in the city slums.

I’m torn on to whether to recommend Pony Island or not. On one hand, it is incredibly cheap at only four pounds, and some people do really seem to like it. Not to mention that if I’m going to give my money to anybody, I do want it to be small-scale artists trying to succeed with creatively interesting ideas.

But on the other hand, I don’t like this game! Four pounds isn’t much, but paying any amount of cash for an unenjoyable experience is wrong. That’s why going to visit distant relatives for Christmas is so utterly depressing, and why you usually bring heavy amounts of booze to compensate. But I didn’t have any alcohol to hand with this one, and when my flatmate asked me to help her tidy the kitchen, I was only too pleased to escape.

20160917102651_1

OH GOD NOT AGAIN

Though I did get to what seems like the canonical ending of Pony Island, the achievement list does suggest more gameplay and narrative hidden in there somewhere… But I don’t care. My work is officially over when the credits start rolling. If you want me to play more than that, you need to seduce me with some good material, and you can consider me as dry as a nun on this one. Maybe give it a try if you like your fourth-wall humour, or have just taken a great deal of drugs and need something entertaining in the background.


4/10

Pony Island has high ambitions, honourable intentions and even a few good ideas – but none of them ever amount to much. Generally inoffensive but nowhere near as original as it believes it is, the game becomes boring and eventually meanders into the frustrating.