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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Platformer
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Paul Helman and Sean Scaplehorn
Release Date: July 18, 2019


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PC Review - 'Horace'

by Cody Medellin on Nov. 20, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Horace is a story-driven, pixel-platform adventure peppered with nostalgic, popular culture references which will bring a smile to any gamer who enjoys the 8 and 16 bit era!

When the indie game scene began, there were a few elements that defined it. The games either resurrected almost-forgotten genres or added new twists to make them feel fresh again. Some titles were more interested in the narrative than the gameplay. Some titles were walking simulators, but other titles balanced this out with a good amount of action and gameplay. The final thing that stuck with most people is how quirky and unconventional these games could be. Horace is guilty of all of these things, and while it isn't perfect, it is a pleasant surprise.

You play the role of a robot with the codename of Horace. Named Man 2.0 by your creator, you arrive at the doorstep of a mansion that houses several eccentric characters, one who you dub as the Old Man. From here, you're taught some basic things, such as running and jumping, but you're mostly living as a member of the family. You do normal things with them while trying to figure out your purpose in life beyond cleaning things around you.

The opening chapters give you the idea that Horace is a slice-of-life adventure. The first two chapters are mostly comprised of cut scenes concerning how Horace is learning about each of the mansion's inhabitants. There are lots of references and jokes, such as software boot screens referencing author names and the intro credits mimicking the opening of Thames Productions, which was famous for "The Benny Hill Show." There are a few gameplay snippets where you learn about platforming, save a child from a seaside cliff, and learn to clean up around a shed where a hoarder has stowed away old bikes and newspapers. The platforming isn't extraordinary, but the act of picking up junk is simple since you just need to stand over it until it disappears. It feels like Chibi-Robo mixed with a story that feels like a British version of "A.I." or "Bicentennial Man."

Due to a horrible event where you mysteriously shut down, the game's vibe quickly transforms. After a visual montage of outer space, vintage technology, and classic video games, Horace awakens in the mansion's basement bathroom. Going upstairs, he finds the house in disrepair, and the outside world has completely changed. He soon learns that a great war took place while he was asleep, and the mansion's inhabitants have been scattered throughout the country. Part of his new quest is to find those family members to reunite them or find out what happened to them. The other part of his quest is to pick up one million units of trash in the hopes that it would transform him into a real person.

The narrative's dark turn is amplified by the discovery of Horace's new powers and old video tapes. Horace's actions threaten to make him a murderous robot, and people will regale you with anecdotes about the war's impact. Despite this, the more somber mood is buoyed by Horace's humorous misunderstanding of events or phrases. Deadpan observations are often the source of this humor, and the game has great pacing when it comes to breaking up serious moments with some levity.

The gameplay also evolves from a simple platformer into a title with some Metroid-like traits. That means a good amount of backtracking when it comes to visiting environments, as some new abilities let you open up new areas or protect you from hazards, like water. In the middle portion of the game, you have more freedom about the order in which you visit the environments. Boss fights are also present and use some of your newfound abilities, such as stomping on sensitive spots or pulling on levers to dismantle some foes.

The Metroid influence is apparent, but the genre that Horace most closely mimics is the precise, hardcore platformer that's usually associated with titles like Super Meat Boy. Horace has infinite lives, but he'll need them because one hit from a laser, spark, spike, or anything dangerous results in an instant kill. Almost every room is full of these dangers, and while that means there are fewer enemies, you'll never be able to fully clear a room of dangers. Respawns are almost immediate, but the checkpoints aren't always generous, which results in repeating some treacherous jumps and obstacles. The game does well in the basic mechanics of precision platforming, but there are more than a few occasions when you may feel that the hitbox for certain dangers is too large, especially since the game zooms in on Horace at the point of death and you'll see that you had a few pixels of leeway.

You aren't just moving horizontally and wall-jumping, either. When you gain new shoes, you can walk on walls and ceilings, and that transformative power means that levels can now have obstacles all over the place. That immediately makes the game feel different and more challenging than other platformers, but there are some caveats. Transitioning from the floor to ceiling or wall comes with a camera rotation to orient you with the new "floor." Depending on how quickly you do this or how often, the quick change can make you dizzy or disoriented. You'll also find that the camera change doesn't pause the action, so you'll die during some jumps because you're leaping from one surface to another and might run into an electrical field.

Much like the story, the game does a good job of changing gears so you aren't always watching cut scenes about Horace's life and trying desperately to not get him killed. It introduces minigames at the right times, and the minigames emulate other classic titles, such as Musnyx, OutRun, RoadBlasters, Pilotwings, and Pong.

In keeping with the offbeat story pacing, the presentation is similarly quirky. On the sound front, Horace has a few seemingly original tunes, but most of the soundtrack is comprised of classical pieces or movie themes. No matter what you're listening to, everything is done in the SNES style, so you have synthesized samples crafting every song. The sound effects are interesting for Horace's jumps, which sound like squeaking joints, but other effects are sometimes far too loud for comfort. Even though other people are speaking, Horace's voice is the only one you hear since he's the narrator. Since he's a robot, the voice that you hear is heavily modulated, and the robotic British voice ends up being charming even if it is devoid of emotion.

Graphically, Horace also adheres to the SNES aesthetic, as almost everything is composed of sprites with a robust but limited color palette. The animations are good enough, but it's interesting to see the cut scenes rendered in those same pixels. Whenever you see a close-up of a character's face, it's the same model but zoomed in, so the pixels look even chunkier. Believe it or not, this still looks wonderful, and the facial expressions are easy to read. There are a few elements that use polygons, like the roads in some driving sequences, but those are simple enough that they don't distract from the mostly pixel look.

In the end, Horace is an engaging experience if you're patient or don't get riled up easily. The platforming isn't as infuriating as most precision-based platformers, but the obstacles in some rooms can be annoying. The instant respawns are nice, but they don't cancel out the frustration of occasionally spotty hit detection. The instant camera rotation can be dizzying, and the repetition of tricky jumps can get old, but the engaging story makes it all worthwhile, especially since this is quite a lengthy game. Horace isn't the next indie masterpiece, but it is good enough to be called a genuine sleeper of a game that people should play.

Score: 7.5/10

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