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Whether they qualify as actual games is a matter of debate, but interactive experiences like Dear Esther and Proteus push the Envelope of Defied Conventions to its extreme, offering very little in terms of narrative or player agency beyond exploring their three-dimensional worlds. Others, like Amnesia and Outlast, handle storytelling almost exclusively through the use of notes, journals, and artifacts that let players glean as much or as little narrative as they like. Rubycone’s Hektor tries to emulate the latter, but in execution ends up resembling the former. It’s a nearly pitch-black headtrip that tries to shock and frighten, but ultimately loses its bite once you realize how paper-thin the threat really is. And though it looks and sounds like its more action-oriented survival horror cousins, a near-impenetrable darkness and an extreme lack of anything to actually do make it little more than a solitary exploration, just without anything to actually look at.
Like in other games of this type, you spend your time deep underground, this time waking up in the dark and deserted titular government research facility. After a jarring introductory cinematic that sees you strapped to a hospital gurney while a doctor “operates” on you, you awake in a dark room, armed only with a lighter and a handful of pills. Though it’s poorly explained, the pills apparently help calm your nerves, and you’ll be cued that it’s time to take one when the screen starts swirling in various colors and patterns that make the already limited visibility even worse. I was never 100% sure whether I was suffering from some condition or whether the symptoms were simply due to stress. All I know is that taking a pill or two didn’t always seem to have any effect, and the symptoms worsened as time wore on or if I encountered a monster in the dark.
The lighter is, for a good three-quarters of the game, your only source of visibility, unless you are lucky enough to stumble past a light switch that may (or may not) illuminate a stray bulb for a few moments. Now, if a lighter sounds like a woefully ineffective way to orient yourself within pitch-black surroundings, that’s because it is. Most of the time, I found myself hugging a wall – any wall – as I was walking, just to affirm that I was still moving in a straight line down a corridor, or even moving at all. (In a few dream sequences that prohibit you from using your lighter constantly, I found myself idiotically stuck up against a wall, still trying to walk forward into the obstacle). You do finally find a flashlight (near the final act of the game), but the batteries for it deplete quickly, making it a poor substitute, and you’ll have to keep relying on your lighter anyway.
Not that you’d want to see much of your surroundings, as the graphics are summarily lackluster and dull. You’ll encounter the same generic desks, chairs, filing cabinets and bookcases, crates and drums and fuse boxes liberally distributed throughout the facility. But most of all, of course, you’ll see the same walls pass you by, brick by brick, the same concrete floor. Every once in a while, the game introduces a new stock category of rooms, with additional furniture like sinks, hospital beds, shelving units – whatever the current theme happens to require. There is nothing eye-catching about them, and you can’t crawl under or over or interact with them in any way. Generally speaking, you’ll just want to get past them and on to the next section of hallway as fast as possible.
Right from the outset you’ll hear voices, possibly from the darkness around you, but more likely from inside your own head. A woman’s voice, pleading, begging you to find her. A menacing, whispering voice telling you to run, faster, FASTER! A man, sobbing in distress about being taken to “the short room”. Aside from this, the only sounds you hear are distant echoes of scrapes and shuffles from somewhere in the facility, an occasional door creaking or water gurgling. With no clue where you are or why you’re here, you simply start walking. The game insists on withholding vital information – like context for what’s happening or any motivation for even participating along the way – but then fails to pay off most of the mystery later on. Sure, other games have also thrown players right into the mix, but usually after offering at least a few nuggets of basic background. By the time Hektor’s credits rolled, I was still struggling to make sense of how it all began. At best, I have a vague hypothesis, but there’s just no way to be sure, as the thread running through the story from beginning to end was lost somewhere along the way.
A few details are fleshed out as the game progresses, information divulged via notes and scattered journal pages left by previous… dwellers?... for you to find. According to these snippets, the facility performed experimental research in mind control, using its own workers as test subjects. A deranged doctor, a masochistic orderly, prison guards, some individuals plotting an escape attempt, arson, and murder all play into the convoluted plot, but in the end I understood very little of it, failing to even get a clear idea of the story’s where and when. The sudden finale hints at some clever plot twist the developers aimed for, but with a plot as sparse as Hektor’s, the final twist was ultimately lost on me.
The “gameplay” amounts to simply walking the halls, picking up pills to keep your nerves under control and notes to reveal more of the backstory. It quickly becomes obvious that escaping the facility, if that is indeed your goal, won’t be a simple matter of memorizing its layout and proceeding along the route until you see a sign that says EXIT. Hallways and rooms are constantly shifting, often right after you’ve passed through them, creating an ever-changing layout that differs even when you restart from a checkpoint. Sometimes the change is instantaneous, leading to some disorienting moments when you turn around and see a solid wall or a door where there was open corridor just moments ago. Other times you’ll find yourself at a dead end and need to backtrack a good distance before you notice that you’re entering “new” territory.
The course of the game can be split into individual sections that coincide with what’s happening in the notes you uncover, and each one includes some new geography not previously seen. For instance, once the doctor character is introduced via his journal pages, rooms outfitted as sick wards, operating theaters with surgical equipment and hospital beds are added into the rotation of rooms you encounter, joining the cellar storerooms and office spaces from previous sections. However, within this limited context, you’ll still notice the same rooms and halls again and again, just stitched into new arrangements.
The shifting topography, while keeping you on your toes, sadly doesn’t really add much to the gameplay. I was pretty pleased with myself at first, managing to find each and every note and scrap of paper in the near-dark conditions without missing any. Later I realized that the game was literally leading me to them in order; if I moved past one, I would stumble across it again three rooms down the line, until I finally picked it up. This meant I could stop searching so hard in every nook and cranny; exploration was, in effect, rendered null and void – the game would eventually lead me to everything I needed without any effort on my part.
This mechanic all but destroys the game’s only real puzzle, where you are tasked with finding different pieces of a chess game. Hektor’s penchant for throwing what you need into your path, no matter how many times you are attacked and killed in the process, reduces this puzzle to busywork. I just walked aimlessly around until I either a) found a piece and returned it to the chessboard, or b) was killed and sent back to start the cycle all over again. The latter was actually more efficient than trying to find the four or five pieces needed and return them to the room with the chessboard (which itself constantly switches locations) between each trip, all without randomly crossing paths with the mutated creature hunting me down during this part of the game.
Speaking of which, there are two types of encounters you’ll face, one an eerie but otherwise harmless creature called a ghast, which floats toward you as you approach, screaming, and the other a lethal four-armed beast that cannot be defeated and kills in two or three hits. At first I tried running from this menace, which, in near darkness and a shifting layout was basically impossible. But before long I figured why bother, since inventory items persist after death and a new layout would just put me that much closer to my next objective. If nothing else, death would at least give me a few minutes’ rest before the monster picked up my trail again. So other than having to endure a constant string of jump-scares every time I was spotted, there was no reason to even attempt to outrun the beast.
Still, something would happen every now and then to make my flesh crawl. Sometimes the ambiance was enough, full of disquieting noises and whispers. Other times a sudden swelling of music would make me tense up in anticipation of something lunging my way from around the next corner. And as oppressive as the darkness was, it led to my fair share of checking over my shoulder – just in case. With my thorough adventurer’s mentality, painstakingly checking every shelf, locker, and desk for something useful (at least at first), it took me a good six hours to make my way to the credits, which came without warning and offered no real payoff to the whole experience. When it did happen, the finale came as a sweet relief; even after my first few hours, I already found myself hoping for a swift end to this dull and dreary game.
In a myriad of ways, Hektor simply falls short of the high-water mark of an enjoyable game. You cannot see enough of your surroundings to navigate effectively, much less appreciate them. Not that you could navigate, what with the shifting architecture all around. But even better visuals wouldn’t count for much with no coherent story to put them into context. And even the game’s most compelling concept ended up working against it, providing a crutch rather than a challenge. Learning that dying and starting at a checkpoint was actually a more efficient way to progress put a final damper on the things that go bump in Hektor’s night.