Is there anything cooler than the perfect heist? Images of smooth, suave-looking operators taking things that don’t belong to them by always being the smartest people in the room have trained us to expect a lot of fun and adventure in a heist caper. Subverting those preconceptions, the brilliantly-named Quadrilateral Cowboy wants to take the coolness of the heist and make something decidedly nerdy out of it. The game walks you through nine different heists, but rather than a slick dude with sunglasses and charm to spare, you’re a computer hacker doing your thieving old-school techno-style. And in its early 1980s settings, there are no cool Graphical User Interfaces, no User Experience-focused apps to assist you. It’s just the raw black screen and monochrome characters of a computer geek’s terminal, and it’s an incredibly fun, though brief, experience—as long as you can stomach a fair bit of action-oriented gameplay, plus the overwhelmingly postmodern aesthetic that is a signature of indie developer Blendo Games.
All you need to know about the story of Quadrilateral Cowboy is that you play a hacker, because that’s really the extent of the background offered. There’s no greater reason for your escapades, no evil corporation that you’re trying to take out, no context at all for the missions. It appears that you’re part of a team, but the lack of effort and involvement from your teammates is actually a point of comic emphasis; if they’re visible at all between missions, they’re likely to be reading a magazine or tossing a tennis ball, and they have nothing to do in any way with the fulfillment of any mission.
At its core, Quadrilateral Cowboy is a thinking man’s first-person puzzle-platformer that takes place entirely in virtual reality projections where you “plan” your heists. Your character’s movement is fully controlled by WASD with crouch and jump keys, along with numerical keys (or the mouse wheel) used to select the inventory tools that you accumulate; mouse buttons are required only to deploy the items or pick them back up. The first, and most important, inventory item is your trusty “deck”, a handheld terminal that can be opened up on any floor or raised surface and used to control your other items or whatever nearby doors, lasers, cameras, etc. that you can hack into.
Most of the heists first begin with you gaining a new inventory item and thus a new mechanic. The simple use of the deck and the entry of basic commands to open doors or turn off security sensors powers you through the first theft in tutorial fashion. The second job introduces your weevil, a small robotic roving pet that can be dropped through small spaces such as gratings, and then controlled through your deck with a remote video screen accessory that shows what your weevil is seeing, to provide you visibility into unreachable areas and hack into faraway computer plugs. Another heist introduces a suitcase rifle, which once deployed will fire with laser-precise accuracy to press buttons or flip switches far away.
The robberies generally work in three stages, each one adding a gentle additional layer of complexity to the new mechanic you’re working with. The weevil, rifle, and other tools only work in conjunction with the commands you give them from your deck. The very first rifle-related mission might be as simple as aiming precisely enough, done through the use of pitch(x) and turn(x) commands (the x being a number variable) to shoot a button that opens a door. After you accomplish that, further complications are added such as using the wait(x) command (you can queue up multiple commands with waits between them) to pause long enough to move yourself into position to move through the open door. Setting long enough wait times between commands to give you a chance to establish your position is essential, since most doors and sensors only allow a three-second window before activating the security protocols, which will bring about a very quick turret-related death.
It can get even more complex: one of my favorite missions involved setting up the rifle, aiming it, and then setting the command to wait for me to get in position, fire at one button, wait a bit longer for me to get past the first door, then adjust the aim and pitch to fire at a second button, which shuts off the lasers for the three seconds I needed to get past that blockade and get to the treasure. You must get the entire sequence right or you’ll find yourself trapped or dead, either way requiring a restart of the mission. This is a game that rewards meticulous preparation for the sequence of actions necessary, and even with plenty of forethought, you’ll likely find that your initial wait(x) command was too short or your pitch(x) went too far, and small adjustments will be made after each death. These adjustments require patience and a certain affinity for this type of command line entry, so if you have no memory of a day before graphical operating systems, you may not connect with the experience on the same level that I did. Those who recall subscribing to magazines that listed the BASIC code for games, encouraging you to hand-enter that code and then save it to a cassette tape, will be met with a welcome breeze of nostalgia with every entered command.
Things get a little more intricate toward the end of the game, as your motley crew of hackers is disrupted by the game’s singular story beat (which really doesn’t carry any emotional weight, if it’s even intended to, since this is almost the polar opposite of a character-driven experience). After this, the heists are condensed into just one “stage”, but now you actually enter that stage as different individuals with different abilities, such as fitting through tiny crawl spaces, or sawing through locked doors. Your re-entry into these heist simulations as distinct characters “stacks” the actions of each onto the others. To illustrate, in one heist you first need to enter (beginning at zero time) and take care of the door with your current special ability in order to trigger the switch behind it. That switch can only stay activated for three seconds, so your second character (also starting from zero time) has to make a beeline straight for the lasers that are de-activated by the switch, and be ready to run through when the first character’s command processes.
All this added convolution serves more to emphasize the action and timing elements than thoughtful puzzling. It is often less intuitive, and occasionally inconsistent with its own in-game rules. For example, the “planner” character who can move anywhere with no gravity restrictions and appears to have no physical presence can still be killed by security gun turrets. The enjoyment of discovering new uses for your hacker tools is lost with more focus on trial and error, so from an adventure gamer’s perspective, I found the later stages to not be as enjoyable as the earlier ones.Continued on the next page...