Remember way back to those halcyon days for gaming on Kickstarter, when that barely-conceived adventure was pitched with no tangible plan and no actual assets yet still proceeded to rake in millions of crowdfunding dollars? Yes, that was a mighty impressive success story for Hiveswap.
[Cue sound of crickets…]
Oh, you thought perhaps I meant that Schafer guy? Well, the Double Fine Adventure may have hogged all the internal genre headlines at the time, but not long after came Andrew Hussie and his own campaign for an old-school point-and-click based on his popular web comic, Homestuck. While the adventure community may have stood around wondering what all the fuss was about (if they heard about it at all), the cartoon’s many devoted fans managed to chip in almost 2½ million dollars to see the franchise brought to life.
But then came the silence. If you thought the Broken Age delays were bad, that was nothing compared to the sparsity of updates from the Homestuck camp, and when the first details emerged, we found out that production of the game had changed hands and that the re-christened Hiveswap had become episodic (likely consisting of four installments). Ugh. Still, slowly but more-or-less surely from that point on, progress was made until the big day arrived for Act 1 a full five years after the game was announced.
All that’s not to cast aspersions on the developers. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about indie game creation, it’s that it is anything but an exact science and is almost guaranteed to encounter unexpected challenges, multiple missed deadlines, and much tighter budgeting than originally planned. It’s the nature of the business, and especially so for inexperienced teams like Hiveswap’s What Pumpkin Studios. And yet it’s important background, all leading up to the obvious question: Was it worth the wait (so far)?
I confess to knowing absolutely nothing about the Homestuck comic before this, and to be honest, a quick glance through the online archives didn’t much impress me. Perhaps it’s just not for me, or maybe it’s an acquired taste, but what I saw was a manic, crudely-drawn and partially-animated interactive story that was kind of all over the place. I can totally see that formula working for a web comic specifically designed for rapid-fire speed and daily audience participation. But those are probably the last characteristics you’d want from a full-fledged adventure game. So something had to give.
As it turns out, Hiveswap is very traditional in most respects, with its point-and-click interface and loads of player interaction, character dialogue, and actual puzzles to solve. In fact, it’s even more ambitious than most adventures, with multiple playable characters along the way. And while there are clearly hints of its MS Paint origins on display (mainly in the character models), the artistic design here is gorgeously drawn and generously animated. The music, too, is notable, if heavily over-used, giving the game a much more polished cinematic approach than its web-based forebear. Yet the game hasn’t totally abandoned its roots either, with just enough reserved mayhem to tap into those same manic sensibilities. These can feel awkwardly shoehorned in, but my main lament to this point is that it just isn’t very amusing for a game based on a comic. Wryly-written, yes. Laugh-out-loud funny, no.
The story begins peacefully enough with sister and brother Joey and Jude, respectively, playing giddily with the family dog in the backyard. And then all hell breaks loose. Monsters! Seemingly out of nowhere – but likely from the suspicious-looking castle seen off in the distance – a bunch of blobby creatures with too many limbs and gaping green mouths storm the house, causing Joey to flee inside for shelter while her brother holes up in his secret treehouse outside. Safe for now but not for long, Joey must find a way to contact Jude, and then make her way up to the attic. Easier said than done, especially when the power goes out, but adventure gamers would have it no other way.
Unlike so many story-driven releases these days, Hiveswap is a real, live adventure game. (No wonder it needed crowdfunding!) That means hotspots to click on, items to collect, and obstacles to overcome. These start out simple enough, like finding batteries for a flashlight, easing players into the simple mouse-based interface. Interactive items are aplenty, and clicking one will yield either an observation or a choice of actions, where applicable. Once you’ve established radio contact, you’ll also frequently interact with your sibling, making up for the fact that you spend most of your time alone. More than making up for it, in fact: this game is talkie, which turns out to be both a strength and arguably its biggest weakness.
I applaud the extra effort put into non-mandatory elements, and the commentary often provides insightful character background, whether highlighting a broken family’s dysfunction, Jude’s dorky neuroticism, or Joey’s disdain for their slovenly babysitter. There’s a lot you can learn about a household from discarded Chinese takeout cartons, a bulletin board full of newspaper conspiracy clippings, and a trophy room full of “inventive” taxidermy. Who knew? And what you can’t learn from the environmental storytelling, a peek at Joey’s diary (if you can get it unlocked) provides even more personal detail.Continued on the next page...