It’s not often that a game comes along with an idea so elegant, yet so simple, that it seizes your attention and imagination as soon as you see it in action. SUPERHOT is a game where time only moves when you do, slowing to near-standstill until you move your character in any direction. This stroke of genius allows you to perform incredible feats of action, separated as you are from the limits of your reaction time. The only question was whether SUPERHOT Team could build a compelling game around that golden concept.
So, the core mechanics: while you’re still, time moves at a crawl- that largely pertains to enemies and their bullets. Move, and time moves as normal until you stop again- you can use this to your advantage to, say, zig-zag to dodge incoming bullets once you see their trajectory and outmanoeuvre enemies. Once you’re near enough to an enemy you can punch them to disorient them and make their weapon (often a gun) fly up in the air, which you can then catch and turn back on them.
Actions on your part- shooting, punching, grabbing items- nudge time forward a few milliseconds, which might be enough time for an unseen bullet to catch up to your one-hit-killed character. It also means you need to learn to lead your shots relative to where the enemy’s going to be. Luckily, enemies are killed by a single bullet or melee weapon hit, or three punches. Any holdable weapon or object- including guns- can be thrown at enemies to disorient them and make them drop their weapon, as well as to block incoming bullets. Sometimes you’re forced to turn the environment, as well as obvious weapons, against your aggressors to come out alive. All of this results in a system where you’re presented with dozens of options for experimentation in any given situation. Can I block that unavoidable bullet with a bullet of my own? Yes you can. Can I lure that enemy into friendly fire? Yes you can. Most importantly, can I slice airborne bullets with this katana? Yes. Yes, you can. It’s awesome.
You gain more abilities as the game goes on, but I won’t spoil them here. Mainly, though, you’ll be experimenting and finding out incredible new ways to combine your base skills and that variety only increases going into the late game.
There are three main guns- the pistol, the shotgun, and the automatic rifle, and they each behave differently whether they’re in your hands or enemies. I quickly learned to deal with shotgun-toting enemies with haste, both to get that deadly thing in my hands and to remove that threat from the map. The pistol is nice and accurate, as is the rifle which fires three bullets in succession for every shot- meaning you can put down several guys very quickly, but you’ll need to account for the continual march of time while you’re locked into shooting those bullets.
SUPERHOT’s tradeoff between the ease of dealing and suffering death means that things can get pretty tense, and very hard. Short levels and quick replays lend a sense of immediacy to the game, though. The sense of momentum and weight as well as the actual nature of gameplay makes it feel like you’re playing Hotline Miami through the eyes of a character in a Zack Snyder slow-down-speed-up fight scene.
SUPERHOT’s aesthetics also really, really work well for the game, in both an eye-catching and practical sense. The crisp visuals are colour-coded to keep things clear (a must for the hectic encounters); the environments are rendered in white, enemies in red, and weapons and useable objects in black. Black bullets leave a sharp red trail, making them pop vividly and obviously against the white background. The glass mannequin-styled enemies shatter when dispatched with bullets or melee, really giving emphasis to the sense of weight and motion. It also looks awesome.
Levels in the story mode are designed to feel like short encounters: get out of this lift alive; survive in this melee arena; take out everyone in a bar after taking out the barman. It’s a really cool way of injecting variety into the game, separating it into little bite-sized chunks ripe for oh-just-one-more play.
The story missions and plot are very reminiscent of January’s Pony Island. The narrative is that you’re on your computer, which has a ASCII style interface (see the pertinence of the Pony Island comparison?), and you’re playing a version of SUPERHOT that you’ve illicitly downloaded from the game company’s servers. Sadly there are no puzzles wrapped up in this interface; it’s just used as a base menu to select game modes from and receive narrative, mainly through the chat window. While SUPERHOT won’t win any awards for its writing, I thought it had a fitting and at times thought-provoking narrative that accompanied the story very well for its 2-3 hour duration, taking clever turns and employing some 4th-wall-breaking tricks that might have been more surprising if Undertale and Pony Island hadn’t stolen the 4th-wall cake so recently.
Those 2-3 hours are just the surface of the game, though; there’s a ton of stuff to do after the credits roll. Firstly there’s a challenge mode which offers up the same levels seen in the story mode but with a variety of changes. Katana Only mode only allows you to use a katana; no punches, guns, or throwing environmental objects, just death on the end of your swung or thrown blade. AD2013 mode lets you play through the story with the graphical style and rules of the original version of the game, out of the 2013 game jam that was its inception. There’s a good few challenge modes on offer alongside these, and I fully expect a community to form around the speed run modes.
Endless mode is another area I think the hardcore crowd will flock to. You’re dropped into an arena and simply kill enemies until you’re dead. I think this mode will be great for people who just want to plug away at a pure combat challenge, or just blow off some steam for a few minutes.
On completing a level in any mode you can review the replay of your performance to upload to SUPERHOT’s own social media site, Killstagram. It’s also a brilliant method of breaking up the action between levels, as well as showing you what a badass you were if you watch what you just did without all the time stops. You can edit the replay, uploading either a whole level’s worth of your skills or selecting a short section to gift to the world. There’s already some really great stuff up on Killstagram, if only to serve as a reminder of how much of a scrub I am compared with some people.
There’s even a couple of mini games hidden away in the menus that’ll distract you for a few minutes. A personal favourite of mine being Tree Guy, where you control a little character that needs to chop down a tree while avoiding its branches that descend along with the shortening tree trunk.
All these additions, large and small, mean that not only does the main story not overstay its welcome, but it can do so guiltlessly since you’re left with a substantial amount of game once you’ve polished off the levels for the first time. Each tightly crafted encounter already has a ton of replayability, but that’s expanded considerably with the chance to run at it again with completely different tactics available to you. It’s at once a great use of assets and a wonderful way to help people get their money’s worth out of the game after finishing the story experience.
SUPERHOT takes a great idea and runs the hell away with it. It’s an incredibly fun, attractive, narratively engaging and eminently repayable game that makes you feel like a grinning badass, and an experience that I find appeals to the reflexes and puzzle-solving mind at an extremely satisfying level. There’s a narrative reason (which I won’t spoil) why people are calling SUPERHOT “the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years”. I think that’s a label the game deserves.
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