The last time we saw acclaimed indie developers Blendo Games, it was nearly four years ago when they released Thirty Flights of Loving. And to go into this review with an honest opinion, I really did not like that game, if you can even call it a game. I know practically every other critic adored it, calling it an achievement in non-linear storytelling and narrative in video games, but the whole thing felt too short, linear and required so little input from the player, even as a walking simulator, that it didn’t even feel worth the five dollars. Now if any of you enjoyed it, that’s fine, the appeal is still there. But I guess the point is that when Blendo announced their follow-up, Quadrilateral Cowboy, the first thought to appear was that practically any sort of actual game this time around would be a vast improvement. Now imagine the feeling of surprise when discovering that not only is Quadrilateral Cowboy an improvement, but a truly terrific first-person puzzle game overall.
Taking place in the same universe as Thirty Flights of Loving and its predecessor, Gravity Bone, Quadrilateral Cowboy casts you as a hacker in a trio of thieves who carry out elaborate heists for the highest bidder. Using a virtual reality setup, your job is go in and plan out each move by using your portable computer and a variety of devices to code your way through each obstacle, complete the objective, and make your way to the extraction point. All made trickier by having to enter actual computer commands on the oddly high-tech yet antiquated equipment given to you.
Indeed, the first thing that jumps out at you in Quadrilateral Cowboy are the highly stylized and unique visuals. The whole retro sci-fi look with a blocky cartoon twist has been a signature of Blendo’s work so far, but it’s here where it feels the most appropriate. Airships and hover scooters float miles above the ground, music comes out of portable vinyl records similar to BioShock Infinite’s voxophones, pneumatic tubes deliver messages to you, all while people live and enjoy what they can in a scrappy, somewhat dystopian set of houses with loads of scenery to interact with; it’s all just an innovative, vibrant and colorful delight, creating a truly unique take on cyberpunk. The use of early 20th century music is more of a mixed bag and doesn’t exactly suggest “epic heists,” but it still has its moments.
Your tools of the trade include a set of electronics straight out of the 1980s, including briefcases with remote-controlled guns, cylindrical RC robots, CRT monitors to view them with, and a DOS operating system that handles it all. The gameplay is unique and takes some initial getting used to at first, but becomes easy to play with and most importantly, feels fun. Throwing down a PC and monitor, then entering a set of commands while looking around to check your remote-controlled viewpoints and occasional instructions is surprisingly enjoyable, and controls quite beautifully, with the id Tech 4 engine being a perfect fit for everything.
The real beauty in Quadrilateral Cowboy, though, lies in the level design. Each stage is a bit short, but rewards you for checking out the area, properly planning things out, then executing everything at just the right moment. Several security systems are on timers, so you have to be quite precise with when you execute each command and be able to instinctively leap away from your monitor in order to get through the now-clear area with a brief window, but you’re still given plenty of time to go at your own pace (unless you’re going for a record). New abilities and gear are introduced at a regular speed, and you’re given all the time needed to test each tool out.
Eventually, you have to master stringing together more complex chains of commands in order to trigger set orders. But unlike other games such as Hack ‘n’ Slash where things sort of just turn into full-on programming that feels more like work, Quadrilateral Cowboy manages to still keep it all simple yet tricky, creating a perfect level of challenge that gradually rises at a steady rate as you advance. It’s a game that rewards deduction, timing, and reflexes, with each new section of the heist proving to be more elaborate in such a way that makes you want to tackle it even more.
The narrative is bit more bare-bones here, but does quite a lot with a little. Dialogue is absent, and text is kept to a minimum, but various interludes and little details go a long ways towards world-building, and you really do get a sense of camaraderie among our band of thieves as things play out over each new job. At one moment, you simply play a game of badminton in between the jumps into VR, and it really is a precious moment that adds a lot. Throw in a cute little sense of humor at times, and this ramshackle world actually ends up being quite inviting after a while.
So Quadrilateral Cowboy was shaping up to be a truly fresh and amazing cyberpunk adventure, and an overall astounding puzzle game. But – and this is kind of a big but – without trying to spoil anything, a little after the halfway mark is passed, an event occurs and suddenly you’re thrown an entire set of at least four new mechanics all at once, now having to command multiple characters throughout heists as you have them properly trigger events at the right time for the other to pass. In fact, Quadrilateral Cowboy pretty much shifts entire sub-genres at this point, instead morphing into something more akin to a full-on puzzle-platformer.
Now, it’s not like the rest of the game from this point onward is any any bad. It’s still has a lot (if not mostly all) of the previous strengths, obviously, the new mechanics are easy to learn, and your new capers are still an enjoyable romp that also reward brains and precision. But compared to the leisurely programming-based delight that came before it (which now feels abandoned a bit), Quadrilateral Cowboy’s second half can’t help but feel like a step backwards, good as it is. It doesn’t help that things are now saddled with awkward controls in the form of having to fly around and take pictures as you case the area, or tedious fast-forwarding sections that occur when you switch to another player. Still, even if the game falters slightly when it hits the middle, each section has its own charms and comes together to create an overall amazing experience, albeit a bit of an odd one.
Despite a mind-boggling choice to switch things up drastically midway, Quadrilateral Cowboy is an innovative puzzler that plays with both the angles of hacking and heist films in a terrific way, making for something that those who enjoy brain-teasers with a bit of spice will enjoy. The wait for this one was indeed worth it in the end, so prepare to fire up that black-and-white monitor and enjoy this twisted little potential gem as you experience the best that gleefully outdated cyberpunk tech has to offer.