Review: HoPiKo

No matter how much we may curse and wish all manner of ill on those game levels we just can’t beat or get past, we still find ourselves returning to them. Be it habit or an undying will to succeed, the recent wave of independently-made and inoffensively low-budget titles on console and PC alike — this side of a From Software game — have seemingly tapped into a previously coy love for self-masochistic challenge. Super Meat Boy, 10 Second Ninja, even the less extroverted like VVVVVV, find themselves in a peculiar but fond niche of titles that almost always walk that fine line between entertainingly frustrating and frustratingly entertaining. And are better for it.

Laser Dog Games’ HoPiKo is but the latest (albeit in the sense it’s finally made its way onto console and PC alike having skirted the mobile space previously) in a string of muscle memory-bound, side-scrolling platformers bound to infuriate as much splendidly satisfy. Yet to brand it with that most common of indie genres, would potentially run the risk of deterring many from one of the game’s unique — and all-round, rather engaging — mechanics when it comes to its structural make-up. It can indeed be considered a platformer, but a variant of which you might not see in the way Black Dog manage, in the most part, to successfully integrate.

HoPiKo is a game all about speed and accuracy, that part you might have already guessed. The main catch to the game’s blocky, abstract art-style and retro aesthetic though is that rather than levels playing out one after another, players are required to take on five mini-levels upon initiation. To put it another way, five enclosed parts to one given “stage” across five similarly-themed but gradually more-challenging “Worlds”. While the progression may feel fairly straight-forward, what’s not so straight-forward — and thus incurs that clever yin-yang of pleasure and pain — is that you’re required to beat all five sections in that given run-through. Fail, be it in the second section or right at the end of the fifth and it’s back to the start of the first sequence to attempt them all over again.

HoPiKo Review Screenshot
To do this, players take control of the last remaining eponymous creature in a digital reality filled with moveable platforms and infested more so with obstacles that can kill you upon touch. The majority of these micro-levels often average out around eight to ten seconds (in some cases, not even a few seconds if you know what you’re doing) to beat and requires a careful use of aiming as well as quick reflexes to jump and hop one’s way to the end goal which comes in the form of a digital virus that must be hit to get to the next microcosm of gameplay. There’s no doubting the ferocity and hectic pace at which this plays out, but the great thing is that after the tutorial level and possibly the first few segments, most players will instantly catch onto the simple controls of aiming and flicking one’s character from platform to platform. What’s more, they’ll understand that HoPiKo‘s means of learning is more trial-and-error and remembering the correct order of split-second decisions, as opposed to pure skill alone.

But for such a tense and gruelling premise, the balance between physical reflexes and mental agility is met surprisingly well from a technical stand-point — requiring no more than a solitary control stick to line up shots and then catapult your way through the manic zero-gravity space. It doesn’t take long for the upbeat and high-octane pace of HoPiKo to click and aided by its rhythmic chiptune soundtrack, quickly envelops the player with an unprecedented feeling of speed and would-be invincibility. Even upon temporary failure — be it misjudging a timed leap, of which there are plenty, getting the angle of trajectory wrong or merely waiting too long to make a decision given you only have a few seconds in-between moves — HoPiKo never beats the player over the head with his or her misfortune. Transitioning between levels or reattempts is fast and welcomingly instantaneous, barely wasting time in getting players back into the action.

A lot like the Warioware series — which itself can be regarded as a subversion of sorts on the otherwise Mario Party-esque strategising of party games — HoPiKo constantly finds new ways to shake up proceedings. Be it rotating platforms, exploding platforms, platforms that rotate based on where you’ve landed, even adding new foes to avoid, HoPiKo desires, at points, to be approached in an erratic fashion just to keep up with its increasing tempo. Especially if one is a completionist (thus gambling with the prospect of restarting the whole segment all over again as noted), if anything, it’s absolutely paramount. And therein lies the frustrating joy of a game like HoPiKo whereby muscle memory — and the desire to get past an annoying segment for the hundredth time — begins to betray you and the most simple of movements end up causing more problems than they should.

HoPiKo Review Screenshot 2
While this isn’t particularly unique to a game of this calibre, HoPiKo makes sure to structure its microcosms of level design so as to keep players constantly, anxiously, guessing as to what comes next. But it ultimately leaves the inevitable satisfaction on finishing one of the game’s fifty-or-so sequences, that bit more sweeter and it’s a simple emotional trigger that Laser Dog do an incredible job at architecting.Push past the building impatience and anger at continuing failure and you’ll find the game’s rather simple-but-effective gameplay will have you triumph in no time. The satisfaction only grows in scale should you manage to conquer the additional hardcore and bonus modes — the latter of which has you riding through Game Boy-colored channels with little traction and littler time to react.

Outside of this novel aesthetic change though, little much of HoPiKo drastically changes to better marry its inside-a-video-game concept. Aside from a color palette swap with every new World unlocked, most of the environments look exactly the same which sadly feels like a missed opportunity on making its aesthetic feel fleshed out and coming across less like the smartphone-contained game it was born from. At some points, the baffling choice of colors (yellow, black and white a notable example) end up becoming so much of a deterrence and eyesore mid-flow, for a game requiring one’s full attention, it can get rather distracting. Other notable misfortunes lay with the slingshot-style controls not immediately working upon level start-up; same said for the in-game sound which fails to even play on rare occasions.

HoPiKo Review Screenshot 3
Closing Comments:

Even with its safe confinement to a generally unchanged art-style and environmental aesthetic, HoPiKo remains enjoyably engaging and challenging from beginning to tantalizing end. With its reflex-platforming structure that persists and thankfully evolves over its fifty-stage length — finding sinisterly clever ways to have its players slip up yet remain far from unjustly punishing — HoPiKo is a game that will sink its ruthless claws into the heads of many twitch-savvy players and never let go. An unmissable treat for the self-masochistic of folks out there, Laser Dog’s venture away from the comfort of mobile gaming isn’t the most substantial of deliveries, but is one of the more robust and satisfying.