Developer: Paul Helman
Release Date: October 21, 2020
Reviewed On: Switch
Publisher: 505 Games
Horace is a game that, just based on its name alone, commands attention and respect. The key artwork doesn’t do it any favors, and you wouldn’t be faulted for not giving it a second look. The initial impression is that of a pixel indie game starring some Lego-looking robot, but this automation ends up being more C3PO than Danish plastic. A platformer at its core, this is a special experience from the mind of creator Paul Helman, one that celebrates the fine art of video games while also deep-diving into the human condition.
For those who’ve seen their fair share of movies, Horace takes after the oft-forgotten sci-fi movie Bicentennial Man (1999) starring the late Robin Williams. Much like the plot, our titular hero, Horace, finds himself a helper to a wealthy family, who then gradually forges a meaningful relationship with his owner and the rest of the household. In learning his duties and purpose, he also becomes rather self-aware and develops a fascination for the world around him.
For Horace, it really becomes about learning what it means to be human and understand the human condition’s plight. In understanding life and mortality, he also explores art in the form of books and television. Still, like many of us, he quickly realizes just how remarkably brilliant and unprecedented video games can be as a form of art and expression. Horace definitely has the right idea, as video games are undoubtedly the coolest thing humans ever invented bar none.
Even when exploring such deep and philosophical themes, Horace spends considerable time highlighting and celebrating video games’ brilliance. Horace himself quickly becomes a passionate gamer like most of us. It references seminal classics such as Pong and Space Harrier and occasionally introduces playable mini-games based on them. This sincere and heartfelt tribute to video games is something Horace achieves well without overdoing it, even when the game needs to establish its own narrative and build its own game design.
The first few chapters of Horace function largely as a tutorial. Still, you can’t help but immerse into the fascinating setup as you get acquainted with the protagonist and enjoy his profound observations of the world and human nature. Something is charming about Horace’s design, especially when he smiles at others. His voice acting, although monotone and flat, somehow conveys genuine range and personality. Once you get through the early chapters, the game suddenly takes a fascinating turn, as Horace is forced to leave his comfort zone and take on the big bad world.
Horace is a platformer for the most part but with plenty of inventive ideas in its execution. The core 2D mechanics are on point, as Horace has a certain weight and inertia that makes him easy to control. The game’s early stages are all about navigating obstacles and avoiding danger. Soon enough, though, Horace must be more confrontational, and the game builds up to its more chaotic moments. The core mechanical twist is walking on walls and ceilings, which creates some inventive and challenging platforming situations. The game can be very tough, but the checkpoints are frequent enough to make any situation solvable.
Although the adventure begins fairly linearly, it eventually takes on a semi-open world structure. Horace finds himself exploring uncharted territories and doing the best he can to help strangers along the way. The open-ended nature can be a bit daunting and confusing at first, but it manages to instill a sense of discovery and achievement even when it feels like you’ve taken a detour. It’s especially nice to experience some of the self-contained story arcs when Horace meets and helps new friends.
One of Horace’s early gameplay objectives takes a dig at the collection appeal that most platformers seem to rely upon. Instead of gems or coins, Horace is set on collecting garbage. One man’s trash is another robot’s treasure, as they say, but our hero is motivated by a desire to clean the world rather than hoarding junk. He’s led to believe that cleaning a million or so pieces of rubbish will fulfill his purpose and enable him to have a Pinocchio moment and become a real boy.
Perhaps at the end of the day, whether they are shaped like coins, gems, or whatever else, collectibles in video games are essentially as valuable as, well, junk. Despite this, there’s still something cathartic and addictive about collecting junk in Horace, as the objective of cleaning up the world and give the hero a sense of purpose is just so compelling. However, as the game progresses, it doesn’t take long for Horace to take on far more pressing goals than just cleaning up everyone’s mess.
When all the different gameplay and narrative ideas come together, Horace ends up being something far more remarkable than the sum of its many parts. Sure, there’s no shortage of artistically-charged and philosophically-driven indie platformers today. Still, much like the game hero, Horace manages to achieve this with a sincere and unpretentious tone. Things certainly start humble, but it organically builds up into some truly epic set pieces.
Horace can really surprise players when they least expect, as the game organically builds up to staggering levels of grandiose ambitions, both in its narrative pacing and especially in its level design. Horace may start as a humble and meek little robot, but as the journey progresses, he eventually rises to the occasion like he was Iron Man saving the universe.
Horace is a challenging platformer with strong core mechanics and inventive design, all of which gradually build up into something truly amazing and satisfying as a video game. Its homage to the heart and soul of video games as an art form and its deep insight into human nature all come together to make it an experience that is both memorable and important.
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