Oh bullet hell games, how I do not miss thee.
Humans Must Answer, a kickstarter funded side-scrolling shooter, carries on a proud tradition of over the top humor that most independent games use to define themselves which is a solid practice, theoretically. A player can overlook a lot of flaws when they're having a fun or engaging time. The problem is that concept alone doesn't make a joke, especially when the concept is totally absent from the gameplay, simply the flavor text that never truly builds up to a punch line of any sort. Just a silly framework for an average game, a bullet hell game to be specific. Which isn't necessarily a problem but with humor falling through, a complete lack of insightful storytelling, you're left with gameplay. Humans Must Answer, however, can also only deliver on serviceable gameplay which follows yesterday's rules so precisely, they forget to do anything special to make gamers care about it today.
I say “bullet hell” but not in the way some may expect. The subgenre of side-scrolling shooters got its start in Japanese video games that focused on the design and flow of the bullets as works of art in of themselves. Extremely painful, frustrating, nigh-impossible-without-memorizing works of art. Humans Must Answer definitely follows difficulty and style but with the exception of certain bosses, they rarely ever become as intricate and visually stunning as bullet hells of past years. The backdrops and enemies are well rendered to be sure with a gloss most gamers have become accustomed to but something feels absent. The silly ideas that go nowhere, the mission briefings that lay out the most ham-fisted and lazy comedy imaginable, the intangible upgrade system, the long torturous levels of classic game design when coins fueled profits. Humans Must Answer lacks what's arguable the most important aspects of any independent gaming hope to breach players on a wide basis; creativity and personality.
The framework for Humans Must Answer is that of a crew of intelligent chickens going out to our solar system to recover a lost ship, utterly stunned by the technology humans have. They don't even realize it's by humans, this place is totally alien to them. Things develop later on but that doesn't even truly matter. The wacky ideas end once the game begins unless you count having hidden collectibles in each level be eggs as “wacky”. The concept isn't even exploited in any meaningful ways. The game isn't unique from any other side-scrollers except your ship is an eagle and there's a lot of eggs around. The upgrades and weapons don't reflect special origin, they just have scientist and military stereotypes dressed as chickens introduce them. The gags do work with limited success the first couple of times to be fair and I would be lying if I said the concept didn't get me excited. The problem is that repetition is the death of comedy with few exceptions and the constant death and memorization required for bullet hell games is a formula for comedic disaster, ruining what little character they had to begin with.
However, as many may be sure to call out, the setting and flavor text isn't important for this type of game and to give the developers credit, time away from shooting is short and to the point. It's still a little disappointing because the concept has a lot of potential, chickens coming back in the future to discover what we've done and genocide in their eyes mixed with the repetitive nature of bullet hell games could be something comedic but insightful. But fine, let's get into the gameplay. The very, very standard, side-scrolling shooting gameplay.
There is nothing wrong with functional design, I want to make that clear. Changing an age-old design is not always innovative. Sometime, old design polished to a sheen can make fantastic results. One of my favorite games in recent years is Hard Reset and that game, if not for it's jaw-dropping visuals, could have been an FPS in the nineties. It also would have been one of the best of its time because it took the simplicity of its design and focused on polishing. Every weapon felt different with intricate designs, animations, and unique feedback on the player, the world had a clear style that was varied yet never lost its identity, the sound design was impeccable and gave every enemy weight, the level design was open yet constrained to make the guided path of the player feel organic in ways I hadn’t seen since Half-Life 2. I'm not saying Humans Must Answer must measure up to Hard Reset but I'm trying to show that sticking to formula does not mean you have to be as basic and generic as Humans Must Answer.
Perhaps fans of this genre will pick up on nuances lost on me, I make no claim to be professional or even well read in side-scrolling shooters; especially the dark torture pit of bullet hell games. But I do claim to have some experience and in my experiences, Humans Must Answer stripped of it's wacky chicken costume and Kickstarter origins, would be a generic romp of the genre . The energy weapons, running on a regenerating power source, and bullet weapons, running on a finite reserve, feel identical. They have different graphics but their effects on enemies are the same, one just happens to do the job a bit faster. There's no predominate color theme, just basic HD graphics of slightly stylized robots in space, the golden eagle ship the only real spice to the mix, that look more at home on a budget XBLA title than a passionate Kickstarted game. The upgrade system also helps with armor, a slow-motion system, and the like but it feels inconsequential and limited with little tangible effect on animations or enemies. On top of that, the game's focus on resource management since later levels will require precise use of your every resource, the game's few options to vary gameplay are pressured to be reserved and contained for long periods, leaving you with the basic core of this genre.
Despite all the nasty things I've said, Humans Must Answer is by no means a bad game, just not an especially good one. For fans of the tough-as-nails side-scrolling shooters, especially of the bullet hell variety, there's no denying you'll enjoy Humans Must Answer; especially since so few games of this kind are made in the market today. But there's nothing else for everyone else. All the potential is right there on the surface but, like a mirage on the horizon, you're left with nothing new but the same old game you've encountered before. Even Magrunner, despite the harsh things I had to say about that, earnestly tried to take its ideas to their extreme. Humans Must Answer simply settles for yesterday's game in high definition, checking off the tropes of today's indie market, to be forgotten by players tomorrow.