Review – Horace
The amount of games released on a daily basis on Steam means that I can barely keep track of the new titles available on the storefront. Be it good games, or more often than not, terrible ones. There’s always that one little and very obscure indie gem that shows up from out of nowhere and leaves you with your jaw on the floor after playing it, though. Last year, we had CrossCode. This year, the biggest contender for best game I had never heard of prior to playing it has to be Horace.
When I first heard of Horace, my initial thought was if this was some sort of reboot or reimagining of the classic ZX Spectrum franchise. Turns out that this title has nothing to do with those older games, even though a little homage to one of the first games in that series is actually present in here. Horace is a story-driven metroidvania, with a heavier emphasis on the story-driven bit. I can already imagine a good chunk of you telling yourselves that this is just another indie metroidvania with retro-inspired visuals and that there’s nothing new about it. Well, there’s a lot more in here than meets the eye.
You control Horace, a little robot who’s “adopted” by a rich British family in order to help doing chores around their house. The initial premise sounds an awful lot like the first part of Isaac Asimov’s novel The Bicentennial Man, which would later become a movie starring Robin Williams. I don’t want to tell a lot more than that because there’s a lot more to be unveiled throughout this story. It’s best to experience Horace while knowing as little as possible of what happens throughout its magnificent plot.
Man, I wasn’t ready for all the emotions Horace had to offer. The game is occasionally a comedy, with some quirky British humor. It’s also an innocent fantasy tale about a tiny robot who wants to become and be recognized as “a boy”. Finally, it’s also a drama. A heavy and emotional drama. Horace shows no mercy when it comes to portraying some heavier elements such as war, death, existentialism, poverty, and so on. The game shoves all of these heavier elements at you without a second thought, but given how our character is such an innocent and naive little being who looks at the world with the least malicious eyes in the universe, it makes everything quite easy to digest. Expect a handful of punches right in the feels, though.
Horace isn’t only strong in its story aspect, however. This is no walking simulator, this is a fully-fledged platformer with some very unique gameplay ideas. Its first chapters are mostly story-heavy and serve mostly to introduce you to a handful of characters and teach you how to control Horace, as well as the game’s main objective: cleaning the world and collecting things. Horace’s main goal is to “collect a million things” in order to fulfill a wish, and no matter what goes on in the main story, as heavy and gruesome as it can be, that will always be the element that drives Horace forward.
Once you finish the first couple of chapters, the overworld becomes a lot more open, and you’re introduced to Horace‘s main gameplay innovation: gravity-based platforming. Horace’s boots allow him to walk on walls, as well as the ceiling, allowing him to avoid obstacles and reaching other platforms by jumping at specific angles. Think of it as a mix between the gameplay of Gravity Rush, Etherborn, and the inverted gravity sections from Super Mario Maker. It sounds complex, and it actually looks complex at first, but the game does an excellent job at teaching you how to master its mechanics. The phenomenal level design also helps. A lot.
You’ll grab other items throughout the world, be it keys or special clothes that allow Horace to perform other abilities, but the gravity-based platforming is the game’s bread and butter. Combat isn’t a focus here, either. Horace is an innocent little robot in a land where all other robots are killing machines and his focus is to “collect a million things”. Dying is also penalty-free, as Horace will immediately respawn at the beginning of a platforming section if he drowns or touches a trap, such as a bolt of electricity or a bonfire. Think of the platforming as what Celeste and The End is Nigh provide, but in a much more forgiving manner. The game is challenging when it needs to be, but it’s not meant to be frustrating.
Horace also features a wide assortment of mini-games that are meant to pay homage to classics of the Atari, 8-bit and 16-bit eras. You’ll find everything from Pong to Afterburner clones. Those games aren’t deep, acting more as extra arcade segments to provide a little bit of variety whenever the platforming (or the heavy storytelling) gets a bit too overwhelming. They are quite replayable, however.
Finally, there’s the game’s presentation. Simply put, it’s fantastic. It’s all retro-inspired, but it doesn’t look cheap. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. You can see that a lot of effort has been put in order to make the world and characters of Horace look as vivid and relatable as possible, even if it’s just a bunch of 16-bit sprites. Even though the sprites look somewhat simplistic, the characters manage to convey the appropriate emotions whenever needed. I do have one gripe with the game’s design choices, however. It constantly zooms in too close to everyone’s faces, making them look extremely stretched as a result. It’s something you can get used to after a while, but it acts as a disservice to how gorgeous the overall visuals actually are.
The best thing about Horace, without a doubt, is its sound department. Both the soundtrack and voice acting are fantastic. The soundtrack is comprised of a variety of tunes from all kinds of genres, all converted into MIDI samples. The game always plays the most appropriate kind of tune for any specific situation, be it a classical piece or an original tune. There are moments in which the game will throw a rock tune at you, as well as moments in which you’ll listen to 16-bit recreations of eternal pieces such as “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
Surprisingly, the voice acting is what steals the show and I’m actually impressed that I’m saying this, as Horace is a robot… with a robotic voice. Horace always speaks in a monotone voice, but his innocent delivery and the game’s overall fantastic script are more than enough to captivate you from the moment he is assembled for the first time.
I almost feel bad for not knowing about Horace prior to playing it. I have no idea why not a lot of people are talking about it. This isn’t just a very good metroidvania with a (very interesting) gravity-based twist in its gameplay. This is a delightful character piece that knows when to be funny, when to be sweet, and most importantly, when to be emotional without looking forced. It’s a game that captivates you from the moment the story begins. This is one of the best games of 2019 and one of the best independent games I have ever played. I implore for you to give Horace a chance. You most certainly won’t regret it.
The pixel work in this game is spot-on. The environments are gorgeous and the characters manage to convey emotions even though they’re comprised of a few pixels. The game’s focus on zooming in on those faces at all times gets tiresome after a while, though.
The gravity-based platforming is unique and just moderately challenging. It makes you want to try again even after dying a few times. There are also some segments paying homage to classic games of a few decades ago and they get the job done gameplay-wise.
The soundtrack is spectacular. The game always plays the most appropriate kind of tune for any specific situation, be it a classical piece or an original tune. Horace’s voice acting is also fantastic, given the context.
Horace features fantastic level design and great controls, but it’s the story that makes this game an absolute must-have. It’s funny when it needs to be, sweet when it needs to be, and an absolute emotional punch in the stomach more often than not.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Horace is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Horace was provided by the publisher.