Reviewed on: PC
Publisher: Assemble Entertainment
Developer: Solar Powered Games
Available on: PC
Strategy, survival-horror, and tower defence. Three genres, that on paper at least, look like they'd go well together. And they might, just not in Highrisers.
The first game by Solar Powered Games, being both kickstarted and covered by Steam Greenlight, this ambitious melding of ideas fails to stick the landing on even the most crucial elements of game design.
In Highrisers, players control 4 unique characters who land in a helicopter at the top of a highrise (hence the name) and are tasked with balancing their limited day-time hours between resource scavenging to repair the helicopter and preparation for attack.
Because at night, the dreamers come out.
What are the dreamers? No idea, but they're ugly, hungry, and coming for your bodies. So you need to escape asap before you're overwhelmed.
It's a simple premise. Yet Highrisers is crammed so full of different diluted mechanics that any of its nuances drown beneath a sea of tedious micromanagement and baffling design choices that could've been an oversight but feel intentional. This extends to the point where you might never get to the horror, strategy, and tower-defence elements because the survival part is so aggravatingly annoying.
It's never pleasant to criticise indie projects, especially ones that so clearly have passion behind them, so let me get my positives out the way first. Highrisers is a gorgeous looking game. The pixel art style is some of the best I've seen and really lends itself well to the tone of the game. On top of this, the few animations present are top-notch and smooth as butter (I particularly enjoyed the shake animation).
The concept itself is also quite clever, harkening back to the old zombie movie trope of the cast escaping at the last minute on a helicopter. Highrisers essentially asks the question, what happens then? Sadly, like a lot of those kinds of questions, they remain unanswered for a reason, and this brief list is where Highrisers positive qualities end.
I'll be honest, I like a game with challenge. I don't mind being dropped into a new game with minimal direction. Games like Dark Souls really fill this niche well and they work because, while they don't hold your hand, their barrier to entry isn't ludicrously high and every time you fail you know why you failed even if it's frustrating.
Highrisers barrier to entry is so skewed towards bad that I'm surprised anyone gets past the first hour, which is weird to say given that it plunges you straight in with a tutorial.
A really short tutorial. The worst tutorial I have ever experienced in a game. I'm not joking. It is utterly abysmal.
Players are presented with the above screen and are then walked through the first steps of starting any game. Now, you'd expect this to walk you through all the important game mechanics, teach you how the combat works, and perhaps run you through a simplified version of getting the helicopter fixed before depositing you on another skyscraper and telling you to take it from there.
Well, it doesn't. It covers the core gameplay loop of scavenging, crafting, and repairing the helicopter in brief with no context before abruptly taking you back to the menu.
In short, the player is going in with less than half the knowledge they need to succeed, which would be bad enough, except the mechanics it does teach are so unintuitively bad that the player might not even explore the mechanics they missed out on.
Let's touch on that core gameplay loop I just mentioned. Like most survival games, players need to explore their environment in order to find resources to craft tools and repair items. Seems simple, right?
So it completely baffles me that the Highrisers devs have missed so many crucial quality of life elements in their scavenging, crafting mechanics and UI in general that are present in other games.
Let's start with the movement controls. Characters are moved around individually by clicking on the space you want them to move to. But to select a new character, you can't do that by clicking on their model. You have to click on their portrait card or press 1, 2, 3, or 4, on the keyboard. Normally, the keys would be fine, but in Highrisers, you don't use the keyboard for anything else, so unless you want to keep making excessive mouse movements you'll need to have your hand uncomfortably hovering over the keys.
That might seem like a small thing but in eight hours of playing, I failed to break the habit of trying to click on characters to switch and only resulted on bring the current character I was controlling to my mouse location. And it quickly became a problem in other important areas.
In general, you're going to being a lot of clicking and dragging. As the key bindings are minimal to non existent, you be clicking at least two to three buttons on a row to interact with anything on screen. It's tiresome at best, frustratingly time-consuming at worst.
But then you throw the scavenging and crafting mechanics into the mix.
For context, all items in-game wind up being laid on the floor or stored in containers. When you empty or break down said containers, an item transfer menu doesn't come up, nor do the items go into your inventory. Instead, you empty the container out and everything gets dumped on the floor at your feet, and I mean everything.
Within five minutes, the entire floor is littered with items behind one another and across the screen. And because another missing mechanic is any form of auto-gather, organise highlighting tool, you'll have to pick every item up one by one.
This is where the movement mechanics become an issue again.
You click on the item you want and the character picks it up, you then click on the item beneath or behind it and nothing happens.
Why? Because your character is in the way and thinks they're being directed to the spot they're stood on. What you end up doing is having to click off to one side, move, click on the next item, move again, rinse and repeat until you picked everything up.
Do you see what I mean about excessive clicking yet?
This is compounded by the fact that characters only have 10 inventory slots, and as far as I could tell, no way to increase it via bags or otherwise. There's also no storage containers to store things in. Once you empty one, that's it, it can only be broken down into parts that you're then left to pick up.
Thus, most of the game becomes tedious busy work as you spend your time traipsing up and down floors to drop items in a pile on the floor of your base in a horrible pixel-lated mess. And you have to drop them one by one as there's no quick drop or auto-stack button.
This finally brings me to crafting and repairing. In order to craft or repair something, you need the parts to do so.
Right, makes sense and follows pretty much every other survival game out there.
Like most games, you select the repair task to complete or recipe you want to make and this then lists the parts you need.
But problems arise straight off the bat.
Firstly, it's doesn't tell you if you have any of the parts you need, be they in your inventory or on the ground at your feet.
Which, fair enough, you should be able to work it out.
Except, oh yeah, you've just deposited everything on the floor in a mismatched pile.
So unless you want to spent forever organising your floor garbage into piles and zone, you have to shift through everything to find what you need, usually only to find that you don't have everything and are forced to go back into scavenging hell to get it. And while there are tooltips, these are nightmarishly small and some don't even have item names.
And don't think just because another character has what you need in their inventory that you can craft what you need. There is no shared inventory, and worse, no way to transfer things between inventories, which means?
You guessed it! Putting stuff on the ground to then have to pick it back up again.
Then to top it all off, once someone has selected a recipe to craft they can't craft anything else until they've crafted that first thing,
The sheer mind-numbing tedium of frustrating and needless micro-management is somewhat difficult to get across in words.
There's more I could go into but in short, the controls simply do not compliment the gameplay.
What's worse though is that I'm not sure if these are oversights or if it's intentionally designed this way for the sake of challenge. Challenge is fine, just not when it's arbitrary or bad controls.
For those curious about the mechanics the tutorial missed out. Here they are!
Combat: A crucial part of most games, but especially in a lot of survival games. Unfortunately, the combat in Highrisers is an auto-attacker. An auto-attacker. Don't get me wrong, auto-attacker style games can be done right, especially if the game is built around it and fleshes the mechanic out (see loop hero), but with Highrisers, it just feels tacked on.
Hunger: A pointless and aggravating mechanic that adds nothing to the gameplay besides another arbitrary bar you need to keep up to avoid death. Put succinctly, your hunger bar drains over time so you need to find food to replenish it. There is not enough food available, you can't grow your own, and you can't take back plants you find.
Abilities: Every character has their own skill tree, which I only found out when the skill menu opened up at the end of the first day and wouldn't let me leave until I'd picked something. Are the skills helpful? I think so, but I can't say I noticed too much.
In case it wasn't obvious, I did not enjoy my time with Highrisers.
There are many other things I could discuss but this review is long enough so I'll just list them:
· The music is obnoxious and doesn't really fit the tone.
· There is an utter lack of game options.
· All 4 characters are pre-set and can't be customised.
· Characters say something each time you click so after a minute you've heard every voice line twice to three times over.
· All the characters are some form of tiresome cliché.
· Many, many bugs and crashes.
There's a very distinct feeling that Highrisers is still in alpha, there's a lot that needs fleshing out, fixing, updating, or outright overhauling.
I think the best moment I had, more because of the sheer ludicrousness of the situation, was when I managed to craft a spear in time to fend off a dreamer, only for it to fall on the ground after crafting rather than into my hand or empty inventory. This lead to frantic panic clicks to grab it and then the untimely death of the rebellious teen girl.
As I said, it's never pleasant to be critical of Indie games, but in Highrisers case, it's in desperate need of some tough love.
Thankfully though, everything I've mentioned can be easily remedied. Add an auto-pick up function for items, let me highlight what items I need for my chosen recipe, overhaul the crafting menus, automate scavenging, and for the love of god add in keyboard controls.
Because if all these problems are addressed, I can see Highrisers becoming an excellent and unique game.