A little over a year ago I got Antichamber in the Humble Indie Bundle 11. Bundle 11 is regarded by some (myself included) as one of the best bundles ever released by Humble Bundle due to the quality of all of the included games.
Antichamber was a lovely game that utilized smart coding to mess with the perceptions of players. Essentially, you traveled through non-Euclidean geometrical situations, such as making five right turns in the same hallway without looping back to your origin. You could also turn around and find the room behind you has completely disappeared.
So when I heard about Hektor (developed by Rubycone and published by Meridian4), I was excited to try it out. I was mainly sold on the game based on one sentence in the description on their Steam page:
Explore a world that literally moves with your every twist and turn, as corridors shift and change before your eyes.
That sounded an awful lot like Antichamber to me. The difference is that Hektor seemed to have more of a horror bent to it. The developer explicitly calls it a "psychological horror" game.
Hektor was indeed quite frightening ... at first. But Hektor eventually fell prey to the problems that all horror games succumb to—at a certain point the game stops becoming scary and starts becoming annoying. It's quite difficult to make a horror game that remains consistently frightening or unsettling while still remaining entertaining. Hektor has unfortunately failed in this regard.
Let's get the good stuff out of the way before I further express my disappointment. Graphically the game looks quite good. A lot of work was put into the visuals of the game, and some of tricks the developer employs relies on seamless integration of the component pieces so that the player doesn't notice. I only ever saw one misaligned floor texture in the short time it took me to complete the game's story.
The sound and music were also excellent at leaving me in a constant state of paranoia. Nothing felt out of place, and I really enjoyed the music specifically. (Hektor sells their soundtrack separately if you're so inclined to buy it.)
The story is about as dark as the game world. Hektor explores, in part, themes of sexual assault, psychological trauma, and how physical and mental abuse can be used to manipulate people. Most of these story elements are related to the player through notes that they can pick up as they progress through the game. The notes themselves tell a story; one particular character's handwriting slowly becomes less and less legible as their sanity begins to slip. You may find yourself relying on the accompanying voiceover to make sense of what you're looking at.
Hektor's touted gameplay mechanic of shifting rooms is where the game really falls flat. It is most probably meant to showcase the psychological collapse of the player. While it did do that, it ultimately frustrated and annoyed me more than anything else. I would find myself looping back through areas I've seen again and again, trying desperately to figure out what is needed to move the game forward. It would almost always be related to solving a puzzle or picking up a particular object. Hektor is very dark in terms of lighting, and so this makes finding particular objects challenging at times.[caption id="attachment_60618" align="alignleft" width="220"] Guess I'm going to the fourth floor.[/caption]
This challenge is exacerbated by one of the ways in which your psychosis is expressed. I began the game with a wavy sort of effect on my vision. I thought that this was perhaps an after-effect of the events I was going through at the very beginning of the game, but it persisted throughout. You find some pills and are instructed to take them, but I was unable to figure out how often I ought to take them to wholly abate my symptoms. I recall a particular moment where I clicked five or six times in a panic, and I still suffered from a wavy screen. You would probably want to wholly avoid Hektor if you're prone to motion sickness, FoV sickness, or vision problems.
You're also pursued by a creature throughout the experience. The "Predator" (as they call it) has a distinct cry that is unforgettable. The first time I heard it, I turned around only to see it right behind me and I got killed. (I also very nearly soiled myself.) The second time I saw it was still a bit more intense; I tried to run through hallways that were constantly shifting and changing in imperceptible ways, and it felt really futile. After seeing the creature for the tenth time I just let it kill me so I could reload from a checkpoint and get on with my business.
The frustration of trying to evade a monster in a constantly-shifting landscape was made worse by my first encounter. When I saw the instrument of my death coming down on me, the message "Don't Forget To Take Your Pills!" popped up on the screen. The second time I saw the monster I popped five or six in a row expecting the monster to be dispelled. I figured that it was a mechanic to keep the player always on the hunt for medicine, but as far as I can tell that is not the case. The medicine seemingly is supposed to reduce the visual hallucinations, but I was never really able to figure out how much to take or how often. There were also two distinct medicines offered that I didn't quite understand the purpose of.
I can full well admit that not understanding the medicine mechanic may be a failing on my part. However, if you removed that issue entirely, there would still be a problem regarding the interaction between the player, the Predator, and the ever-changing environment. As I've said before, your progression is typically tied towards finding an object or solving a puzzle. It is difficult to do this in the dark; you're supplied with a lighter for a basic level of light and you acquire a flashlight later on that has terribly useless batteries. Combining the need to find something or solve a puzzle with the necessity of searching carefully in the dark as well as the constant unpredictable pursuit of the Predator resulted in me decided to simply allow myself to be killed and begin my search for the lever to pull anew.[caption id="attachment_60619" align="alignright" width="300"] This is Hektor showing its sanity features at their very worst. Thank goodness I don't suffer from motion sickness or this would have been hell for me.[/caption]
It is this combination of factors where Hektor's room-shifting mechanic ultimately does more to hinder gameplay than help it. It's a neat idea at first, but much like the "horror game monster frustration problem," I eventually tired of treading through the same places again and again trying to find a particular MacGuffin.
The story took me approximately three hours to complete. At the very end of the game, a switch clicked in my mind. All of the notes I had picked up now made sense, and I understood what it was that I was doing. I saw someone standing in the corner of the room and I was very familiar with this person. I once again had a growing threat before me, except in this case it was very clearly in the real world. I repeated the pattern I had learned while playing Hektor and willingly walked to my death to end my pain.
This game was Rubycone's first project, and while I personally feel they made some errors in their design, I still think that they made a technically serviceable game with a very interesting and enjoyable story. I really do want to stress the technical excellence on their part: the presentation is fantastic. Hektor fails for me purely on the game design level, and that is the only place it really fails. Unfortunately, I (and most gamers, I would argue) consider gameplay to be the most important part of the game and that's something that Rubycone just didn't manage to get right here.
Had I not encountered any issues, my only complaint with Hektor would have been the relative shortness of the game. If their next game is more carefully designed, I feel that Rubycone will present an excellent title overall.
Hektor retails for $19.99 on Steam. I bought it on sale for around $5. Everyone's economic situation is different, but had I bought Hektor at full price, I would have spent a lot of time thinking about better ways I could have spent my money for a few hours of digital entertainment that had some noticeable problems. If you're at all interested in buying it, all credit to the developer for providing a demo. If it's the sort of thing you like (despite the problems I had with it), then there are worse ways to spend an evening.
Hektor was purchased by the reviewer and reviewed on the PC.
What's your favorite horror game on the PC? What's the worst one you've played? Let us know in the comments below!
Hektor's procedurally-generated shifting rooms ultimately hurts the gameplay more than it helps it.