As a Brit, I often encounter stereotypes of my sceptred isle. Images of strong mugs of tea, incessant queueing, and unfailing politeness abound among people's mental images of the British, but perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of this seat of Mars is its pop culture exports. Whether it's Fawlty Towers, Doctor Who, or Terry Gilliam's Brazil, British comedy and drama enjoys fanbases all around the globe. It seems that developers Paul Helman and Sean Scaplehorn's platformer Horace is well aware of this, jam-packed as it is with references to Brit culture.
A game cannot subsist on pop culture jibes alone, however, so Horace is also a non-linear platformer. It combines the explorative mechanics of Metroidvania games with the face-melting difficulty of masocore titles like Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV. Don't let the light-touch aesthetic and gentle sense of humor fool you. Horace can be ludicrously difficult, so if you want to know what happens to the titular little robot over the course of this picaresque journey, you'll have to have your gaming wits about you. Does this combination of brutal challenge and soft British wit work for Helman and Scaplehorn, or will Horace need to be sent back to the factory to have some parts replaced?
Horace Is Charming, But Inconsistent
If you're anything like me, the plight of innocent robots being corrupted by a cynical world breaks your heart. It worked for Pixar's Wall-E, it worked for The Iron Giant, and it darn well works for Horace, too. The central character's adorable text-to-speech voice and beautifully unspoiled outlook on the world are immediately endearing. Early on in the game, there's a major apocalyptic event that results in Horace being shut down. When he awakes to find the world he knew irrevocably changed, he must journey forth and discover what's happened to his family and those he loves.
When Horace's storytelling is good, it's very good. Characters with complex motivations and personalities are always viewed through the irrepressibly naive lens of Horace's eyes. This means he never understands morally grey actions. At one point, he remarks on the similarity between some gloves he's given and another character's stolen gloves by saying that the gloves' new owner "is lucky, given there's a glove thief in town". These moments are heart-rending and make protecting Horace from a cruel world feel all the more necessary.
Unfortunately, this doesn't last. Tonally, Horace is a game of two halves. One half is the aforementioned light-touch well-written robot picaresque narrative. The other is the ever-present tumor of "pop culture references", and Horace is no more successful than other execrable examples of its approach in this regard. At one point, Horace must fetch some dubious mushrooms for a particular character from a warehouse. He remarks on how the mushrooms don't make this person "double in size". Get it? You will get it, pretty quickly, but Horace persists in these surface-level allusions to other media. It's not clever, it's not well integrated, and it made me cringe every time it happened.
Gameplay, Story, And Challenge In Horace
If you're someone who likes gameplay and story to make sense together, Horace might give you some pause for thought. Initially, the central conceit of the gameplay ties into the story beautifully. As a new robotic arrival to the world, Horace starts pondering his purpose pretty quickly. His kindly owner tells him his purpose, for now, is to clean things. This isn't enough for Horace, so his owner jokingly suggests he cleans "one million things" in order to become "a real boy". When Horace awakes from his slumber, the world is ruined, so there's plenty to clean, and Horace dutifully sets about doing exactly what he's told, setting up the central collecting mechanic.
That's all well and good, but elsewhere, the gameplay-story segregation becomes more apparent. There are, to put it simply, an anomalous number of death traps in Horace's world. It's a masocore platformer, so this is perhaps to be expected, but the softly-softly approach of the storytelling doesn't bear out the sheer volume of electrified fences, spinning buzzsaws, and other violent traps seemingly present in every benevolent old man's basement. After establishing such a strong narrative context, Horace doesn't make an attempt to explain this, and it feels somewhat disappointing.
The platforming itself, thankfully, is solid, if a touch clunky. Early on, Horace receives a pair of gravity boots, enabling him to walk on walls and ceilings. This drives the core of the platforming challenge, and it provides a unique way to look at puzzle situations and boss battles. Levels in Horace are creative and well-crafted, even if they do drag on a little at times. It's a shame, then, that platforming feels stiff and unresponsive. Thanks to the aforementioned gravity mechanic, jumps can sometimes fail to register, and hazards can kill you when it looked like you weren't touching them at all. This, combined with the unforgiving difficulty, makes some levels feel like a chore.
Horace Is A Labor Of Love
Both Horace's flaws and its positive points can be chalked up to the fact that it feels like a labor of love. When its tone wobbles and its comedy falters, it's because no single person's sense of humor is entirely compatible with everyone else's or even with itself. If its challenge is inconsistent, that's because it likely didn't get the kind of rigorous, exhaustive testing that major studios can pay for. Mostly, Horace manages to pull off the quirky, offbeat feel it's going for. Its presentation helps; visually, it's reminiscent of old-school DOS platformers like Commander Keen or Duke Nukem, and its music is a mixture of original composition and MIDI royalty-free classical pieces.
That unique quality means Horace keeps returning to my thoughts, and if you prize innovation and a clear sense of love above perfect polish and bland number-crunching, it may well have the same effect on you. Whatever else Horace is, it's certainly unpredictable, throwing up uneven minigames and new narrative concepts as quickly as it can come up with them. This results in a wildly inconsistent gaming experience, but Horace is never boring, although it could have done with less of an emphasis on backtracking at times.
I played the Nintendo Switch version of Horace, and technically, it's perfectly fine. Unfortunately, if you do pick it up on Switch, you'll have to contend with some truly horrendously small pixel art at times. Don't subject yourself to this one in handheld mode unless you're looking to develop serious eyesight problems very quickly. Otherwise, Horace has made the transition to Nintendo's hybrid platform unscathed, so if you're one of those lucky people who has cameras for eyes and can zoom in with precision, by all means grab it on Switch.
Horace | Final Thoughts
When I wasn't playing Horace, I found it hard to keep it from my thoughts. There's a certain je ne sais quoi about the hapless little robot and his journey through a post-apocalyptic wasteland that feels compelling, even though it's certainly not perfect. Despite difficulty wobbles, inconsistent minigames, and a slight overreliance on pop culture references (shudder), Horace pulls through on its unique charm, strong writing, and accomplished storytelling. If you like your games beguiling, intriguing, and fresh, give this one a try.
TechRaptor reviewed Horace on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on PC.
- Beautiful Pixel Art Visuals
- Gentle, Well-Written Dialogue
- Charming Retro Sensibility
- Controls Feel Clunky
- Weak Pop Culture References
- Levels Can Drag On