If you live in the UK, or at least in the South West, then you can never find yourself too far away from a Pasty Franchise exporting its sweet scent into the nearby vicinity, advertising its presence far greater than any signpost could. It is only a matter of time before you one day step inside and place an order. The promising first bite is followed by less satisfactory second, before disappointment settles in. Pasties from chains never taste half as good as they smell. High Strangeness is a digital pasty; it sounds a lot better than it plays.
First impressions of High Strangeness are promising. Story wise, you’re immediately thrust into the role of Boyd, an oblivious, bandana wearing protagonist who learns over the course of his adventure that he’s the chosen one, his cat could talk, and his employer is some sort of ninja with a vested interest in gathering 7 all-powerful skulls that in the wrong hands could end the universe, or something. Honestly, as clichéd as this sort of plot is, High Strangeness pulls it off well initially, with a few cute pop-culture references in the opening town and the consistent denial of plot exposition to the protagonist throughout the early and mid game. There’s very much a sense that the plot is purposefully just there for the purpose of having a game, but that the game is perfectly aware of that. Then the later portion of the game occurs, which turns the narrative from purposefully cute and tired, to just plain tired. The player is torn away from the gameplay and forced to sit through numerous poorly drawn cut-scenes in order to have the plot force fed to them before a not at all shocking plot-twist is triggered. It is ham-fisted and grating, and doesn’t gel well with what was an initially whimsical romp.
Unfortunately, the disappointing plot also exists within the gameplay, which can be broken down into two primary aspects - combat and adventuring. Starting with adventuring, in order to progress through dungeons, players must make full use of their arsenal of gadgets earned over the course of the game. Initially, this comprises of household items given to the player – firecrackers used to open hidden passages, CD discs used to stun enemies and flick distant switches. Later you’ll also gain access to ‘skull powers’ which can summon spectres, do an AoE push back, and summon blocks for you to use as cover from traps, or to weigh down switches. It’s a well furnished arsenal, but using it is made fiddly by virtue of only one skill being equipabbl. Players must pause and go through a menu in order to select a different skill. The menu is easy to navigate, but I would have much preferred the Wii-U game pad to simply have your skills ready to be activated on the touch screen. As it stands, the game-pad simply mirrors the TV picture.
For the most part the puzzles are all quite simple, and it is generally obvious which skill needs to be used on a given task. I need to go through a wall – firecracker skill – a switch is out of reach, chuck a CD! During my playthrough I never had to stop and think about what I was doing. More to the point, the fact that you have such a varied tool-kit and never really have to combine these skills together is a shame as the net result is just fitting square pegs into square holes.
The developer billed this as ‘a 12-bit’ game, given that one of the key features of the game is the ability to switch between 8-bit and 16-bit aesthetics. In the 16-bit world Boyd can sprint, has 8 directional movement, and the levels themselves are very nicely detailed. In the 8-bit world, sprinting is a no-go, movement is 4 directional, and the purposefully blocky graphics makes combat more difficult. On the plus side, some textures that were pointy rocks become flat and traversable, hidden passages through water obvious, and certain enemies which mimic rocks more easily spotted. Much like using all of your tools, Boyd must regularly manipulate the environment by switching from 8bit to 16bit in order to succeed. On paper, it’s a cool feature, but it feels underdeveloped. The 8-bit style is slow and annoying to move around in, and so you’ll exclusively use it to find hidden passages and battle enemies that can be damaged in the 8-bit view only. Rather than a celebration of 8-bit era game eccentricities, you’ll just feel grateful games have moved on. As for the puzzles that require the use of 8-bit – 16-bit manipulation, although satisfying the first few times you use the skill, the ability quickly becomes tried as you’ll never really use it to exploit anything other than the terrain in a predictable manner. Whereas games like Super Meat boy take a retro aesthetic and apply modernised, tight controls to create a completely satisfying experience, the creative limit of High Strangeness is to basically ask the player if they can spot when they need to use the appropriate tool.
Whilst the adventuring aspect of the game does at least offer new tools to exploit, and pleasant enough worlds to traverse, combat is a consistent weakness. Boyd has a stamina bar, which is drained greatly by any attack, meaning that you must accurately time your flashlight assaults in order to down an enemy. Stamina is also used when throwing a CD, activating a skull ability or setting a firecracker. This is an acceptable design choice, as enemies move predictably and methodically so being able to go in guns blazing would eliminate their challenge. However, the controls are somewhat clunky at best, and landing melee blows with precision is difficult to accomplish without taking some damage in return. Despite this, your health is a non-issue. You can die, but will always respawn in the same room at full health, making death trivial. Given the finicky controls though, I am quite glad the developer elected to go down this route.
But the greatest problem with combat is that the throwing CD’s are insanely overpowered. CD’s stun enemies, and as you level the skill up, also deals damage. The stun lasts a good few seconds, enabling you to stun and then melee any foe to death quickly. This even extends to all but the final boss, and although your stamina metre will mean you can’t finish them in one stun-melee combo, repeat the tactic a few times and they’re toast. Combat is repetitive, fiddly, and unsatisfying.
Ultimately, High Strangeness is a short experience. I managed to beat the game in under 4 hours, and it was towards the climax of this time that I was most disappointed. All the skills I’d gained were never meshed creatively, and the combat never developed. Indeed, the game’s only consistent strong point was an absolutely fantastic chip-tune soundtrack, which I would consider buying for the right price on its own. High Strangeness isn’t terrible, but in an era where the Wii-U has a well populated virtual store, and it is easy to pick up classic games on Steam, High Strangeness just cannot compete at its £8.99 price point.
The bottom line:
+Excellent Soundtrack - Puzzles Underdeveloped
+Cute Presentation - Mundane, Simple Combat
+Checkpoint System - Plot goes from whimsical to tired
Recommended for: Retro RPG fans who’ve exhausted all other options.