Superhot is another one of those games that I’ve had sitting on my PS4 for ages. It’s a game I’ve been aware of since it was released due to the high praise it got from some of my favourite reviewers at the time, but until now I’d just never gotten around to trying it. It is, after all, the curse of the backlog, to have a million games but nothing to play. Still, every now and again I can manage to rouse myself from a stupor enough to play something new, and figured I should give Superhot a spin finally.
I’m really glad I did. Superhot is the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years.
Superhot (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Stadia, Switch, Xbox One, VR)
Released 25 Feb 2016 | Developed / Published: Superhot Team
Super. Hot. Super. Hot. Super. Hot. If you’ve played the game at all, those two words, said in a deep monotone endlessly as you beat a level and watch it replay before you, are probably going to be ringing deep in your subconscious for years. Like a literal meme buried in the mind, they’ve certainly been jangling around in my head since I first saw game footage back in 2016. I suppose I figured that it was just a cute foible of Superhot. I wasn’t expecting it to end up quite so unsettling.
Why unsettling? Well, I’m afraid to explain would be to spoil, and I don’t think that’s my place to do that. Superhot trades on its gameplay gimmick, so it was largely a surprise to me that it has any kind of plot at all. However, it certainly has one, and it takes itself rather seriously, but it’s also a very brief campaign – maybe 2 or 3 hours at most – and it would be remiss of me to deny you the experience I had going in blind. The brevity works marvellously in its favour; it features around 30 missions but the narrative is tightly designed, hitting you in bursts and flurries. Still, I confess I would probably find the plot more compelling if I were a teenager again, and a slightly edgier one at that; it has a general feel of Chuck Palahniuk to it, filtered through a cyberpunk / computer-age dystopia. I appreciate what it’s trying to do, even if it doesn’t wholly resonate with me.
However, it is mechanically where I think Superhot excels; in fact I think in those terms Superhot might be as close to perfect as one could want. There is absolutely nothing in this game that doesn’t need to be here; it’s just you, a bare handful of actions, and a series of stages to conquer. I haven’t even explained what type of game Superhot is, or what makes it so engrossing, so allow me to sum it up. Superhot is a first-person shooter where time only moves when you move.
It’s an idea so simple that it almost seems ludicrous. Bullets don’t move unless you do? Everything moves in relative speed to you? Doesn’t that mean the game is easy as you dance about in permanent bullet time, dodging bullets by millimetres before taking your time to dispatch every hostile in the stage? Well, no. You see, Superhot understands these concerns.
In Superhot, time only moves when you do. In practice, this is tense – far more tense than you’d expect, perhaps than it has any right to be. You can see all the threats that spread out ahead of you; enemies rushing into position, cover, weapons to grab, and bullets streaking along the screen, leaving harsh red trails across your vision. As you tentatively nudge the joystick you see the scene play out frame-by-frame; pushing the stick gently to move to the side, the action speeds up to meet you, unfurling in time relative to your movement. Every single move you make causes the level to advance a bit more, from walking to jumping, to attacks or picking up guns.
You die, of course, in a single hit. That alone elevates Superhot’s difficulty and poses the main challenge. Even in most hard FPS games you can tank a few shots, but not so here. Still, it’s easy to feel invincible in those first stages of the game as you calmly sidle past a bullet and line up a shot. You pull the trigger. Suddenly, you die. Turns out you forgot to look around and check for enemies behind you! You’d be surprised at how common a cause of death this is in Superhot; it’s easy to get so caught up in absorbing what’s ahead of you and planning out the perfect move that you forget to look around and take in your entire surroundings.
Despite the looks, Superhot is as much a puzzle and strategy game as it is an FPS; perhaps even more so. Each level takes careful and meticulous planning to overcome, and it comes back down to engaging with the perfectly balanced mechanics of the game. There are only 3 guns you can wield – pistols, rifles, and shotguns – but the tiny arsenal lets you come to understand exactly how each one works and therefore which one might be best to grab in a given moment. Melee weapons also come in three flavours – bat, crowbar, and katana – although of the three only the katana seems to function any differently. Getting in close – itself already a challenge – and punching an enemy causes them to drop their weapon, which you can pluck from the air to immediately arm yourself and start blasting; you can achieve the same effect through hitting baddies with a thrown item, including guns. Barring one late-game addition to the mechanics, namely the ability to hotswitch and swap bodies with another enemy, that’s your lot.
It all comes together in a magnificent way. When the replay starts at the end of a completed session and you see it all unfurl in real time it’s incredible, but the real high starts as soon as you hear the game’s chant of “Super. Hot.” and you realise you’ve just pulled off another brilliant combo of moves to overcome the stage. Few things make you feel quite as badass as Superhot. After you finish the campaign you unlock the game’s endless mode, as well as a huge array of challenges, and I’m sure plenty of folk will leap headfirst into them though they weren’t for me. The campaign was enough to satisfy me, and once I came to the end of it I’d found I’d experienced something quite cathartic.
The presentation of Superhot is probably one of the more immediately striking factors about it. It too is perfectly built, and avoids any extraneous detailing. The world is stark white, baddies and projectiles are red, and any weapons are black. The use of colour is excellent; and the minimalist styling works in concert with the game’s narrative conceits, as well as communicating all the information that the player needs in the simplest way. I suppose I have a couple of gripes, and they really are minor things. When levels load in you’re treated to a screen of flickering static bars which is not particularly pleasant to look at, and certainly wasn’t great for my eyes. This is accompanied by the awful sound of a dial-up modem, which although undoubtedly nostalgic, is an ear-piercing, grating noise and I’m not grateful that we keep hearing it.
And that’s it, to be honest. I’d love to dive more into the writing but I feel happy recommending you play it and going in blind certainly won’t hurt. The entire package is, no doubt, masterfully constructed; everything, from the minimalist visuals to the narrative, to the simple, challenging, wonderful combat all fits together absolutely perfectly, as if there were no other way it could be.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.