Nearly a decade ago, the movie Inception was released to both commercial and critical success. The core concept of travelling through layers of dreams resonated with the movie-going public, and the mysterious ending of the film is still hotly contested to this day. Despite this popularity, however, the dream-travelling idea was never really converted into the video game medium. The closest attempt would perhaps be To the Moon, but that title lacked the urgent need to be able to distinguish between imagined worlds and reality. Filling this void is Knock Harder: Useless, an action game based around identifying hallmarks of the dream world. Developed by Snail-Ninja Studio, this mix of twitch reflexes and paying attention to surroundings makes for seriously addictive gameplay.
Early in the 21st century, the world has been invaded by a species of deadly parasites. Victims of the parasite attacks either get their minds taken over instantly, becoming a shambling zombie, or fall into comas, with the few who manage to wake up promptly killing themselves. During a scavenging expedition within a normal suburban home, protagonist Kir is attacked by one of the bugs. The attack sends him to a dream version of the house he was exploring, a place that is very similar, but not exactly the same as the one in the real world. By killing himself in a dream, he moves a step towards consciousness, up through another layer of a labyrinthine daze. If he shoots himself in the real world, however, his life is forfeit. With only two and a half minutes to explore each house to determine if it is real or fake, the race is on to free Kir from the parasite’s deadly grasp.
Knock Harder: Useless is all about paying close attention to small environmental details. Each dream world will have a difference from the real one, a quirk that gives it away. These idiosyncrasies vary greatly in difficulty: a tree growing in the living room is super obvious, but oversized shadows or changes to gravity are harder to spot. The order of the dream levels are randomised, leading to a unique experience each time, but each variant is also numbered, so those with a good memory are at an advantage. For the levels one is not familiar with, Kir can take several actions to improve his chances of finding the difference. Repairing broken generators will lend more light throughout the house, but also take up a decent chunk of time. Flashlights and lighters also improve the field of view, highlighting important areas like the bear skin rug, which occasionally sports a human head, or provide a clear view of Kir’s reflection in the mirror, which might not always match his appearance. Rummaging through the many drawers will give Kir more supplies, and sometimes helpful clues in the form of notes. Only by text description can one tell the difference between a figurine of an elephant, and a whole life-size Indian elephant stuffed inside the cupboard.
Hindering Kir’s search is the presence of enemies, parasites and zombies that follow him from room to room. Most are easily shot down, but waste time and health. Running out of health in a dream is no problem, but is a serious issue in the real world.
Once an inconsistency is found, progress is easy: simply shoot yourself. Should you guess correctly, Kir will have a brief discussion with his subconscious before proceeding to the next layer of dream. Let the timer run out in a dream, however, and game over. Kir’s subconscious, a jaunty leprechaun fellow, will give a hint as to what the deviation was so the player has a better chance the next time round, knowing to check for a funny-sounding gun or the absence of doors. This system works well to keep the game fair, since some of the differences are quite tricky to spot.
The elements of Knock Hard: Useless come together in an enjoyable gameplay loop, with the short sessions and clues for what went wrong making it easy to have just ‘one more go’. I saw many variations on the room before finally having a successful run, and the short time limit means that every move I made was calculated. A few aspects of the game could use some further polish: the in-game text is much too small, especially when reading quickly is an important part of gameplay. Gunplay lacks impact because the enemies do not react when they are hit, making the player unable to easily tell if they have been shot. The creatures do spurt a small amount of blood when attacked, but this graphic can be difficult to see in the dark hallways of the house.
For most part, however, Knock Harder: Useless is well executed and enjoyable to play. The sharp shift between the heavy dark outlines of the ‘real’ world and the hyper-coloured world of the leprechaun’s parlour gives respite between the short, frantic levels. Music is minimal, but sets the mood nicely. Knock Harder: Useless is a sample of a longer, paid version of the game due out in April. With a bunch of new enemies, items, and dream worlds, I am excited to see the new ways the dream world can fool me.