The release of Hotline Miami back in 2011 had a strong impact on the indie game scene. The game’s ultra-hard combat, colour-bleeding graphics, and intensely thumping music coalesced into a style quite unlike anything seen before. A few games have taken a crack at approximating the gameplay of the popular title, but Star Fetchers: Pilot is perhaps the first to approach creating the same neon atmosphere in a 2D setting. The first title by developer Svavelstickan, this action-packed romp is oozing with style, but lacks impactful gameplay to match.
Grocery store clerk Sanyati is fed up with his lot in life. He numbly goes about his work routine, throwing out trash in the pouring rain and putting down livestock with mechanical precision. During a sudden attack on the convenience store, Sanyati’s apathy becomes his biggest asset, his lack of fear allowing him to easily evade enemy bullets. Done with his menial job, Sanyati joins up with the mysterious Zambezi, a man who wishes to create the toughest gang of all the town. The city’s ‘grey zone’ is full of warring groups, the toughest of which resides at the top of a tall tower. With Sanyati’s blankness and Zambezi’s stealthy abilities giving them an edge, the two fight their way through hordes of gangs to ascend the tower themselves.
The play time of Star Fetchers: Pilot is fairly evenly divided between cutscenes of chatting between the characters, and levels of slicing and dicing. World building is done extraordinarily well, especially considering the brief one-to-two hour runtime of the game. Every scene has lots of little details to set the tone of the world, like the girl scouts selling fake Blu-rays or a broken-down android lamenting losing its job to a newer model. The narrative strikes a balance between cheery and horrified reactions to the events that transpire: Sanyati freaks out when covered in pig’s blood, finally noticing how terrible his job is, but when a defeated gang boss asks for him and his 46 men to be buried in the backyard, the two protagonists happily oblige. The tone is off-kilter in just the right way, with no way to anticipate what will happen next.
Actual gameplay, however, is less effectively implemented. The game lacks a proper tutorial, only flashing a screen of controls long after the player has had to use them. Movement looks okay on paper: Sanyati can double jump, slow down time, bounce kick off of enemies, and attack with a swipe of the mouse button. In practice, however, controlling Sanyati is extremely floaty and frustrating. Just trying to wall jump up the first narrow opening took close to ten minutes. The sword moves look super cool, but due to the player’s single hit point and the large number of enemies, the most effective combat strategy is to waggle the sword back and forth rather than plan out any proper moves. Boss encounters fare a little better with proper patterns that can be studied and anticipated, but the many corridors leading up to the fight are just the same pile of goons over and over. More intricate level design and tighter platforming controls could turn this into a really enjoyable experience, but at present the fighting is simply not fun.
A large part of Star Fetchers: Pilot‘s appeal is the amazing soundtrack. The music is made up of short, sharp vocal clips clashing in just the right way, abrasive and intense. Soft jazz deliberately hits the loop at just the wrong moment. The music ebbs and flows along with the narrative, matching perfectly with the grimy but cheerful world.
Star Fetchers: Pilot has a great deal of potential. I love the world that the developer has created: a near-future dystopian society full of gleefully homicidal thugs. The friendship between Sanyati and Zambezi is developed well, and the tale is full of laugh out loud moments. The movement and combat, however, are quite undercooked, and both need to be explained much more thoroughly. Star Fetchers: Pilot is the first part of a longer title, and I wish Svavelstickan all the best with future development.
Next week, we will be playing The Supper, a point and click adventure game with a sinister tone. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. Discussions are happening in the Discord server, or you can email me.