|My boring HypnOS Desktop (I'm using the default background). Note the squid Desktop Pet.|
- Reviewed by: Mark Goninon
- Developer: Tendershoot, Michael Lasch, ThatWhichIs Media
- Publisher: No More Robots
- Release Date: 12 Mar 2019
- Time played: 12.3 hours
What is itThis isn't the first commercial game to be released by Hypnospace Outlaw's lead designer, Jay Tholen; before Hypnospace Outlaw there was the surreal exploration-based adventure game Dropsy that was released in 2015. The game went through a couple of Kickstarter funding campaigns (including one I actually backed) and Tholen was able to secure a publishing deal with Devolver Digital late in development. Dropsy wasn't your conventional adventure game with respect to its character (a freakish clown that loves giving hugs), its setting, its soundtrack (inspired by 70s prog rock) and the way you played it (the game is text-free and you converse with other characters using symbols).
Dropsy was well received by critics and players with a Metascore of 80 on Metacritic (generally favourable reviews), a score of 4.3/5 on GOG and a "Very Positive" rating on Steam (94% positive user reviews out of 832).
Hypnospace Outlaw was another game that received crowdfunding through Kickstarter and the funding campaign raised $35,994 from 1,664 backers (including yours truly) back in October 2016. Fast forward a couple of years later, and the final product was released in March this year. While the game shares many elements in common with the original pitch on the Kickstarter campaign, it looks like the driving mini-game was dropped as a critical component of the gameplay and in the game's current form, it's more of a diversion which takes a backseat to the webpage investigating part of the game (that's not downplaying its importance to the story arc, mind you).
So, what exactly is Hypnospace Outlaw? It's hard to describe without you actually experiencing the game, but it's essentially an alternate 1990s Internet simulator; I say an "alternate 1990s" since in this version of the 1990s, Web 1.0 is still very much around except there's now this thing called "sleeptime networking" where people are able to use the Internet while they're sleeping by using a headband that transmits images and audio into their brains where they "dream" their computer usage. There are two major players in the Sleeptime Networking space in the late 90s: CyberWorldz (aimed at "tech and gaming crowds") and Hypnospace which seems to cater for the "everyday person". You start the game as a Hypnospace moderator known as an "Enforcer". Your job is to view the webpages on Hypnospace to stamp out any malicious downloads, bullying, harassment or copyright infringement, and be rewarded with Hypnocoin which can be used to purchase music, desktop backgrounds, screensavers, and more. Along the way, you'll notice that things aren't as idyllic as it seems on Hypnospace and you'll eventually find out why.
It's only been out for a month but Hypnospace Outlaw has already impressed the critics with a Metascore of 82 (meaning generally favourable reviews) and it's been "Recommended" by Eurogamer and listed as one of Rock Paper Shotgun's "Bestest Bests".
How I got itAs mentioned, I was a Kickstarter backer which means after backing the game in 2016, all I had to do was wait for the finished product which was delivered a month ago. While I didn't finish Dropsy (the game Jay Tholen developed prior to Hypnospace Outlaw) I was impressed with what I experienced which meant I was keen to check out any new projects he worked on. I also felt Hypnospace Outlaw would be a nostalgic trip down memory lane since I was one of those people that developed goofy webpages on Geocities back in the late 90s.
|You get to learn a lot about the world of Hypnospace and its parallels to the real world|
What I like:
Lots of themes in the narrativeThere are so many themes that are touched upon in this game such as the tug-of-war between safety and progress, the hypocrisy of those in power and how they're exempt from their own rules, knowing where the line is when it comes to fair use and copyright infringement, the list goes on. Despite many of these themes and issues being grounded in the Internet of the 90s, they are relatable and still apply to the world we live in today, especially now governments and large corporations are making serious attempts to control and govern the Internet.
You care about the Hypnospace netizensThrough your spying of Hypnospace's netizens you learn quite a bit about them and I'm not even talking about their real "A/S/L?" (that's 90s IRC lingo for "age/sex/location?"), you really get attached to some of these characters as you learn about their flaws, their likes, their dislikes and who they get along with on Hypnospace. As in-game time passes by, you'll want to find out what happens to them by reading their updated webpages as well as what they store in their FTP repositories.
References to computing in the 90sThe game is chock-full of references to computing in the 90s; Not only does the game make fun of Web 1.0 webpages the like you would've seen on Geocities (e.g. blinking text, animated gifs, ugly fonts, scrolling marquee, autoplaying MIDI, etc.) but there are a whole bunch of nods to other applications such as Netscape Navigator, Desktop pets, Napster and Winamp. There's even a reference to Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music!
Well-developed epilogueThe epilogue to the game is interactive and actually quite extensive. It also gives you a last opportunity to find any pages that you missed while playing earlier sections of the game.
Awesome musicThe game's soundtrack is excellent but depending on the track in question, for different reasons. Most of the soundtrack consists of MIDIs and, well, an appreciation of MIDIs is definitely an acquired taste and with respect to some of the MIDIs on the soundtrack, I think they're meant to intentionally sound awful. However, I could appreciate the fact that these MIDIs are a reflection of what Web 1.0 webpages were like, full of MIDI files automatically playing in the background as you visited webpages (I admit that I was one such offender back in the late 90s).
In terms of the non-sequenced music (in the world of Hypnospace, MIDIs are known as Hypnospace Sequenced Music files or .hsm files) you'll notice Jay Tholen's "Millennium Anthem" surfaces across Hypnospace quite a bit and it's super-catchy. In fact, speaking of super-catchy music, a lot of the music by guest musician Hot Dad are fantastic despite being parodies of songs and adverts of the era; he's definitely channelling "Weird Al" Yankovic when he wrote these songs. My favourite has to be the prog rock number "Ready to Shave" which sounds like something the band Yes would've come up with in the late 70s or early 80s.
But more on the soundtracks for another time; considering I received five soundtracks for backing the game at a particular tier, that means the potential for five soundtrack reviews in the pipeline!
ImmersiveDespite the low-res graphics, I found the game to be really immersive like Papers, Please or Hacknet. You felt you were truly interacting with the other characters (despite there being a very limited ability to do so on your part) and it felt like you were truly experiencing an alternate 1990s Internet through your dreams. The icing on the cake is the ability to tailor how the text-to-speech program pronounces your name to further immerse you into the game. Nice.
|The Hypnospace Outlaw Highway/Driving mini-game isn't actually a big part of the game, gameplay-wise|
What I dislike:
I almost got stuckThere is a certain tool that you download where you may not have any idea on how it's used until you've scoured a lot of pages and the equivalent of FTP directories on Hypnospace. In fact, I only stumbled upon it while inadvertently reading about something else on the game's Steam forums (oops!). I probably would've figured out how to use it eventually but I think I was almost at the point where I was going to start scouring the forums for a solution (*gasp*!). I think another reason I never figured out how to use the tool was that I didn't recall anything in real-life computing that is similar (which is also a reason I probably overlooked how to use it).
Anyway, as you can tell, I'm really struggling to find anything bad to say about this game. I found out later that there's actually an in-built hints system so even if I really did get stuck, I didn't need to go far to search for clues or a solution.
Oh, actually there's one more thing…
Steam integration isn't the bestUnfortunately, since the game was developed using the engine Construct2, it means the game isn't integrated with Steam very well meaning you can't use the Steam overlay to take screenshots of the game.
Also, the game states that there are Steam Achievements but I don't recall earning any while playing and clicking on the Steam Achievements page just gives me an error.
Score – 9/10 (Hypnospace is really, really cool)If you ever dabbled with Geocities back in the 1990s or just experienced Web 1.0 in general, you'll want to get this game. However, even if you weren't alive when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, you'll find an immersive detective game in the same vein as Papers, Please or Hacknet, with compelling characters, real dilemmas, along with themes that still resonate today. Hypnospace Outlaw is a great experience in its own right and with so much of Hypnospace to explore, it should keep you entertained for a while – provided you can tolerate garish webpages and annoying MIDI files 😉.
Is the game worth $28.95 AUD?: Yes. Almost 30 bucks might seem quite a bit for an indie game but it's not just good by indie standards, it's good by any standards.
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[ LINK: Official Website ]