If Hotline Miami had come into being during a late night session in an British pub, it would probably have emerged into the light looking quite a lot like Not a Hero [official site]. Although its action is side-on rather than topdown, the content is similar – surrealist sprees of violence involving an odd crew of protagonists and countless stereotypical gangland denizens. It's from the makers of indie skateboarding smash hit OlliOlli and here's wot I think.
Because this is Britain rather than a hazy VHS impersonation of Miami, gangland mostly takes the form of cramped, dingy tower blocks – one grim estate is called Bredrin Park; the in-door ganja crops are the only greenery – and the lack of variety in the settings and layouts is the game's most obvious flaw. That's not to say the world of Not a Hero is a dud though. Far from it. The grungy swear-stained aesthetic is effective, and the characters and backgrounds are packed with fine detail. There's little in the way of spectacle but there's plenty to admire in the ludicrous violence and the expressive animations of each of the nine unlockable playable characters.
Initially, I thought the game had little to recommend it beyond the silliness of its concept. It is, essentially, a cover-based shooter on a 2d plane, which pins the cover to hotspots that characters duck into rather than having physical objects strewn through the levels. There's no jumping or crouching, no kinetic sense of ducking and dodging, and in the first half hour or so I struggled to find the challenge.
By the mid-point of the first week (each level covers a day), the challenge had become obvious. The cover is a distraction. While it's necessary, the heart of the game is in the timing of reloads and the management of enemies. Rather than rolling and dodging from one piece of cover to the next, as the difficulty ramps up you'll find yourself calculating enemy numbers and positioning yourself in a location that allows you to take advantage of your character's skills.
If you're using a shotgun, first unlocked with the robust Glaswegian who is character number two, you'll need to lure enemies closer so that you can splatter them across the walls. You'll also have to make sure you don't get rushed by too many criminals simultaneously because reloading takes an age and they WILL punch you into pieces.
Take control of Sam, a speedy Welsh hitwoman, and a completely different approach is required. With the more athletically gifted characters, particularly those packing rapid fire pistols with large clips, it's often best to slide tackle your way through a level, performing gory point blank executions as you go. But then that pistol is probably effective at a good distance so you could opt for long range crowd control, flipping back to a new piece of cover whenever enemies close in.
Hopefully that doesn't sound too complicated. It's all very simple in practice, with two directions and two basic actions. There are power-up bullets to collect, lasting a single clip, and special weapons ranging from mines and molotovs to cat bombs, but mostly you'll be sliding and shooting. And after those first tutorial levels, layouts become slightly trickier. They're never particularly complex and the limited movement capabilities wouldn't really allow them to be, but there are secrets to find and windows to tumble out of head first while looking for those secrets.
But, hey, I mentioned the silliness of the concept all the way back in the third paragraph and I haven't expanded on that.
Anthromoporphic rabbity thing Bunnylord has traveled back in time to put himself forward in an election. To win the favour of the British people, he recruits a crew of miscreants and gathers them in his Fun Club where he squawks semi-procedural pep talks at them while instructing them to murder criminals right in the face.
All of the lolrandom silliness of Bunnylord's monologues seems designed to become a set of internet memes at times but, to my surprise, I found myself loving the big murderous oaf. The actual random elements are certainly part of that: he'll occasionally pause to suck at his milkshake and then creak out a weird series of adjectives and nouns. The pool that the interjections are taken from is quite small but that helps to keep him in character while lending an air of the unexpected.
It helps that even the weirdness of Bunnylord is wonderfully British in tone. It might as well be alienspeak next to the actual voice recordings of the (Not) protagonists though. Sam, the Welsh lady, threatens to “twat” bad guys. There are plenty of delightfully accented “fucks” and “belters”. It's like a night on the town when the whole town has decided to have a fight with itself.
I found some of the more overt gags a bit tired, particularly the eternally dry-humping Spanish sex lord, but despite the violence and cussing, it's daft rather than dirty. Even when the loose plot glories in the slaughter of bad guys who seem more like casually violent bystanders in an ugly world than actual bad guys, your only a few clicks away from a pixie rescue or satirical swipe at electioneering.
On the satirical front, I'm not entirely sure that Not A Hero has (or wants to have) anything to say. It's blowing a big bloody raspberry at popularity contests, yes, and maybe there's something in there about the silliness of fighting crime with criminal behaviour, but it's more of a surrealist splatterpunk blast than a running commentary of any kind. Where its punches do connect, they occasionally feel like they're directed down at the chavs and the neds, but mostly it's swinging upwards, at the ones who pull the strings. Mostly at the clouds though.
There was a demo on Steam but it seems to have vanished when the full game appeared, which seems sillier than any of Bunnylord's plans. There's an official mirror here but I don't know how long it will last. A demo would be useful because if you enjoy the tone, you'll probably get a lot out of the game. It's skill-based without demanding too much of your reflexes or planning, and even though the levels are all fairly similar in appearance (something that the game unhappily pokes fun at), variation in challenges and collectibles kept me playing until I'd unlocked every character and achieved MAXIMUM STARS on almost every level.
If the game's origins as a Clickteam prototype are sometimes evident, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's one idea done well, consistent and compact. As Bunnylord might say – Not A Hero might not be cooking with floppin' sexy gas on all cylinders but it's a facemurdering good time nonetheless.
NOT A HERO is out now.