Horace Review: Indie Darling and Loving Tribute to Video Games
I’m not sure how I missed Horace when it was first released digitally. But I’m more than glad I was able to cover the recent physical release, thanks in large part to the good folks at Super Rare Games. Not only is it an attractive Switch game, but Horace strikes me as one of the most compelling indies I had never heard about. Developed by a two-man team, it tells a sort of Pinocchio story. Its titular character is a yellow-hued robot named Horace. He’s brought into an eclectic family, and there learns about the world and what it means to be a person. Along the way, he’ll experience love, comedy, tragedy, and mind-bending adventures. And as this Horace review will establish, despite some missteps, it’s one of the best indie games I’ve played in recent memory.
Some Assembly Required
The entire adventure is charmingly narrated by Horace himself. It starts with him being assembled, turned on, and literally walking out of a cardboard box. Over the course of the game, Horace will get many enhancements and upgrades, and not just physical skills. He’ll learn about the world and his place in it, as well as face some hard truths and perplexing mysteries. I assumed it would be a short burn, but Horace can take anywhere from 10-20 hours, and it even features multiple endings.
As for what genre Horace is, I’d essentially call it a hardcore platformer with some puzzle elements. Most of the time, you’ll be running and jumping, as well as picking things up and tossing them. I’d venture the most integral skill is when you get gravity-defying boots that let Horace walk on walls and ceilings with ease. Of course, you’ll get other nifty techniques like smashing through barricades as well, but everything revolves around those boots. And while the game starts pretty easy, it gets progressively more complex the longer you play. So much so you’ll be thankful you have infinite lives, because this is NOT a game for the faint of heart.
One of the main reasons I so enjoyed the game is because of the cast of characters. Horace is raised by an older gentleman and his wife, much to the chagrin of their daughter, Heather. There’s also a mysterious professor, acerbic footman, compulsively hoarding chef, and bumbling goon. A lot of the story revolves around Horace’s relationship with the man who raised him, who he refers to as the Old Man, as well as Horace’s relationship with young Heather. At first, she does not like Horace at all, but that starts to change after he saves her life. I’d say the first couple of chapters are all about teaching you the basic controls and making you love the characters. Then afterward, the rug is pulled from your feet, and everything changes. Horace is powered down, and when he wakes up, years have passed, and the entire world has changed for the worse. His goal at that point is to find and reunite with his adoptive family.
Future to the Back
While the plot is relatively easy to follow, it also meanders in unexpected ways. You’ll even time travel, as well as explore a realm of the mind. It’s clear this game was a passion project for Paul Helman and Sean Scaplehorn, and it’s equally clear it serves as their tribute to video games as a whole. They manage to shoehorn in a ton of easter eggs, such as posters involving plumber propaganda and a hacking game that looks like a brick breaker, as well as diversify how you play on a regular basis. Sure, the main gameplay is all about platforming, but you’ll also find a ton of fun mini-games. You’ll fly through the clouds, rock out, catch plates, race from armed guards, and much more besides. And much to my surprise, Horace also has some pretty epic boss battles.
Rock’em Sock’em Bosses
Like the rest of the game, the bosses start pretty simple and get more and more complex. The first one fires slow-moving missiles from a chest-mounted cannon, but later, you’ll have to race robotic snakes, trick one bot into punching itself, and even fight the next-gen Horace model. There’s a ton of variety, which I appreciate. However, I just found some of the bosses outwore their welcome, and I started to get frustrated because taking one hit immediately kills Horace, forcing you to replay the previous phase. Keep in mind, many of the bosses like to go full bullet-hell on you, making matters worse. Admittedly, you will eventually come across shields that can save you from death, but only once each. And even when the game takes pity on you and provides extra shields, you’ll still have a rough time with some of these mechanical menaces.
Such a Helpful Robot
Horace also mixes things up with fun puzzles and tricky stealth sections. An example of a puzzle is maneuvering a laser to reflect and zap something, or using boxes to make a path for your human compatriots to follow. And while that may not sound that complicated, rest assured most every section of the game after the opening chapters will force you to use your gravity-bending powers fast and accurately. For example, an early area involved running up walls to avoid dangerous rising waters in a sewer. For the most part, the platforming isn’t a big ask. But on some occasions, it can be a hassle, such as when Horace is lugging around a ticking time bomb and has to get to a specific part of the map in a few short minutes. Let’s just say I was glad I had infinite lives when that bomb exploded.
There’s another novel element to the game – trash collecting. Early on, the Old Man instills the value of cleaning up in our young robot. And even after he passes, Horace decides to honor his memory by keeping up the good work. Trash will glow periodically on the screen, and most of it is quite small. Some is downright huge, like derelict cars and safes. Generally, you’ll pick up most trash just by running past it, but the bigger it is, the longer you have to sit still to gather it, which can be a problem when trash is in the path of roving enemies or other hazards.
More Money For the Arcade
Eventually, you’ll reach a part of the game where Horace can earn money. You can do this in a couple of different ways. Either by trading in the trash you’ve found at the junkyard or by doing odd tasks to help people out. Those tasks are implemented as simple and fun mini-games. My only issue with them is that the games never explain any controls before you start. Otherwise, they’re pretty fun, even if they do last a bit too long, in my opinion. As for what you need cash for, the answer is simple – train tickets! You’ll have to buy a ticket every time you need to visit a new area, and they always cost the same amount, unless you have a lot of spare cash to buy twelve at a time.
So Much Nostalgia…
Visually, Horace is a love letter to the games of yore. It features a lot of attractive pixel art and tons of color variety. If I could have, I would have shared dozens more screenshots I took as I played through the game. And while it can be jarring whenever the camera pans really close to something, showing all the pixels, overall, I felt the art worked very well. Musically the game is great as well. The tunes almost always fit the emotional moments of the game, and I never got bored with it.
While I mostly enjoyed my time with Horace, there are a few areas it fell short. There were some areas in the game the gravity boots suddenly didn’t function properly, leading to my immediate untimely demise. There was also one room in an early chapter where the camera view was from so far away I could barely tell where Horace was standing. And though, for the most part, the game is clear about what you need to do in each chapter, there were enough large sections that lacked guidance that I started to get somewhat frustrated. Lastly, one time when I was trying to get off the train, the game froze and forced me to restart it. Otherwise, the experience was very solid.
A Very Good Robot
All in all, I can’t help but rave about Horace. While it’s challenging and may prove troublesome for those not comfortable with their platforming skills, it nevertheless features a ton of content and an engaging story. And while I was frustrated by some of the glitches and occasionally lackluster design, this is still a game I would highly recommend, especially for fans of older games and indies.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC; Publisher: 505 Games; Developer: Paul Helman, Sean Scaplehorn; Players: 1; Released: January 27, 2022; ESRB: Teen – Drug Reference, Fantasy Violence, Language, Mild Blood, Use of Tobacco; MSRP: $14.99 (digital) / $38.20 (physical)
Editor’s note: Super Rare Games provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.