In September 2012, writer-illustrator Andrew Hussie – the man behind the long-running, lengthy and popular Homestuck webcomic series – announced a Kickstarter project, to raise funds for a video game set in his universe. It hit the $700,000 (about Rs. 4.48 crores) funding goal in less than two days, and had amassed over $2.4 million (about Rs. 15.37 crores) by the time the Kickstarter closed, making it the most successful comic-related campaign of all time.
But it ran into some problems, like many other major crowdfunding projects. The point-and-click adventure Homestuck game failed to deliver on time, missing its intended release period multiple times. By June 2014, the original release date put forth in 2012, it didn’t even have a name. Instead, Hussie announced that development was moving from an outside studio to the illustrator's in-house company, What Pumpkin.
In October that year, the game got a name, Hiveswap, along with the news that there would be two episodic games (the aforementioned Hiveswap, and a second one called Hauntswitch), which would have parallels between them, but could be played in either order, with your saved games carried over. More than a year later, Hussie posted an update saying it was moving away from the 3D graphics shown in the Kickstarter teaser, to a 2D system, for cost-efficiency and quicker production schedule.
Last year, a new release date was announced: January 2017; a date the game clearly missed. Things changed just a little over two weeks ago, with Hussie marking September 14 as the launch date for the first of two episodes. This time the developer is keeping its word, with Hiveswap: Act 1 now available for Windows and macOS.
The game is set in the world of Homestuck, but it has its own characters, and a storyline that is only loosely tied to the comics. You begin your adventure as a teenager in 1994 named Joey Claire, the elder sister of a nerdy boy called Jude Harley. The difference is last names is owing to the death of their mother, with Joey adopting her maiden name in her memory. Their father, described as a man who likes shooting and stuffing animals, is rarely at home.
What begins as a quaint day in the backyard of their sprawling mansion turns into creepy horror minutes later when a serpent-like monster shows up out of nowhere, chasing Joey into her room upstairs, while Jude escapes to his geeky treehouse. More monsters - each with a hideous green eye - show up later adding to your troubles.
Stuck in your room, you must figure out a way to contact your brother, and how to survive the day. Being a point-and-click adventure, gameplay in Hiveswap mostly consists of observing your environment, and clicking objects to figure out if you can do anything with them. In other words, moving your mouse around until it changes into a hand cursor.
While most items have a "look" option, some can be opened, searched, or fiddled with. This allows you to obtain things you need to progress in-game, be it taking out batteries out of a busted radio to put them in a flashlight, or getting milk out of a fridge to serve it to a "deercat", a fictional monster that Joey meets on an alien planet later in the game.
The puzzles also extend to keenly reading or picking up clues on sheets of paper in your immediate surroundings, and then using those to figure out your next move. But these puzzles are rarely ever complex, and you won't likely be scratching your brain at any moment during the first act of Hiveswap. If anything, we were left wishing that solutions weren't always as obvious as they seemed, since the 90s point-and-click games Hiveswap is based on were renowned for their convoluted logic.
And then there are the game's combat sections – Hiveswap calls these "strife" – which are triggered whenever you come across a monster. Except they don't resemble combat in the traditional sense, as you'll be tasked with figuring out a way to escape your precarious situation, which makes them another type of puzzle really. They could consist of tap-dancing and ballet (Joey likes to dance), or throwing treats or kitchen spices to distract a monster.
Comic first, game second
Hiveswap benefits from Hussie's experience as an illustrator, and the game's backgrounds are vibrant, colourful, and rich in detail. And Undertale developer Toby Fox has contributed to the game's music (because Hussie has worked with him before on Homestuck), which adds to the atmosphere of creepiness in parts.
On the story front, there are definitely some interesting nuggets of mystery and intrigue – at the centre of which is a portal that causes Joey and an unseen alien troll, who will be seen in Hauntswitch, to swap places – but it takes too long to get there. For what it's worth, it's bolstered by the kind of self-aware and self-referential dialogue that Hussie has shown with Homestuck, though that too can get tedious.
The bigger problem though is that Hiveswap suffers from a terrible imbalance on nearly every front, be it the art, music, or gameplay. While everything is brightly coloured, the central protagonist Joey wears only grey and black, and her face is completely white. Yes, it might be in keeping with the webcomic's look, but that doesn't make it appealing. The facial animations have their own issues, with the expressions not always corresponding to the situation the characters find themselves in.
Moreover, while most things are drawn in a modern style, others are pixelated as a homage to 8-bit years, which creates a rather jarring experience. It's possible that the game's switch from 3D to 2D had something to do with this, and it comes in the way of Hiveswap coming across as a "love letter to 90s adventure games", when compared to other games such as Thimbleweed Park, whose full retro tilt made you feel right at home.
Meanwhile, the game's music is organised into collections depending on what room you're currently in, rather than what section of the game you're playing. While that might work in an open-world scenario, it ends up being disorienting in a serialised story like Hiveswap, as you're never quite sure what mood it's trying to create. The game also suffers from terrible sound transitions, as moments of gameplay that intercut with cutscenes are devoid of any cohesion.
All those troubles contribute towards what feels like a unpolished experience, or one that's been cobbled together with no central vision. It almost feels like Hussie story-boarded the entire game as though he were making any other Homestuck comic, and then asked game developers to stitch it together to create Hiveswap.
That's in addition to the game's technical troubles, which includes no autosave function, the lack of keyboard support, and support for 16:9 resolutions only. In 2017, those are unacceptable compromises, the most egregious of which is the first. During our first playthrough, we assumed that Hiveswap would naturally have autosave, only to return the next day to find out our progress had disappeared.
Ultimately, Hiveswap is a let-down for fans of point-and-click adventure games, but much more so for fans of Homestuck, especially for those that contributed the millions that went towards its making. Some will just be happy with another addition in their beloved universe, but Hussie's newest creation is not just a far cry from its initial promise – it's also not enjoyable.
Rating (out of 10): 5
Gadgets 360 played a review copy of Hiveswap on PC. The game is available via Steam for Windows and macOS at $7.99 (about Rs. 500).