Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Used in the correct context, a shot of nostalgia can cause anyone to fall head over heels for whatever you’re peddling. Horace, an indie platformer from publisher 505 Games, seems to understand this all too well. Horace is littered with references and even fully-playable mini-games that call back to the 8-bit and 16-bit eras of gaming and pop culture that will immediately draw in anyone with fond memories of those times. However, games can’t excel using nostalgia alone, and thankfully, Horace avoids that fate. Though it has faults in a few areas, its strong writing and mostly inventive platforming elevate Horace to something more worthwhile than a mere nostalgia trip.
One thing you’ll notice immediately about Horace is its focus on story. Many platformers opt for an environmental storytelling approach, and though Horace still does a decent job of this, it also features numerous, lengthy cutscenes that pad out each segment of gameplay. Ultimately, this serves as both a benefit and a detriment to the game. Horace’s story is good, but the cutscenes tend to run too long and don’t always look amazing. This is mainly due to the choice to zoom in on the pixilated characters so closely. Generally, the sprites look great, but if you move in too close on anything pixilated it will inherently look like a bunch of lifeless blocks.
As far as the story itself goes, you play as the titular Horace, a wide-eyed android who loves watching television, playing old video games, and collecting garbage. Horace is “raised” by a wealthy family and quickly becomes fond of most of them. So, naturally, something goes wrong and Horace’s life is changed forever, causing him to venture out to get back the family he has lost. The story is witty, poignant, and well-written, the latter of which is particularly crucial considering all the voice acting is done through Horace himself, who I believe is voiced by a computer-generated text-to-speech program. This mechanized voice works well as a way to convey Horace’s wholesome naivety but starts to get annoying to listen to after a few hours. That being said, the writing is strong enough to carry the emotions through the emotionless voice acting, and that’s what matters most.
When it comes to gameplay, Horace once again takes inspiration from a few key genres that became popular in the 80s and 90s but adds its own spin on things. Horace is a platformer at heart but has elements of Metroidvanias and even a hint stealth thrown in for good measure. The controls feel tight and each level is meticulously designed from both a visual and gameplay standpoint. Some sections are significantly harder than others, but I rarely got frustrated due to the difficulty or felt it was unfair. Throughout Horace, you’ll unlock new equipment and upgrades that can significantly change how the game is played. One of the first items you get is a pair of gravity defying shoes that allow Horace to scale any surface, including walls and ceilings. This soon becomes a core component of the platforming and leads to some unique and mind-bending situations. For instance, certain jumps will be impossible from one angle, but if you shift the axis, the gap suddenly becomes passable. While this adds a lot of clever platforming moments, the constant shifting of the camera is rather disorienting. If you are prone to motion-sickness, this could cause some real problems, so those people beware.
Between the lengthy cutscenes and solid platforming, there are also a handful of fun mini-games to spice things up. One of my favorites is a music rhythm game reminiscent of Guitar Hero, but there are nine others that call back to classic arcade staples and they all play well. The developers put a lot of time into making these mini-games feel like entire games of their own rather than quick distractions from the main experience, and I have to applaud them for that.
As I mentioned earlier, the overall look of Horace is quite good, with tons of detailed sprites and smooth animations and only looks a rough once the camera zooms in too far during cutscenes. The backgrounds and platforms are varied, and the camera cleverly uses depth of field to create a sense of, well, depth in an otherwise 2D world. The audio is a different story, though. To be frank, the sound design and mixing is a bit of a mess. The sound effects are far too loud compared to the cutscene and music and some of the enemies and obstacles have such grating, repetitive sounds attached to them I was forced to turn the volume completely off during certain parts. You can adjust the audio mix manually in the settings, but even after tinkering with it for a while I couldn’t get everything to sound exactly right. Thankfully, the soundtrack is generally great and features catchy original compositions mixed in with a suite of recognizable musical classics reimagined with an 8-bit tinge.
Horace is a charming homage to an era of gaming and culture that’s rapidly fading into the sunset, yet it never rests on the nostalgia factor to keep the player engaged. The sound design is messy and the cutscenes can run on too long, but its affecting story and sharp, fun platforming are bound to satisfy anyone keen on the genre. Nostalgia may be a common crutch, but with a sturdy foundation beneath it, Horace shows that feeling a little sentimentality isn’t a bad thing at all.
*** PC code provided by the publisher ***
- Well-written story
- Tight platforming
- Fun mini–games
- Good amount of nostalgia
- Sound effects and mixing are grating
- Camera rotations can be dizzying
- Some cutscenes run too long