We’ve covered the adventurous Hamilton a few times already, even giving five witty commenters a copy of the game. How does the Indiana Jones lookalike’s first game stack up? Read on to find out.
The game is an isometric action puzzler with a modern, cartoonish aesthetic and an upbeat soundtrack. The puzzles are the meat of the experience here, with filler comics to move along a rather weak storyline, and high score runs, speed runs, and extra challenge levels filling out the content to provide some sort of replay value. Ultimately, the puzzles are well-done and engaging, even if the action elements are found a tad wanting, and through both persist a few niggling game design flaws and technical issues.
The core gameplay mechanic is navigating Hamilton through treacherous, elevated, grid-like platforms via the WASD keys, avoiding death from the levels’ many traps and scattered enemies, and attempting to collect as much treasure as possible before reaching the exit, unlocked by a golden key hidden somewhere in the level. If it sounds like a simple action/adventure game, it essentially plays that way through the first few levels, the puzzles’ challenge not becoming immediately apparent. However, by the end of the first country (there are four “countries”, acting as hub worlds for the 10-12 missions within, plus extra challenge levels), the difficulty begins to ramp up. The key micro-mechanic that drives the challenge is the disappearing platform, a staple element that forces the player to sit back and consider his route before gleefully skipping across the stage. Some platforms can be stepped on twice before they disappear. In addition to this primary puzzle element, we have quicksand tiles, conveyor-belts, and teleporters.
The twist to the basic adventure mechanic is the player’s control of Sasha, the bird, via the mouse. Sasha can reach levers and switches Hamilton cannot, distract enemies with a hearty squawk, and collect floating bottles of a mystical juice that lets Hamilton use special powers like a sprint ability (no, it’s not steroids.) Here’s where the first hint of not-quite-right gameplay comes in: the player must click where Sasha is to fly yet, since this must be done as Hamilton moves if the level is to be completed quickly, the camera is moving far too fast for the average gamer to accurately direct the bird. If you miss the purple bottle you’re going for, you may end up clicking on the background, sending the bird madly flapping off into the distance. It’s disappointing, because the gameplay potential of controlling two complementary characters co-operatively solving a puzzle is intriguing, but it’s a tad too clumsy to ever feel very proficient at it. It’s almost as though the devs wanted Sasha to be more like the star cursor in Super Mario Galaxy, collecting extra items and keeping enemies at bay, but if that’s the case, they should have had Sasha track with the mouse movements rather than forcing the player to clumsily click around the screen to move the bird. Also, Sasha’s pathfinding can be pretty poor at times, and even moving Hamilton about can occasionally feel sluggish: quite the annoyance in an action-heavy, reflex-intensive game design.
In spite of these issues, the puzzles themselves are solid, emphasizing execution over careful planning. This is partially a result of the relatively narrow camera angle: even with the zoom level at max, players can often only see maybe a third of the stage in the bigger levels. This forces players to work out the puzzles on a smaller scale, navigating the traps, switches, and other obstacles in the immediate vicinity and worry about the bigger picture as they proceed through the level; an interesting design decision that ends up both helping and hurting the game design. It helps in the sense that the action becomes more pressing and engaging, much like a standard platformer or action title; it hurts a bit in the sense that the often-sprawling levels can sometimes only be completed by some painful trial-and-error.
That, perhaps, is my biggest problem with Hamilton: a platform stepped on and broken early on in the level may cut off the player’s only escape route, yet one would have no way of knowing this until the end section of that level. So five or ten minutes of adventurous puzzle-solving become wasted, as I think to myself, Oh. I guess I shouldn’t step on it next time. Escape – Restart Level. This isn’t a problem in the smaller levels, though, and I suspect Fatshark’s goal was for players to focus on getting high scores and learning the layout of the stage before attempting a speedrun later on. I get that, and I think they accomplished that goal, but it’s a shame that first run-throughs may often frustrate players who are more casual in their approach. We need look no further than Portal 2 to find a game design that is able to provide often-challenging puzzles without punishing the player for trying new different solutions to its chambers.
Fatshark has mentioned a local co-op mode on their Steam Store page and on their website, but it’s not really a separate mode so much as it is letting someone else control Sasha with the mouse while you focus on Hamilton. I didn’t spend much time playing in this configuration, but it does seem to be the optimal way to achieve speedruns if you’re so inclined. The campaign itself took me 7 hours to complete according to Steam, but there are 20 or so extra “challenge” missions that really up the difficulty and complement the main story puzzles quite nicely. Also, collecting some of the maps’ treasure nets you a bronze rating, more gets you a silver, and collecting every last one gets you a gold. A welcomed aspect of the game design, this decision means that sometimes the really difficult stuff is totally optional.
I do have to mention a few technical issues: first, some of the art assets seem to be low-resolution and merely stretched to their larger sizes, such as some of the introductory text and the comic book story frames, as well as the world maps. It’s not with everything; just those, so it seems jarring and out of place against the normally quite beautifully-done graphics. Hamilton got stuck on a ledge once, and it hard-locked my computer one time also. Remember too that this game only supports Windows Vista and Windows 7; XP users are out of luck.
For its technical problems, the game really does shine in its DirectX 10 mode (I was on an 8800GT, so I didn’t get to check out the DirectX 11 upgrades), the bright colors and contrasts popping off the screen against its depth-of-field affected backgrounds. The jungle-themed levels are easily the most impressive, though some of the water effects and frozen snow-capped peaks are well-rendered also. The feel is almost Donkey Kong Country-like (a definite compliment), the settings reminding the experienced gamer of a few of the SNES classic’s varied environments. It is easy to hop in a game, with load times being super-snappy, and simple, no-nonsense menus let the player pop in for a few minutes of puzzles solving and pop out as desired.
It’s hard to recommend Hamilton if you’re not a fan of puzzle games, because there is too much to work past for its often-engaging courses to truly transcend its genre as some of the classic puzzle games have been able to do. But, it’s an easy recommendation if you’re a fan of pick-up-and-play puzzle gameplay; just be ready to work on your reflexes with a keyboard and mouse. Hamilton is best-suited for those with fingers as twitchy as their minds are sharp, and at only $10 regular price on Steam, it’s certainly a solid value.
Genre: Action puzzler
Time: 7-8 hour campaign + challenge mode and speed runs
Gripes: Finicky controls, technical issues, no zoom out feature adequate to reason out the more sprawling puzzles
Get it for the: Smart puzzles, gorgeous graphics, inventive gameplay
Full disclosure: Fatshark gave PXOD a copy for reviewing purposes. Completed campaign and some challenge levels.