Genre: Indie, RPG
Developer: Mason Lindroth
Publisher: Mason Lindroth
Release Date: Oct 2, 2015
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.
Cooper Union graduate Mason Lindroth started developing video games in the winter of 2012, for the 25th iteration of the Ludum Dare game jam. The theme was “You are the Villain” and he published this short side-scrolling adventure game called ASMOSNOS, with a yellow dancing alien that was sent to annihilate a planet and pull off some sick moves. The story was casual and the controls were basic, but the visuals were different. Made on the game creation platform Stencyl, Lindroth embraced pixel environments that were equal parts playful and weird: walking monoliths, oblique towers, and asymmetrical thingamajigs with pastel colors and dithered textures.
All in all, it pulled off some “epic doodads”.
His later projects have attracted more fanfare from the game jam community: titles like Weird Egg & The Crushing Finger, Beachcomber, Lullaby, and the most recent Fishbowl explored different genres with playful narratives. Yet they were still constrained by time, and as such were only flash games and conceptual templates. So it comes as no surprise that, with a year of preparation, Lindroth’s Itch.io and Steam debut Hylics would be his most ambitious and complete release to-date.
Hylics is a double-narrative wrapped in randomly generated text, wrapped in textures psychedelic, wrapped in a layer of ground meat. The main protagonist is Wayne, but between acts you are Gibby, the Moonking. There isn’t much more I can say about the story, except that the some of the speech bubbles will make you cringe as hard as the worst JRPG localization efforts — all in good fun, of course.
The game takes traditional roleplaying elements — a turn-based combat interface, overworld navigation, and battle statistics — and processes them through Lindroth’s aesthetic, not to mention a bricolage of recycled concepts: his last RPG attempt Somsnosa (“more of a graphics demo than a game”) was subsumed into this work. Beaches, Ambulant Skulls, televisions, and other motifs from past titles also appear in the game.
Visuals are the first thing you’ll notice — probably the first thing that drew you to Hylics. Lindroth’s grungy low-resolution pixel-art-meets-Claymation style is a remarkably strong hit, away from the uncanny valley of sandboxes or the equally overplayed 8-bit linear nostalgia. Backgrounds, battle animations, and enemies are products of digitally compressed and distressed images. The quirk doesn’t end there: self-made audio cues and music, a combination of pensive MIDI minimalism and lo-fi garage psychedelia, shade the ambiance. NPCs spout nonsense verse and trashcans collapse randomly via touch. In Hylics you don’t just fall through the rabbit hole; you face-plant on the other end.
Beyond the auteur’s signature, the game doesn’t stand out, and it doesn’t really need to. As a one-man recreational effort with JRPG throwbacks, Hylics offers a variety of light puzzles along with a closed cast of monsters. Customize your party’s equipped armor and weapons. Learn new skills by watching television sets, and collect money from defeated enemies to purchase frozen burritos and roach food.
Without coherent dialogue, you’ll have to explore the world to get from start to finish. Or use your marvelous skills of observation and deduction to evade obstacles and navigate through dungeons! Yeah, it might sound daunting for some, but don’t feel intimidated. There’s no aim for perfection; even dying is a part of the game, transporting Wayne in a limbo where he can bulk up and travel to a previous checkpoint.
But I’m not gonna lie: if you’re the type that’s deeply invested roleplay’s narrative aspect, the game will definitely be a tough swallow. Lindroth admitted in an interview with Kill Screen that it was quite deliberate. It’s incredibly easy to overlook hints or find yourself backtracking, and neither enemies nor maps are procedurally generated. But the game design kept me immersed, continually curious, amazed, and confused until the end. And thankfully, you can save anywhere you want, automatically min/max your characters’ attributes, and heat up your frozen burritos.
While AAAs continue to pour time and money into exhaustive simulations intent on waterboarding player consciousness, Lindroth offers an alternative: a finite sensory experience, like a bowl of Blue Dream or a six-pack of Coors. A quick-fix for the attention span that redefines lowbrow gaming experience, without the conventional lowbrow price tag. Hylics is pop surrealism as game. It doesn’t exist to be profound; it simply exists to be experienced. And that’s what makes it profound.
As of October 2nd, Hylics is available on Steam for $2.99. Lindroth says it’s a two-hour gameplay. Your trip may vary.
Unique audio and visual aesthetics
Optional word salad text
Casual dungeon puzzles that can be solved or brute-forced
Lots of levers and buttons
Fans of conventional RPG stories might want to watch a Let's Play before making their purchase decision.