FPS Review

HROT – Review | Exploding Bodies Are Fun

I’ll start with a quick reminder that HROT is in Early Access. A lot of what is criticized here may be fixed or changed in the future.

Retro FPS games have been on the rise recently, and as with every new popular trend, many titles come out trying their own spin on them. HROT attempts to mix the old-school aesthetic and gameplay with soviet post-apocalyptic themes. Does it succeed?

Right off the bat, HROT starts without any fussy prissy introductions. No boring hand-holding tutorials, no flashy cutscenes telling you how to feel, and no over charismatic character voicing every action; Actually no one speaks at all. You’re left to discover the mechanics of the world by playing, exploring, and experimenting with it, which makes the experience all that more immersive.

HROT - Pistol

A Humorous and Compelling Universe

One of the main focuses of HROT is to create a compelling universe that feels genuine and mysterious. The places around you seem real and things are changed by your actions; you can notice small details when interacting with the environment, such as using objects that don’t have any purpose other than to fill in the blanks and give more depth to how the world reacts to you. Radios can be turned on and off, telephones ring, washing machines run, etc. Hell, the game even does the Half-Life thing where if you hit a killed enemy with your melee, it’ll explode in thousands of tiny bits. It’s not necessarily realistic, but it’s certainly charming. Name one other game that lets you flush down a massive turd AND gives you an achievement for it… 

Speaking of humor, HROT has it, and though I don’t want to spoil most of the amazing jokes, it doesn’t interrupt the atmosphere at all. In fact, I believe it complements it. It’s the type of comedy that’s not thrown in your face, but rather subtly shown. This absurd humor can only be compared to an anime like Nichijou, but if Nichijou presents its surreal jokes unexpectedly and loudly under casual settings of work, home, and school, HROT does so by contrasting the grim setting and dark ambiance with silly details and events that are part of the universe itself and take you completely by surprise. It helps that most of the jokes are done by the player’s actions themselves, making them feel even more unpredictable and genuine. The humor only furthers your doubts about what the hell is actually going on in the world of HROT.

HROT - Enemy

Story

Nothing. Nothing is going on. The game doesn’t have a story at all, which is confirmed by the creator himself in a forum post. That’s a bit sad, honestly. All this atmosphere, all this amazing immersion, and world-building… only not to do anything with it. While playing through HROT, I was always expecting something to be explained, some piece of information that would intrigue me to discover more about the story. I was making up theories in my mind, yet nothing came. 

In the post, Spytihněv explains that, for his previous game, Tragedy of Prince Rupert, he wrote a whole book of lore and nobody cared about it, which is why he decided to make a storyless game. Now, I actually went and bought the game so I could see what he was talking about and I can say that the developer doesn’t understand why nobody cared about it. 

The story is presented in an incredibly non-compelling way: the pages of the book will be unlocked as you achieve feats in the game. It makes the narrative feel disconnected from the actual gameplay, instead of complementary to it. People don’t want a story to encourage gameplay, they want the gameplay to drive the story, so that players will be invested in it while playing. The ideal way to push forward the plot and bring attention to it is by showing and developing it with exposition in the levels themselves. What many games fail to understand is that not many people want to read codexes, annotations, and such. These are things that will just take you out of the experience.

Exposition, at least in HROT’s case, should be told by context, as clues in the environment. Slowly, we should start to understand what really happened in the town, what the protagonist’s motivations are, and why the hell he wants to kiss a picture of Gustáv Husák. All that the game tells us is that some unknown disaster went down in 1986 (gee, I wonder what they’re talking about, huh?), which made a town previously inhabited, be abandoned, and overrun with monsters. I like that the story is up to interpretation, but when no clue is actually given as to what is going on, what’s the point? Not many people buy a game based on its story only, but I believe it’s a waste of potential not to develop a narrative with HROT’s storytelling. Dusk, for example, leaves a lot up for interpretation, but still develops lore alongside its amazing atmosphere.

HROT - Exploring

Exploring and Executing

While HROT is lacking storywise, the gameplay is done masterfully. The movement is fluid and responsive, as well as the shooting. Running around blasting enemies just feels good. This is helped by the intuitive and clear level design that always leads you exactly where you need to be after completing an objective, sort of removing the monotony of backtracking (though I did get stuck at one point for not spotting a tiny fuse box above my field of view). Enemies are varied, challenging, and fun to fight against, with weapons that feel mostly impactful and strong.

Sadly, the guns’ beefiness is a bit weakened by lacking sound design. It’s not that they sound bad. It’s just kind of disappointing considering that sound is one of the most important parts of making a gun feel good. When compared to classic sound effects from games like Quake, HROT’s are no better than wet farts.

Childish scatological jokes aside, HROT has a nice variety of weapons for its first episode that are all fun and satisfying to use.

Your weapon reel consists of:

  • A surprisingly decent hook that works fine if you’re trying to save ammo on weaker enemies
  • Pistols that can be dual-wielded
  • A soviet shotgun that is devastating from up close
  • Another soviet shotgun that is even more devastating from up close (but uses two shells)
  • A submachine gun 
  • Grenades 
  • A devastating rocket launcher that pulls ammo from the grenades
  • A lightning gun that has barely any ammo available for it, but provides pretty good DPS
  • A lightning ball gun that is really just a dollar (or ruble) store BFG9000 from the OG DOOM that shares ammo with the standard lightning gun
  • YET ANOTHER shotgun (called “Hussite Shotgun”) that might as well be a sniper rifle, given the range and zero spread of that thing.

HROT - Level

Pacing and Music

The sense of pacing is great, as the game shifts from more confined spaces that require you to use corners and cover to your advantage, to more chaotic fights in the open that test your projectile dodging skills; Thank god all attacks in this game are projectile-based and not hitscan! You’ll never feel like things are going too fast or too slow, as a few moments to breathe are given after every large battle, mostly consisting of finding secret passageways or figuring out how to progress.

This change of pace is accompanied by an amazing soundtrack that fits both the theme and atmosphere. Mysterious tracks play during the calmer and more silent moments, emphasizing the idea of the abandoned environments you explore. These naturally grow into intense rhythms during battles, really amplifying those moments. I can’t remember a single song from HROT, but I can recall how the OST made me feel while playing, and that’s exactly the type of music a game like this needs.

Easy Mode? Screw that!

Now, the campaign has 5 different difficulty levels, ranging from very easy to very hard. Easy and very easy are, I would guess, designed for small children, the elderly, and game journalists, so it’s mostly out of the question. What will really dictate the kind of experience you’ll want to have are the last three settings, which could be categorized as two different modes: Normal, Hard, and Very Hard. 

In normal, expect gameplay like the classic Quake and DOOM, in which ammo is plentiful and you don’t always have to pay much mind to it. Normal presents more forgiving damage resistance and what feels like foes less able to take a pounding. You have considerable liberty with your weapons and mistakes are less penalized. 

Hard and Very Hard, on the other hand, turn the shooter into a battle for survival, putting a higher emphasis on resource management and health conservation. Room for error is tight here and if you were expecting the same as Normal but a bit harder, think again. On the tougher difficulties, you’ll see yourself having to consciously consider which weapon to use in each situation, learning how to counter enemies by reading their behavior, throwing explosives at the right opportunities, and paying attention to the environment. 

In this mode, resources are exhausted more quickly and any tiny bit of health pickup is a godsend, really making you feel as if you were in a desolate, hostile environment, struggling to survive. This is an incredibly fun experience, but sometimes it goes way too far. Even if you make every shot count, there are times in which you may find yourself living in a beautiful house with little to no ammo in the middle of a boss fight. This can mean you’ll either have to reload an earlier save and replay a whole section trying to use as few resources as possible, or just restart the entire level. It’s pretty frustrating that there are no pickups in the boss arenas, and I don’t see a reason as to why. You often need to use a lot of resources in these large fights, it’s natural that you’ll end up emptying your guns. Also, lack of ammunition makes playing levels by themselves after finishing the game a bit inconvenient, since you’ll always start with a hook and pistol no matter what. This could be easily fixed by just giving more weapons and some ammo at the start of every level when selected individually.

Shades of Brown

When you’re not fighting waves of enemies, you’re exploring the abandoned streets of Czechoslovakia, taking in the aesthetics of a past soviet society. The game’s visuals are perfectly monochromatic. Everything is made up of different shades of brown and the developer still manages to make most of the locations feel unique and powerfully imposing when coupled with the soviet brutalist architecture of the game, which fits the 90’s retro aesthetic like a glove. 

The artist takes immense creative liberty in making your enemies seem as hostile as the environment. They often use exaggerated body shapes, tinted with surreal designs. The brown color palette doesn’t feel monotonous at all… during the first chapter. I feel like, if we were to play a whole new chapter with the same colors, it’d probably get boring. I’m not saying the developer should change art direction entirely, that’d be an insane decision, but it’d be good to start considering a more varied use of brown, with a few shades of red and maybe even slightly green, without moving the focus from dark, muted colors. 

A lot of visual changes can be made in the options regarding the field of view and hand model placement, but I wish you could remove those flashes on the screen when collecting items. Being able to reset your changes to default would be great too, as well as adding numbers alongside the customization bars to represent stuff like the resolution.

But Wait! There’s More!

Last but not least, HROT has a pretty fun endless wave mode for those who just can’t get enough of the game (like me!). Currently, it only has one map, but I’m sure that more will be added in the future. It’s a good way to test the weapons and mechanics you couldn’t in the main campaign. Ammo is much less scarce in this mode, so go nuts.

Verdict

So, does HROT succeed as a throwback shooter? Hell yes. It manages to create a fun, unique, and engaging experience that understands exactly what made retro games so great and incorporates these aspects in its own original way alongside an impressive atmosphere. It’s an incredibly promising Early Access title that is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

HROT IS A MUST BUY

Platforms: PC

If you would like to see more FPS games, you may be interested in our review of BPM: Bullets Per Minute.

Many thanks go to Spytihněv for a PC review code for this title.

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