How important are visuals in a video game? When you’re playing a game you love, do you pay special attention to the graphics and how they’re constructed, or do you simply lose yourself in the game? This isn’t an easy question to answer. The entire mainstream triple-A video game industry is arguably predicated on the idea that visuals are everything – that spectacle and increasingly pretty graphics are the most important thing about gaming, and that each successive console generation should improve this aspect and pay a little less attention to gameplay complexity.
Conversely, the independent gaming industry is largely focused on improving gameplay and constructing experiences around solid core concepts, with visuals often an afterthought (or an artistic choice). Some of the best indie games around such as Undertale, VVVVVV and Shovel Knight don’t feature cutting-edge 3D graphics; rather, they’re built entirely around their gameplay and challenge factors. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s played these games who wouldn’t recommend them, so clearly they’re doing something right.
It’s into this latter category that Stickman Hook falls. Brought to us by French studio Madbox (who you might recognize from games like Dash Valley and Monster Copter, especially if you’re a mobile aficionado), Stickman Hook is a fresh, compelling physics platformer that strikes the perfect balance between gameplay and presentation. Clearly, a legion of fans agree: Stickman Hook has amassed over 20 million downloads between Apple and Android devices, and it’s consistently to be found in the top 3 apps across all categories, not just gaming.
The version we played is a new, exclusive web build which you can play on sites like Poki.com. We were impressed right out of the gate with the changes the web build brings to the table; although we’re huge fans of the mobile version, and despite everything we said above about presentation, we’re still suckers for a good old-fashioned visual revamp, so we appreciate the overhauled animations and tuned-up gameplay that this new build features.
At its core, Stickman Hook is unchanged from its mobile version, at least when it comes to gameplay. You are a stick figure, and you must use your trusty grappling hook to fling yourself with abandon across gaps, over walls and past platforms. There is no other mechanic besides this grappling hook; there’s no weaponry, no RPG elements (although there is an XP bar which increases as you play) and no open-world aspect. Stickman Hook is a proper old-school game of the sort you might have played back in the NES days.
It’s impossible to overstate how refreshing that is, especially in a market that’s arguably oversaturated with “big” games. Sometimes, it’s a breath of fresh air simply to play a game that is as unpretentious and sure of itself as Stickman Hook. Over the course of well over 100 levels (we’re nearer 150), you’ll swing, leap and pray your way to victory, all the while marvelling at just how much Madbox has managed to wring out of the game’s core concept.
Yes, this isn’t just your standard swinging platformer, although there are certainly elements of that. Anyone who’s played the 2D iterations of Bionic Commando will be familiar with the territory here, although the gameplay of Stickman Hook is far more fluid and seamless than its progenitor. Swinging has a pleasingly “loose” feel to it, with each successive leap feeling natural and smooth. We’ve already mentioned the gorgeous new animations, but we can’t help ourselves – the visuals here are slick, with each frame looking and feeling fantastic.
Difficulty is often a problem in games like this, and some of the titles we mentioned earlier have serious problems when it comes to constructing a reasonable gradient of difficulty (lookin’ at you, Bionic Commando). Luckily, we have no such qualms about Stickman Hook. The difficulty here feels fair and balanced at all times, which is often more than we expect from projects like this. Some of the challenges in the later game feel a little bit “really?”, in that we’re not sure how we managed to muddle past them, but we know that with a little more time and a few more repetitions we’d have managed to find a satisfactory solution.
That “seat of the pants” quality is part of what makes Stickman Hook so special, though. There’s something wonderful about being stuck swinging on a pendulum and not having any idea how to get to the next one, or about flinging wildly and giddily through the air and searching desperately for a hook to cling to. Pulling off a level smoothly is all well and good, and there’s definitely joy to be had in doing so, but we loved the moments of uncertainty and potential failure just as much as we loved success.
In a way, that might be the sentence that sums up Stickman Hook. The gameplay elements here are so well-realized and compelling that we didn’t mind the moments when we just weren’t very good at it. Usually, playing a game which isn’t gelling can cause serious frustration and anger, and we’ve put down many a controller never to pick it up again because of a particularly troublesome level or challenge. Stickman Hook never gave us this problem because its swinging and platforming mechanics are tight, rewarding and well-realized.
There’s a host of unlockable extras to get, each of which becomes available as you level up, but this almost seems ancillary to the core experience of Stickman Hook. In the end, perhaps the most complimentary thing we can say about the game is that it’s a very good game, well-developed and well-made. We don’t have any caveats or problems we want to point out – the experience might be a little bit short on content if you’re looking for something seriously huge, but that didn’t feel like a problem for us and more made us feel like the game wasn’t outstaying its welcome. If you’re looking for a new game to love, check out Stickman Hook – you won’t be disappointed.