It’s rare, even among indie games, for a developer to try something truly unique, instead of going with some tried-and-true formula. With Black Hole Hazard, developer Superthumb makes the attempt at something unique, a game that really doesnt play like anything else. The results are… interesting, but also very mixed, creating a game that I suspect will be highly subjective.
Release date: August 29, 2016
In Black Hole Hazard, you play the role of Dr. Albert Armstrong, a researcher participating in an experiment to create an artificial black hole. During the experiement however, something goes horribly wrong (of course it does, that’s what experiments in games are for, right?) and there’s an explosion. Armstrong wakes up later in a mysterious alternate space, with no clue as to how he got there, and it’s only other occupant is a bizarre AI construct that seems to be a bit damaged and quirky. This strange space is a dangerous area indeed, filled with lasers, rotating blades, horrible death crystals, and other terrible hazards, and it’s your job to guide the good doctor through these labyrinths safely.
Of course, actually doing that is not at all simple. There is no gravity in this odd zone… instead, you must propel yourself forward with something like an air gun. The game actually controls using the mouse only… no keyboard here. You move a cursor around the screen, and the left button fires an air burst towards the cursor, and pushes Albert in the opposite direction. This creates alot of challenge in simply getting around, as while the control is very accurate, learning to use it well definitely isnt easy. What’s more, you have a tendancy to bounce off of anything you touch that doesnt kill you; it’s very easy to get caught up on stuff simply because you smacked a corner of a wall and are suddenly bouncing all over the place. But that’s not all, as the game’s challenge isnt purely about navigating traps. There are enemies all over, trying to hunt you down, and a single hit from anything kills you instantly. Fortunately, you have a laser gun to defend yourself with, fired by right-clicking, adding to the game’s complexity.
With 150 individual levels to explore, there’s plenty of challenges to overcome. Level structure tends to be a bit on the simple side… while the Steam page lists the game as having a puzzle element to it, I found this to not entirely be true. The “puzzle” bits mostly consist of simply ramming really obvious switches to open doors. Rarely is anything particularly creative or unique done with these switches and doors; most of the time, they simply open other parts of the level. As such, finding your way through each level tends to be pretty straightforward (with exceptions). Each stage is also stuffed with traps… and this is where the problems begin. You’ll find rotating saws (which sometimes move), lasers that switch on and off, destructible blocks that get in your way, warp gates that send you to other areas of the level… stuff like that is everywhere. There is no shortage of ways for the player to die horribly. The biggest issue, and the one that is likely to make or break the game for many players, is the actual level design itself.
Firstly, certain design aspects tend to repeat themselves far too often. Straight hallways filled with lasers are super common, for example, as are moving walls of blades. Both of these things quickly become rather tiresome as you encounter them over and over and over again, with variation being quite rare. Levels tend to be like that… challenging, but rather bland in their actual design. In addition to that, the game has alot of moments where it just feels outright unfair at times, producing scenarios that can only be beaten if you already have prior knowledge of what’s going to happen BEFORE encountering them, as opposed to presenting you with a genuine skill-based challenge that could be beaten on your very first attempt if you’re good enough. The portals are a good example. Often when you enter these, you’re taken to a different section of the level that you wont have seen beforehand, and much too often, there are traps or enemies really close to the portal that you come out of. This can lead to nearly instant deaths as you are completely blindsided, wondering “how in the world was I supposed to know that thing was there?”. Huge, roving lasers are another major issue. These are giant deathrays that slowly pass over the screen with specific timing, forcing you to move quickly. Unfortunately, this tends to create areas that make it feel like you’re playing Super Meat Boy, dying over and over and over again as you struggle to get a grasp on the very specific sequence of movements that must be performed in order to progress. Like many other moments in the game, this gets frustrating quickly.
Bosses tend to be fairly similar, usually consisting of some huge, unstoppable entity that simply chases you through some sort of maze that’s just absolutely stuffed with traps. A single wrong move, and you get to start all over again, until you finally get the sequence of moves right and escape the monster. Deaths in these events tend to get frustrating quickly as you keep repeating the stage over and over in an attempt to memorize it enough to succeed. And that’s the unfortunate part of the game, is that these very frustrating “memorize or die” moments will occur very frequently. Many areas also often feel more like trial-and-error than anything else, which just adds that much more frustration to the mix. And the thing about it is that the game’s difficulty isnt super high or anything. But you dont need really high levels of challenge in order to irritate the player. The fact that many levels are a bit bland in terms of design really doesnt help matters any.
There’s more to it than just the story mode though. It also offers a survival mode, which plays very differently. In this mode, it’s purely you VS the baddies, battling it out in a series of randomly chosen arenas. The goal is simple: Destroy all enemies to progress. As with the rest of the game though, this isnt easy. You’ll be dueling with your own inertia and bouncing off of things as you attempt to dodge attacks from your aggressive foes. In this mode though, you have powerups that can help you, which drop from enemies randomly. You can even get armor pickups here, allowing you to take more hits before being defeated. This mode usually doesnt take long to play, since it’s pretty darn hard, but it’s quite fun and a nice break from the story mode. There’s also a hard mode, a variation of the normal story mode, that you can unlock. One way or another, you get quite alot of game here.
Overall, this is a very interesting game. It uses a unique concept as the driving force behind the gameplay, however the level design issues prevent it from reaching the lofty heights that it might have been able to achieve. This is a game that will test your patience a bit with some very frustrating areas, and with some concepts that repeat themselves a bit too much in areas that are rather bland. But the simple fun of the game mechanics can keep you interested, and the survival mode provides a great change of pace. In the end, it’s going to depend on the individual player though. Some people are fine with the “repeat until you get it right” sort of gameplay, but others will definitely hate that. So this game isnt for everyone. But I think it’s worth a look.