There’s one thing I knew right when I booted up this game: comparisons to Hotline Miami are just going to be unavoidable. And even though I’m aware that I’m coming half a year late to the party, I’d still want to preach about what a relic Not A Hero is. Scrap that, I ought to let everybody know that Not A Hero may be one of the best indie games of 2015, and that has nothing (and I say nothing!) to envy from those stuck-up, intellectual-aspiring, Nolan-esque titles that y’all clever cats like — and that become the hipster reference for a few weeks. Yes, I’m looking at you Hotline Miami or Her Story. Not A Hero’s re-release on PS4 is a way to reach to a new audience that may not be too convinced about faux 16-bit graphics and an outright unapologetic silliness that’s difficult to account for. Particularly for a game so aligned with English satirical, self-referential and inappropriate humour. And perhaps that’s why it didn’t fully succeed with the gaming community’s sensitivity.
Not A Hero is a 2D platform/cover shooter, which subverts all expectations about platforming and shooting as seen traditionally in videogames. You can’t jump, and taking cover is more like blending with the background, leaving you quite unprotected of all melee attacks. Floor after floor, you’ll have to mow down Russian gangs or ‘pan-Asian’ katana-wielding mobsters, to reach an objective that barely has anything to do with the overarching story of the game. The management of your reloads, your enemies’ clips and your distance to them configures the core elements of gameplay. On top of this, both you and enemies are pretty fast bridging that gap, which makes reloading a great risk, as it leaves you vulnerable to any attack. But the other way works too! You can slide and tackle enemies to knock them down for a few seconds and perform a coup-de-grace by shooting point-blank in their low-res faces, rejoicing in the spurting of pixel blood and bathing in the power-inspired wallop of endorphins. That’s when you die.
Here’s where most comparisons with Hotline Miami would arrive. Yes, the game is based around an instant spawn system which tosses you right back at the action after one click. Self-contained levels consist in buildings aimed at twitchy-paced action and taking advantage of environment elements, like doors and windows, to knock out guards, create escape routes, obstruct the enemy’s field of vision and manage their aggro range. The shift from top-down to 2D side-scroller is mostly incidental, and many of the design choices come naturally as a result. For example, the regenerative life bar over the one-shot kill, which would be absurd when all shots occur in the same plane. In a way, Not A Hero could be considered a homage to Hotline Miami, adding mild pathfinding and platforming to the mix, but putting emphasis on management of your own ammo, distance, and all in all, meticulously-timed combinations of slides, reloads and shots, rather than lines of sight. The imprecise cover system is more of a favourable addition to the mix, plus, any shot at close quarters will make enemy heads explode; just make sure that they’re not close enough to knock you over!
Many have pointed out that the bright colours of the background and the unappeasing beat of the electronic music doesn’t work as well to depict the different neighbourhoods of a city of England — not even London — as well as it did with Miami. And to a certain point, I disagree. Not A Hero doesn’t cover the screen with a chromatic aberration and static-like filters to give a feeling of drugged-up 80s depressive psychedelia, but the bright greens and pinks are more like a reiteration of the senselessness throughout the game. It brings out the blood, the characters and objectives, giving you a sense of disassociation with reality and remarking on the multidimensional references that this humorous, vicious, hallucinogenic trip carries. The music, just like in Hotline Miami, remarks on this idea and up-paces your game, making you rush things, die more, and turning this cycle into a drug. You end up abstracting yourself from the world with that perennial ‘just one more go’ craving, invigorated by every small rumble of your controller every time you shoot.
Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned, Not A Hero takes a completely different approach to storytelling. It rejects the melancholic and introspective tone of Hotline Miami to U-turn it into an unashamed and relentless rejoice of blood and gore, adorned with snarky and inappropriate one-liners, and blatantly nonsensical and awkward dialogue and plot. Super Bunnylord wants to become Mayor. Mayor of England. And it’s crucial that he does so, because otherwise there will be a massive catastrophe. Thus, you must help Bunnylord gain popularity before the elections by reducing — rather, eliminating — crime rates in the city. By shooting people in the face. Not A Hero is a game whose text is openly about politics. Bunnylord’s candidacy and the measures taken to become elected are, clearly, a shallow commentary on political runs, and many have pointed out how flat this satire falls. Bunnylord comments openly about the atrocities that you’re helping him commit and there’s barely any space for subtext. In fact, you could even argue that the game’s subtext is actually not about politics at all. But that’s what this game is aiming for.
You see, in order to understand this game’s goals and why it has such an eloquent commentary on videogame and social issues, we ought to take a look at games and gamers — bear with me. Firstly, we have to understand what gamers are in the West — traditionally, and under broad-brush statements. Games have always had a relatively young audience, one that nowadays has been able to see the shortcomings of neoliberalism and twentieth-century capitalism. As a result, and particularly in the past five to ten years, most of the videogame market has been dominated by the emergent American all-loving left-wing movements that have most of the American youth rallied up. We’re talking about an all-inclusive, politically correct discourse, which has focused its efforts in rejecting any authority from white men. A quick peek at Gamergate issues just shows how loyal media and videogame makers have been to this narrative. On top of that, it’s been argued that videogames have a didactic imperative towards consumers, and the union of these two ideas results in teaching all kids about the importance of social awareness and political correctness through games.
However, this doesn’t always resonate in Europe just as much. Not A Hero is one of the few games that I’ve seen that rejects that idea. It denies having any moral responsibility to its consumers and becomes an insight into these issues from a very self-aware English perspective. It expects you to ignore the political commentary, even though in reality, it is making one and subverting itself. Every single character and enemy is an over-the-top stereotype, be it a Welsh woman yelling “Come at me, boyo!” or a gang of black armed men growing cannabis. It reaches its tongue-in-cheek status by exaggerating these stereotypes and making a corny joke about them. When a black enemy screams “I am black!” as a catchphrase, the game is satirically and unnecessarily reaffirming all the symbols that are associated with a low-class black gangster as seen in films and other media. Not A Hero does not intend to be offensive, or racist, by any means, but rather, it’s stating that it can be ok to have a laugh with racial stereotypes, because they’re absurd, funny and don’t mean anything. It’s illustrating that none of this is real, so there’s no reason to be offended. In fact, the devs laugh at themselves too.
The more missions you do, and the more side objectives you complete, different characters will look up to Bunnylord’s cause and join their ranks. Most of them are British, and all of them have a very unique personalities that pokes fun at accents and stereotypes. Like Cletus, the shotgun-wielding guy who pretends to be Scottish to look tougher. And again, I’m not saying — or the game, rather — that it’s fine to be racist. Simply, that stereotypes, and racial quips can be inoffensive. Put it this way: as a Spaniard, I’d never get offended by Jesus (pronounced hey-zooz), who’s called Spanish in the game, and is a flamboyant, pink V-neck shirt-wearing Latin American who continuously dry-humps the air and has a Martini when he dies. But in all fairness, who wouldn’t love to be like Jesus? Not A Hero intends to show that there’s no harm in being politically incorrect — or, as a stretch, having the perspective of an English white person. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but it’s clear that such blatant and incendiary puns are very deliberate.
In fact, if we have a close look at what the rest of the dialogue is doing, we see that some jokes are so absurd, and the plot so ludicrous, that it’s clear that none of this has any connection to reality. It reinforces the idea that the game is a self-contained parody of reality, and that much of its intent is to have a laugh and shoot some people in the face. Incidentally, this is one of the main themes in Bunnylord’s debriefs in-between missions. He mentions how thrilling and, at the same time, absurd, killing so many people is, rendering it only pertinent to a videogame. Because Not A Hero also makes a commentary on itself, videogames and how stupid some plotlines can become to keep the player engaged. Instead of falling flat, it’s just another tool to understand how different reality and actions are to innocent quips and videogames. And the dialogue! If there’s a game that nails catchphrases, it’s Not A Hero. But more importantly, Bunnylord’s awkwardness, created by the pacing of the appearance of the sentences on the screen and the comical and self-referential content is just brilliant.
Look, I’m aware of Not A Hero’s flaws. I know its shooting system is less fair than Hotline Miami’s, and that its visual and sound design are not as meaningful too. What’s more, I’m even sure Not A Hero’s commentary and presence is not as relevant or ground-breaking in videogames. But it manages to convey quite a complex view on social issues from a perspective that’s laid-back, unpretentious and very real — even with the surrealistic settings. The reason why I’ve come to love this game is because it’s not just another languid, introspective game that yearns moral authority, but rather, one that’s able to take a conversation into more light-hearted grounds, and keeping it addictively fun in the process. In the words of Spanish Jesus: “Ok, let’s kick some coo-coo and get out of here”.
NOT A HERO (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
With a very high-pace and addictive gameplay, Not A Hero will have you enjoying every single second you play. On top of this, the sarcasm in this game will have you laughing constantly, with a very clever statement about politics.