Not a Hero is a sharp political satire in which you attempt to get a purple anthropomorphic rabbit from the future elected prime minister by dishing out enough over-the-top violence to get the voters on your side, and I love it dearly. Only one thing in that sentence is untrue, and it’s not the bit about the rabbit, the election, the violence, or my affections.
BunnyLord has come from the future to save us, it seems, from an unexplained (but appropriately awful) apocalypse that will occur if he’s not quickly put into a position of power. With only 21 days to go until voting, he’s going to have to do something pretty bloody spectacular to get himself elected.
“Bloody” being the operative word. It’s a job fit for the BunnyLord Fun Club, the rabbit’s personal group of psychopaths and murderers, taking on the scum of the criminal underworld in the hopes of positive headlines about how the violet lagomorph is TOUGH ON CRIME. And then going for milkshakes afterwards, because it can’t all be doing horrific gun murders on people.
What this means is that Not a Hero is a fast-paced, rock-hard, blood-splattered, side-on, 2D cover shooter. Pick a character, rock into an enemy-filled stage, and try to complete your objective.
At first glance, it might not seem that hard. With the tap of a button you can slide into cover, at which point you’re functionally invincible; you’re completely immune to all gunfire at this point, so it’s just a case of waiting for enemies to pop out of their own cover so that you can blow their heads off. As if that wasn’t enough, that slide manoeuvre of yours also makes you pretty much invincible and it can be used to knock enemies to the floor, stunning them, and allowing you to instantly finish them off with an ice-cool execution move. And your health regenerates! Easy, right?
Nnnno, and that should probably be a little obvious if you’ve ever played Vanquish, which is the obvious touchstone for a cover-heavy slide-focused shooter. I mean, at first, yes. The early stages of the game do a decent job of grounding you in the basic mechanics, not least because the only character unlocked at the start – Steve – is a very bog-standard type. He fires in a straight line, he’s relatively quick, and he’s got a long-ranged and accurate pistol that reloads pretty quickly.
Then you bump into enemies with shotguns, or enemies that take lots of hits to put down, or those that simply can’t be slide-tackled into submission. You die fast, regenerating health or not. Foes are annoyingly smart, too: as soon as you tap a key to reload your gun, they’ll move closer towards you, either getting into cover a little nearer, or getting close enough that they can knock you out of cover and then blast you while you’re prone on the ground. That’s not even mentioning that they tend to provide covering fire for each other: one will fire while the other reloads, and then he’ll duck back into cover as the first opens up again.
So you’ve got three bullets left in your gun, a tanky shotgun wielder in cover to your left, and to your right are two guys with submachine guns taking turns unleashing covering fire at you. What’s the plan?
Invariably, the plan is to pull off some sort of ultra-violent death ballet. Slide into one of the guys to your right to stun him, and then put the other out of his misery with a few bullets. With luck you’re still far enough out of range of the shotgun chap that you can repeatedly stab the prone enemy in the face, taking him out of the equation, and then gun down the shotgun fellow when he tries to move back into range. Or maybe grenades? Mines? Ricocheting bullets? Do you have a big enough gun that you can shoot one guy on the right and knock his corpse into his buddy to stun him? It all depends.
Complicating matters are that each of the game’s 21 levels offer three sub-objectives, which really change up how you have to play. These range from speed-running the level to picking up objects hidden throughout, or killing 10 enemies without taking a single shot, and they all have to be done in one run if you want to 100% the level. Suddenly, you can’t just take your time and bumble through.
This is where the alternate characters come into play. While Steve is your basic type, everyone else you unlock changes things up somewhat. There’s the smooth, chain-smoking Clive, who has two guns and can fire in two directions at once, but is unable to use any special items like grenades. There’s Welsh lass Samantha who can reload and shoot while running, but has the pinpoint accuracy of a blind child on a .50 caliber machine gun. There’s Mike, a Northern alcoholic who has the devastating sawn-off shotgun and a ludicrous turn of speed… but has to reload after every two shots. There are characters with melee weapons. Etc.
What they share is that they’re all heavily exaggerated characters, with utterly ludicrous accents. Mike’s cry of “I THINK I MAY HAVE SHAT MYSELF” – one of the four or five things he might say when you highlight him on the character selection screen – makes me giggle every single time I hear it, because I’m mentally about six. And yes, that is roughly the level of humour on offer here, alongside the streak of absurdist insanity that you probably spotted when I mentioned that your goal is to get a time-travelling purple rabbit elected prime minister. There’s a staggering level of attention to detail here, considering the pixel art; they all have very unique animations and movements; they all shout individual phrases at the beginning of every individual level; they all chatter away constantly during the blasting. It’s great.
These characters, and these sub-objectives, are also where the bulk of the game’s length comes in. Honestly, you could probably blow through the entire thing in a few hours if you completely ignored all of the sub-missions… but I don’t think you’d even unlock all of the characters if you did that. Actually try to 100% the game and you’re probably talking closer to 8 hours of repeatedly exploding people’s faces into messy red pixels. Maybe more, if you’re not quite as filthy stunning as I am. Or proper magnificent, even.
Sorry. The game’s semi-randomly generated dialogue appears to have rubbed off on me a bit. What a whopping ding-dong I am.
This is both really really good, and proper filthy terrible, and oh God I’m doing it again. The good is that this is by Roll7, who made the excellent OlliOlli, and they are pretty much prize-winning amazeballs at score attack games for fuck’s sake I’ll stop. The bad is that this highlights a few really, really irritating problems with the game.
First and foremost is that the controls are tight but not occasionally not tight enough, and more than once I died because I wound up sending off my last shot in the wrong direction. This might be my own idiocy for using a gamepad rather than the precision of the keyboard, but it pretty much defaults to using the gamepad if you have one plugged in, so I’m only taking 50% of the responsibility for that. It’s not too big a hassle, though, not least because restarting is the work of seconds and levels really aren’t very long.
A slightly bigger hassle is that a few levels are time-dependent. I don’t mean in the perfectly acceptable “beat this level in 4 seconds” sort of way (although there are a lot of time attack sub-objectives too); I mean that there are multiple levels where you’re forced to wait around. It might be because you’re planting bombs on doors and have to wait for them to blast open, or…
… it might be because it’s the final level, which includes two unskippable cutscene-like animations. One lasts around 10 seconds, and one lasts, at a guess, between 20 and 30 seconds. At the start and middle of the level. And you can’t skip them. And it’s not an easy level. And there are no checkpoints because of the type of game this is, so you will be seeing them a lot, particularly if you’re trying to 100% that level.
Those might not sound too lengthy, but bear in mind that this is a game with a hyper-fast pace, where most levels (that aren’t artificially lengthened by timers) can probably be beaten in less than a minute if you know what you’re doing. It gets even more aggravating if you wind up dying to one of the insta-kill enemies that populate the last section of the game because you released slide just a fraction of a second too early, or your aim snapped back into the wrong direction when you released the direction buttons. Like I said: the controls aren’t perfectly tight, and there were a fair few deaths that didn’t feel like my fault.
Replaying the levels to 100% the entire game also led me to realise that few of the levels, in and of themselves, are actually brilliant. They’re pretty much all good (even the final level and any maps with bomb-able doors offer some very particular challenges, if you don’t get horrendously fucked off by those unskippable bits) but there’s nothing like Hotline Miami‘s nightclub level where I want to replay it again and again. I want to go back and play levels as particular characters, just to try them out and get good with them, but there are no levels that really stand out as spectacular.
But I don’t really care, because the meat of the game – the quick, gory, moment-to-moment of crashing through a window, blasting someone with a shotgun, tossing a grenade behind you, reloading, knocking a door off its hinges into the guy about to come through it, stabbing him repeatedly in the face, and then shooting his mate until his head explodes into red pixel goo – is bloody brilliant. I mean, I 100%ed it by choice, not because I felt obligated to do so, and I think that says something about it.
Yes, it’s aggravating at times. No, it doesn’t have any stand-out brilliant moments. But Not a Hero is a funny, hyperkinetic, fast, tight, and incredibly rewarding game, with brilliant music and a very British sense of humour, that you should play. At its best, it rivals Hotline Miami in requiring both a solid plan and twitch reactions, and making you feel like a proper badass when you pull it off; at its worst, it makes you think “Ooh, this is almost as good as Hotline Miami.” And if that’s the worst I feel about a game, I think we can safely call that a solid recommendation.