High Strangeness review – Charming nostalgia

There are many retro-influenced titles on the eShop. Elliot Quest, Shovel Knight, and Mutant Mudds Deluxe are just a few that immediately come to mind. With so many indie titles taking their claim to retro style gaming, I have become a little more weary when I hear things like a game being “A 12-bit Transdimensional Adventure.” High Strangeness, a collaboration between Barnyard Intelligence Games and Crystal Labs, claims to be a hybrid between 8-bit and 16-bit games; hence the 12-bit adventure. Does this gimmick prove to be a worthy gameplay addition, or a simple throw-away feature?

High Strangeness utilizes what the developers call "12-bit" gameplay
High Strangeness utilizes what the developers call “12-bit” gameplay

Visuals – 6.75/10
The visuals are a pretty standard affair, but they’re done efficiently and used effectively. Animations are smooth, and the color usage is nicely implemented. In addition, the character designs – both actual full body designs and the mug shots used when dialogue appears on-screen – are well done. I rather enjoyed Boyd’s character design (protagonist), simply because his reminded me of a ’90s game – the longer “grunge” hair, headband, black t-shirt with torn jeans. It is little details like this that help to build character and charm for High Strangeness.

Along with these details, the actual visual gimmick works out extremely well; the player can switch between 8-bit and 16-bit visuals to solve puzzles and progress further in the game. This visual twist is very nicely done, and really stirred up some nostalgia. Devolving to 8-bit, then upgrading back to 16-bit is smooth, adds to both visuals and gameplay mechanics, and gives different perspective on various levels. The blurring effects used, 8-bit/16-bit designs, and implementation of this gimmick are some of the games strengths; it’s a fun and creative way to use visuals as gameplay, as well.

There are some flaws, however. There were a few times the frame rate dipped dramatically for about five seconds, when many enemies were on the screen at once (outside of a cutscene). Now, there weren’t many times that a large amount of enemies filled the screen at once while playing, but it was enough of a deterrent to mention. One other [minor] complaint I had with the game was that there weren’t enough enemies designs. What was there was well done, but I would’ve enjoyed just a little more variation.

Something else I wanted to mention, which was a mixed bag for me, were the scrolling artwork pieces that filled different cutscenes progressing the story within the game. The story would be told through text at the bottom of the screen while a long piece of artwork would scroll upward, working in tandem with the story being told. On one hand, I really enjoyed this method and thought it to be rather creative. On the other hand, however, I usually wasn’t too impressed with the artwork displayed and thought it to drag on perhaps a little too long (you can speed up/skip the cutscenes, but I wanted to follow the storyline, so that rarely happened). This was more of a preferential aspect, but thought it deserved to be mentioned. Another visual choice that I wasn’t a big fan of was the large amount of unused area surrounding the actual gameplay screen. This shows up on both the TV and the GamePad, and I really wish it would’ve been sized out to fit accordingly. Again, I do realize this is preferential, but if that sort of thing isn’t “your jam,” it’s something to think about before purchasing the game.

Though hindered by a technical issue and a few mis-steps in art direction, the 8-bit/16-bit visual gimmick helped to capture my attention and bring charm and character to High Strangeness.

The 8-bit/16-bit mechanic is quite entertaining, actually
The 8-bit/16-bit mechanic is quite entertaining, actually

Audio – 8.5/10
The music and audio in High Strangeness was one of my favorite aspects about the game, outside of the visual gimmick. Firstly, the audio cues and sound choices by the developers are spot on. They fit each action, are varied, and truly resemble a ’90s SNES game. From the whoosh/slap sound the flashlight makes when you hit an enemy, to the grated bit-filled sounds of a boss roaring, the audio cues work well.

As far as compositions go, I really enjoyed the music in High Strangeness. I couldn’t help but think of my younger gaming days while playing through the title; I often found myself humming along to level themes once I got used to them. The music also fit very well into each level and each cutscene, helping to further build the character of the game. In fact, the music even managed to help some areas of the game that were a little lacking. For example, during the scrolling cutscenes I previously mentioned, the music was good enough to make some of the lengthier ones more enjoyable to watch/listen to.

I really enjoyed the music in High Strangeness, and it invoked a pleasant amount of nostalgia. Cues and music are on point, and it truly helps the game experience.

The enemy character designs are nicely done; just wish there were a tad bit more
The enemy character designs are nicely done; just wish there were a tad bit more

Gameplay – 8/10
The gameplay in this title is very simple and straightforward. Essentially, the player navigates Boyd, finishing somewhat simple tasks to progress the story further. The camera is above and slightly behind your character, and you traverse the landscape in a way similar to earlier Zelda titles. As the player progresses, new powers and upgrades will become available, and some can be earned by collecting “eyes” from defeated enemies. Pressing the “B” button uses your main weapon – which is the flashlight equipped from the beginning of the game – while pressing the “A” button uses your secondary weapon. Pressing the left or right bumper utilizes the crystal skull that switches between 8-bit and 16-bit visuals.

The secondary weapons are obtained throughout the game, and each can be upgraded, as well the flashlight and clothing (which essentially add up to armor upgrades). The upgrade system is simple, and only a few of the items to upgrade are actually worth upgrading (only one is needed for upgrade to complete a certain puzzle later on in the game). The secondary weapon variety, however, is rather nice: throwable CDs, firecracker “bombs,” and possession of a Keeper are a few of the choices.

The menu changes location depending on where the player is on-screen. A nice little attention to detail
The menu changes location depending on where the player is on-screen. A nice little attention to detail

The player will use all of these weapons at some point in the game, whether with puzzles or boss battles. Though each is used at least once, there are only a couple that I used consistently throughout my play-through of the game, thus making the others more just a preferential addition, depending on how the player wants to play the game.

Where the gameplay really shines is through the visual gimmick I’ve spoken about already. I don’t want to give anything away, since discovery and realization regarding the usage of the visual mechanic is a large part of why I enjoyed the gameplay, but the gimmick is well done. Could it have been used a little more? Sure. But, since the game only lasted roughly five hours to play through, it would’ve probably felt a little overbearing if the gimmick was used much more. In fact, I felt that it was tastefully sprinkled throughout: sure, it’s a main gameplay mechanic, but I never felt tired of it or that it became something boring.

This mechanic really brought enjoyment to my game experience, with some of the puzzles being nicely created with it in mind. Not only does the mechanic add to the gameplay experience, but it helps to make High Strangeness stand out amongst the crowd; it’s a memorable mechanic that plays on nostalgia from older gamers, while being a fun addition for newer ones. I only wish the game had been longer to see what other fun puzzles the developers could’ve come up with!

High Strangeness can be..well, strange at times, even in 8-bit glory
High Strangeness can be..well, strange at times, even in 8-bit glory

Entertainment Factor – 6.75/10
I had fun with High Strangeness. The story is incredibly over-the-top, and the characters are fun, so there’s entertainment to be had. Boyd and his cat, Abydos, embark on a rather strange journey through dimensions, gaining new friends and gathering things called crystal skulls. The skulls are powerful when all are collected, while each endows its user with a specific power.

As crazy as that all sounds, if you’re looking for a deep story, or some type of complex RPG paying homage to titles like Final Fantasy or Earthbound, you’ll want to look elsewhere. However, as a fun romp with tons of charm and a visual mechanic that is done well, High Strangeness hits the mark.

There is no online usage with the title, with even screenshots being inaccessible through Miiverse posts, and the GamePad isn’t utilized very well; though, there is off-TV play, which is nice. There isn’t too much to entice the player to come back again right after beating it, either, but the game does have charm, which ended up making the overall experience rather….well, fun.

I think that’s a good way to describe this game: fun. Though the story might try to emit a feeling of seriousness, and some of the enemy designs are quite dark (the Keepers look like the Grim Reaper, for instance), I never felt that the game was completely serious. And you know what? That’s just fine. I had a fun five hours with High Strangeness.

HS Logo

High Strangeness does have it’s shortcomings: minor technical issues, some minor gameplay mis-steps, and no real usage of the GamePad. However, due to it’s sheer charm – thanks to both visuals and audio that truly feel retro – and the 8-bit/16-bit visual mechanic, the game earns a recommendation from me. By the end of my play-through, I felt like I had a fun time with the title. High Strangeness is a nice little “12-bit” adventure that pays homage to the SNES days of old.

You can purchase High Strangeness for $9.99 on the Wii U eShop.

Overall – 7.4/10

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