Just as I was on the verge of breaking out in hives from not reviewing an indie game, our own Mike Splechta was kind enough to drop Humans Must Answer in my lap. Humans Must Answer is a throwback to the 2D shoot-em-ups of old, and the breakout title for a new studio by the name of Sumom Games. Sumom’s decision to bank on such a niche genre for their debut is praiseworthy in its own right, but nowhere near as impressive as the unlikely little title they’ve come up with.
Above all else, let it be known that, in stark contrast to the majority of modern games, Humans Must Answer is exceedingly difficult. My time with the game was spent on “hard” out of a maximum “very hard” difficulty, and looking at my struggles, I can only assume that “very hard” was developed in the ninth circle of hell. Shoot-em-up titles are known and loved for delivering the arcade-inspired lesson of “try it again, but do it right this time” with regards to difficulty, and HMA has unwavering challenge in spades. You, the player, are tasked with keeping track of the terrain, your ammunition reserves, incoming enemies, any potential secret items and the innumerable projectiles flying toward you as you make your way through each level. If you don’t, you die; it’s that simple. This can easily prove overwhelming and, at times, downright frustrating, but given the satisfaction of finally managing to dodge and explode your way through a wave of enemies, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Don't ask me; you figure it out.
HMA is packing more than raw challenge, of course. The game is dripping with style and care from head to toe, from its clean and well-realized art style to a superb soundtrack rife with electronic beats. There’s even a storyline! You’re a chicken pilot who, in the company of a chicken scientist and chicken colonel, is out to destroy mankind because they didn’t answer when you called them. Or something.
It won’t move you to tears (though it will get you laughing at times), but the included story does distinguish HMA from barebones shoot-em-ups. More prominent are the subtle improvements and innovations that the time-honored sh’mup formula has received.
Humans Must Answer is one part shoot-everything-in-sight and one part puzzle. The former delivers everything you’d expect from such a title, most notably a colorful enemy palette, multiple weapons with which to annihilate said enemies, collectible power-ups, and a vessel to upgrade. However, each of these elements ties into to the aforementioned puzzle aspect.
We’ll start with the most prominent upgrade: deployable turrets. As you fly your main ship, the Golden Eagle, around the battlefield, you can also drop stationary turrets to keep up the onslaught in your stead. The deployed turret will continuously fire whatever weapon you select (by hitting the “turret” button and then a weapon’s fire button) until it runs out of ammo, allowing you to direct your attention elsewhere. This allows you to manage two streams of enemies simultaneously, frees you up to hunt after hidden items (that’d be Metal and Golden Eggs), and most importantly, manipulate the environment as your progress.
Enemy ships aside, you’ll have to unlock doors, disable mines and laser walls, clear blockages and make use of environmental tools as you progress through each level. This injects a refreshing bit of variety into the 2D levels as well as the gameplay and prevents “hold A to win” syndrome.
Both the puzzle and combat sides of HMA are deepened by the ability to completely rebuild your ship at will. Once acquired, weapons and special abilities become interchangeable at the Shop (which is accessed before each level), allowing you to re-spec and customize your ship to the upcoming situation. Weigh the value of brief invulnerability to momentarily slowing time, and a close-range shotgun to a payload of bombs, then own both because you’re able to sell and re-purchase armaments without penalty. Coupled with HMA’s distinct level variety, this establishes a theme to each section of the map and allows content variety to keep up with the pacing of level progression.
However, the Shop is not without its faults. While most upgrades are straightforward enough—earn X money and buy the thing—there’s confusion to be had in purchasing items with Golden Eggs. By scoring highly (destroying ships) and finding secrets (destroying things that aren’t ships), you earn Golden Eggs which are directly used for purchasing equipment and indirectly act as the key to new levels (that is to say, you don’t buy access to levels but must accumulate the requisite egg total). Strangely, though, as you advance in the game, upgrades that could originally be purchased with Golden Eggs swap to normal money. This transition is completely random, as are the values for the upgrades, and all but nullifies the dual-currency upgrade system. It effectively renders Golden Eggs, and especially replaying levels to earn the maximum number of them, worthless, since by the time you earn the necessary amount, you can just spend regular money.
I'm gonna crash into one of those, I just know it.
Confusion rears its ugly head in gameplay as well, particularly in the trouble of distinguishing background objects, which exist solely to liven up the scenery, from foreground objects, which exist solely to destroy your ship. This murky overlap led to countless, then-inexplicable deaths as I progressed through the game, and frequently pushed HMA’s chaos from challenging to annoying.
Fortunately, neither of these issues are enough to drag Humans Must Answer down from being a hectic yet pleasant return to a bygone genre.