Despite the huge variety of games out there, Atum Software’s Hyposphere claims to be the most beautiful and difficult marble platformer of the bunch. That’s a pretty bold statement, and one that got me excited to put the game, and my skills, to the test.
The developer’s confidence stems from the decision to create Hyposphere in Unreal Engine 4, and they haven’t been shy about its artistic capabilities. After booting up the game, you’ll be greeted by an amber backdrop populated by planets, floating pathways and chess pieces. There’s also a woman singing about saving the human race, which is the only hint at any kind of story, so you’ll just have to take it. How this piece of metal is going to protect humankind, the singer doesn’t specify. You can’t even piece together a coherent journey from the artwork in levels, as the 3D models range from continuing the space theme with stars and space ships, to abstract eyes, blocks and lines.
At first glance, everything looks rather impressive, with the backgrounds adding depth to the surroundings. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s obvious that the models and textures are actually very basic, and there has been a heavy reliance on using Unreal Engine 4’s lighting effects to create the appearance of beauty. It’s not as crucial as solid gameplay, but the lack of personality still leaves Hyposphere feeling empty. The models never interact with the level design, and I found myself giving the marble a name just to create a reason for playing through all the levels. Ultimately, the power required for the graphics to display all their splendour just serves in creating lag.
Any stuttering of the frame-rate makes control of the marble extra difficult, as handling is based off momentum. It’s a mechanic that sounds great on paper, but hasn’t merged well with the level design choice. Even though you build speed by rolling forwards, Hyposphere demands too many tight turns and quick reaction times, so you can’t go fast without your marble careening off into the void. Attempting jumps is even worse, due to the specific momentum needed to clear every gap. It’s a leap of faith, as you can’t make adjustments in the air, and the marble will increase in speed upon landing. You’ll just have to apply the brake and keep fingers firmly crossed for every jump you want to successfully land.
Spending time playing the game does naturally make your skill with the controls improve. With each level having a simple get from point A to B design, there is some space to concentrate on the required speed and movement. In addition to this, a number of levels have multiple paths to get to the portal at the end. They each vary in difficulty, so you can judge which one you want to go for based on how confident you’re feeling.
The challenge is increased in each stage with an assortment of obstacles that range from spinning platforms and lasers to the texture of the pathway itself. The fundamental ideas that have gone into the level design work well, but never being able to see very far ahead mixes with the fight over the handling, leaving little room for mistakes.
Rarely is enough space given to safely introduce new concepts, so you’ll fall through the floor and get fried by lasers before having time to react. In level 11, I encountered a power-up that makes the marble huge so it can run between wide metal bars. Just as I was thinking, “well this is kind of cool,” the power-up ran out, despite only just being half way across the gap, and I was left to wonder how the game expected me to succeed. The accumulation of these moments led to playing the whole thing inching along the platform in fear of what was going to be thrown out next, then failing when hitting a section that suddenly required speed.
The lack of room to experiment wouldn’t be too upsetting if there was a better life system. Hyposphere starts you off with 30 lives, and you can buy more by collecting coins in each level. Choosing the harder pathways gives more coins, and thus more lives to play with. It means the game rewards you for being good at it, but punishes you by having to start from the beginning if you fail. The inability to go back and collect more coins from a level select screen puts extra pressure on dying, especially when the game freezes momentarily every time you fall.
I have to admit that I was unable to finish Hyposphere. The main reason for this was that upon returning to the game on two separate occasions, I found that it had wiped my save. My skill with the controls improved with each time I started again, but there was no incentive to master them. I do feel bad that Jeff (the name I gave the marble) will never finish his space adventure, but I get a sinking feeling that there would be little reward for his efforts even if he did manage to save the human race.
This review is based off a PC copy of the game, which we were provided with.
Beauty and challenge are supposed to be Hyposphere’s strong points, but the heavy reliance on these areas end up being its downfall. The abstract art style lacks personality, while the difficulty level mainly comes from awkward controls and unfair level design.