When SUPERHOT made its debut on the E3 stage back in 2015, the trailer raised more questions than it answered. Originally created as part of a game jam event, the developer – also called SUPERHOT – managed to raise over $250,000 through crowdfunding to bring the strange FPS to life. Fast forward to the present day and the game of manipulating time and shooting red guys has finally reached the Xbox One.
It's a little bit brilliant.
Upon firing the game up, you're loaded into "piOS", which is the old-school operating system that functions as both the game's menu and also as a storytelling device. Through text chats and rummaging through an equally text-based filesystem, you learn more – although not too much more – about SUPERHOT, being coaxed into loading up the superhot.exe by a nameless friend. Once you do, you're transported into a heavily stylized world where initially, it seems that your only goal is to survive, defeating all of the "red guys" (it's descriptive, for they are guys and they are red and that's about the only backstory they have) before they defeat you.
The kicker – and what a kicker it is – is that time only moves when you do. It sounds like that would make things overly easy. After all, if someone aims a gun and shoots a bullet at you but it only moves when you do, you'd be able to see it and dodge it with ease, right? As it turns out, that isn't the case, as when you move to avoid the bullet, the bullet may hurtle towards its original goal and miss you by an inch, but that other enemy on the other side of the room is also moving, and he has a shotgun which shoots five bullets at a time in a wide spread. Uh-oh.
What the time manipulating dynamic does is take what is very much a straightforward FPS featuring short levels, and add an element of puzzling to the mix. In all but the game's "Endless" modes, the enemies appear from the same locations and in the same order every time you replay a level, so you know from whence the opponents will come. Planning your route through and then moving as little as possible in order to prevent surprises is the key to success and engaging in straight-up firefights isn't going to do you any good. The main reason for that is that because time doesn't progress unless you move, you can't just rattle off shot after shot with abandon. You need to take a shot, move until your gun is ready to fire again, then fire off another round. This makes planning tricky, since it's all well and good to punch a red guy in the face, grab his shotgun, and blow him away with it, but now you're stuck for a second or two until the next bullets have clicked into the chamber for your next attack.
Fortunately, melee combat and weapons are on offer for situations such as this. On top of allowing you to engage in a bit of fisticuffs, SUPERHOT contains a variety of throwables, as well as katanas and baseball bats, and far from being just decorative, these form a key component of the game in that not only can they be used to kill, but they can be used to disarm. If a red guy is hit by a pot or an ashtray or whatever else you've found, they drop their weapon. The slow progression of time means that you can grab it out of the air and use it against them before they can recover, which leads to some absolutely brutal and violent gameplay. Red guys shatter when they're defeated and there's no blood, so it's a "safe" kind of violence, but it feels cathartic nonetheless when you chop one guy with a katana, grab his gun, take out the fella with the shotgun, grab HIS gun, take out the baseball-bat carrying guy behind you, steal the bat, and pulverize the last enemy to complete the level before he can take you down.
This disarming action is something that comes to the fore later on in the game, too, when you unlock the ability to "Hotswitch" into an enemy's body. You point the reticle at them and hit the X button, instantly becoming them and leaving your old self to die. It's a great way of getting out of a fix but takes a while to recharge, so you can't just switch, switch, and switch again to avoid incoming fire. When you do switch, you also have to consider the person that you're switching to, since the switch causes whatever weapon they're holding to be destroyed. So naturally, with a bit of resourcefulness, you can find something to throw at them, causing them to drop the weapon, then switch bodies and grab the firearm while it's still in the air. Maybe you'll throw your katana at them to spear them with it, then switch to the fella standing next to them so that he can grab their gun before it hits the deck? There are choices to be made for sure and even though you'll likely end up making them hundreds of times, every single one of them feels rewarding and fun.
We say that you'll make choices hundreds of times not because the main story is particularly long – it isn't, weighing in at 30 or so levels – but because of the number and quality of modes that are unlocked once you've played through. Truth be told, the main game is enjoyable and fun, but does feel a little bit lightweight in terms of playing time. Fortunately, the developers have more than made up for that by adding interesting and enjoyable challenge modes, such as being limited to playing through the game only using a katana, or your fists. Failing that, there are two "speedrun" modes to take on. One where the clock runs in real time, the other where it only runs when you move. If that wasn't enough, a series of "Endless" modes, themselves split into different challenge types, are also on offer. There's an achievement in the list that tasks you with killing more than 1,987 red dudes in endless mode and when viewing that achievement list before playing, we thought "Well, that'll be a grind."
It turns out that it won't be. You'll come back and play the endless mode time and again, plus the challenge modes, since the game mechanic itself is as rewarding, challenging, and fun as it is. The game's aesthetics play no small part in the enjoyment either, with the bold, brash, in-your-face audio and full-screen text commands helping to create a feeling of oppression that the enjoyable story – as short-lived as it is – demands.
There are many words that could be used to describe SUPERHOT. Cool, addictive, stylish, fun, enjoyable…take your pick. What the development team have done is take a game mechanic that sounds like an excellent idea on paper and turned it into something special by fleshing out a game around it that does it justice and then layering on different ways of playing in the post-game. It flat out tells you to say this but we'd be saying it anyway: SUPERHOT is one of the most innovative shooters that we've played in years. Absolutely essential.