SUPERHOT is a work of ludicrous confidence, carrying itself with the sort of no-compromises bravado that few videogames are able to sustain without drifting towards parody. It exudes the same aura of detached cool as Hotline Miami and, though it plays very differently to Dennaton’s masked murderfest, SUPERHOT matches it punch-for-shot in terms of replayable, stylised violence.
Playing SUPERHOT doesn’t actually make you chic, but it can certainly feel like it at times.
Housed in a DOS-alike nest of file folders, in which all kinds of ASCII art oddities and demoscene experiments can be found, the game frames itself as a mysterious, cracked .exe file passed to you by a well-meaning friend. That straightforward data transfer soon gives rise to something a lot more suited to an ice-cold, cyber-punk novella, or unnerving ‘haunted media’ tale.
This narrative structure will be new to those who played the original 2013 prototype (made for the 7 Day FPS Challenge), as will some of the other extrapolations added by the SUPERHOT team during the process of turning the title into a full-fledged release. The central concept and mechanic, however, remains very much the same. You’re a nameless protagonist with a weapon; red, mannequin-shaped people are trying to kill you; and time only (significantly) moves when you do.
Across twenty-some levels, you’re parachuted into the midst of action movie vignettes and tasked with fighting your way out. One moment you may be bursting into a meeting of shady businessme;, another you’ll be brawling down the corridor of an art exhibit, tossing people off a subway platform, or find yourself momentarily trapped inside an elevator with three armed men. These little scenes – the equivalent of videogame pulp short-stories – are ostensibly disconnected, but cleverly held together by the conceit of the cracked superhot.exe file.
In each and every scenario, SUPERHOT looks and feels tight. The minimalist, dirty white backdrops, lit with soft blues, provide the perfect environment for objects to be picked out in solid black; and for the polygonal antagonists to spit out crawling bullet trails as blood-red as their torsos. There’s little soundtrack to speak of, just a persistent ambient thrum, as if your character is slightly underwater or experiencing a sudden drop in blood pressure. This undulation is punctuated largely by gunshots, propaganda-font commands, and the inspired choice of a shattering sound whenever one of your red rivals fractures upon destruction.
Loading and reloading a level is accompanied by an oppressive, old school modem screech. Every act of completion is hailed with a cult-like chant of “SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT.”
SUPERHOT is one of a very select number of games where you’ll want to replay a particular mission simply because the manner in which you previously completed it didn’t feel sufficiently elegant.
Style is paramount. You’re not graded or scored on it, but as a matter of personal pride it’s so much more satisfying to glide your way through a level like the world’s greatest ninja-assassin-gunman. You could duck in and out behind cover, tentatively get off a couple of pistol shots, weave uncertainly through some bullets, and finish the job with some messy melee. But how much better it feels to slam the nearest guy with keyboard, grab his gun and shoot him in practically the same fluid motion, immediately toss the same gun at another onrushing assailant, finish the second man with a punch, snatch up the wall-mounted katana, cleave an incoming bullet in two and nail a third foe with a hurl of your sword.
It wouldn’t be quite right to call any of the stages puzzles, because there are plenty of ways to get through to the end, but there’s a definite need for on-the-fly planning and maintaining spatial awareness. Even though bullets approach in a leisurely fashion, every motion, be that picking up a weapon or simply moving slightly to the side, will briefly speed them up. Dodging out of a crossfire is almost always possible, but taking your eye off an incoming projectile will usually result in a quick ‘R for Restart’.
The essential inclusion of an instant replay after every level (where clips can quickly be edited and uploaded to a special Killstagram site) reinforces this desire to pull off the most ridiculous, last-second moves possible. SUPERHOT gives players all the tools to do so: impossible katana moves, scores of throwable objects, three distinct firearms (a straightforward pistol, shotgun with wide spread, and rapid fire assault rifle), a jump/fall that can also slow time, and, of course, a helpful conveyor belt of bright red targets. The final few levels introduce a further ability that it would be improper to spoil here, but it too allows for greater flexibility in your time-trickle rampages.
SUPERHOT’s main storyline is succinct, wrapping up within a couple of hours if you’ve found your groove. Doing so, though, unlocks a dozen new challenge modes. These have all kinds of pre-configured modifiers to make your return to familiar stages an awful lot more demanding. Playing the entire game with just a katana isn’t so bad, but how about with just bare fists? Suddenly, that simple encounter with a pair of armed guards isn’t quite so straightforward. There are also speed run challenges, gimmicks like single-bullet guns, and various increased difficulties ranging from harder (foes fire faster, time moves a little quicker) to the just plain silly (time really does stop dead when you aren’t moving, but a single death ends your entire run).
On top of all that, there’s also an ‘Endless’ mode, which is predominantly what it sounds like. This has a few unique stages, and some twists of its own catering to the more traditionally score-minded players. How many enemies can you kill in 20 in-game seconds? How about 30 real time seconds? Doing well unlocks further levels, as well as modifiers (like big-head mode) which … were reportedly working fine in the beta version, but the ability to toggle them in this review code was either missing or somewhat obscure.
SUPERHOT’s near-flawless visage is occasionally tarnished by the odd quirk. Firing a bullet right up close can sometimes cause it to pass harmlessly through your target, for example (perhaps because the projectile ‘fires’ somewhere ahead of your character model?) But the enduring feeling is of a fantastic central mechanic honed to be a player’s willing assistant in ever-more-elaborate choreographed carnage. Every design decision feels deliberate and refined, nothing here is compromised or ‘safe’, and players are always trusted rather than underestimated. The game doesn’t mind using its premise to screw around with the form, and there’s an admirable dedication to keeping up the pretense of its perturbing narrative.
Confident, mechanically tight, absurdly cool, and incredibly stylish, SUPERHOT is the most innovative shooter I’ve played i … no, fuck, I really shouldn’t use that phrase. For reasons that will become abundantly clear if you make the wise choice to play it for yourselves.