When I was a kid* I really dug Minesweeper. No, wait, hear me out! I know it’s an odd, some might say dull, choice but I role-played the heck out of that game. I’d sit down, listen to a pumped-up action movie soundtrack through some sweet (if retro) headphones, and pretend I was literally saving the world via Minecraft. It was tense. It was epic. I was a goddamn hero.
So it was with some delight that I learned of Nord Unit’s arcade-like puzzle wrapped in a cyberpunk narrative, Hyperforma, making its debut on Switch.
In the future, an entire civilisation has mysteriously vanished from its home planet, leaving behind its technology. Hyperforma casts you as a hacker exploring the technological artifacts of this ancient civilisation, plugged into its networks Matrix-style.
One day you receive a message from another entity requesting help and instructing you to find the ‘Oracle’. This is a cyberpunk game, so it will come as no surprise that you’ve got to quite literally hack your way from one towering interface to the next.
The game is broken up into chapters, each containing several levels. These levels see you bouncing yourself as the hacker around the level, trying to break through and eliminate obstacles to reach and hack into the central block of the level, rather like a more complicated Breakout.
You can rotate the level through each of its axes which may open up some new ways to get to the central block, or inadvertently block your path.
As the hacker, you begin with a single ability—to fling yourself directly towards the middle of the level, which is helpful if you’ve ended up bouncing around the edges of the level.
Along the way, you’ll unlock more abilities, such as the ability to create a clone of yourself so that there are multiple copies of you flying around the level, and the ability to burn through certain types of obstacles. As you progress you’ll be able to choose abilities to level up.
You have four lives to see you through each level. Some of the nodes will explode when struck, and if you or any of your clones are near it when it explodes, you’ll lose a life. This isn’t so bad if a single clone is eliminated as you can just spawn a new one, but if that was the only hacker you had active, you’re dead. Losing all your lives resets the level which can be quite frustrating if you’ve made it a long way through the level.
I know kung fu
In terms of difficulty, Hyperforma’s often inscrutable nature can be, occasionally, a bit exasperating. I found it rather relaxing to play Hyperforma for its first few levels. However, as its difficulty increased, the lack of information on how your abilities really work and how your environment operates and can be affected became very frustrating.
I’d get so far through a level, only to apparently reach a stalemate where none of the special abilities I employed—or when I used them—seemed to have any effect, until I was eventually killed (intentionally so, in some cases). On my next attempt I’d seemingly inexplicably finish it in just a few seconds, and I still don’t know exactly how I did anything differently.
This mentality led to me progressively abandoning all logic and just firing off whichever abilities came off cooldown. It wasn’t something I ever learned to work through; in fact, I grew more and more ambivalent about how I executed my attacks as I played farther through the game.
That’s no moon
Hyperforma generally translates well to the Switch. You can detach and rotate the joy-cons to rotate the matrices across its axes, but that got a little awkward. I found that I was trying to twist my hand all the way around on my wrist. Instead, I opted for the much more user-friendly analog stick and buttons which were pleasantly responsive, and the actions assigned to each controller were mostly very intuitive.
However, one issue I had with this was when I had to shift to a second version of the A/B/X/Y controlled abilities via the R button. Phasing through them took time and felt clunky, and I often died while I was awkwardly trying to switch between them to access any abilities off cooldown.
At the end of each chapter is a boss fight with the overarching AI figure of the chapter. These are appropriately challenging, involve mechanics that are simple enough: you’ll need to dodge their attacks and get in an attack of your own when they’re vulnerable.
I am in this photo and I don’t like it
Again, the controls were a little tricky here. Boss fights see you having to rotate around a circle surrounding the boss to dodge its attacks. This is done via the L and R buttons, but remembering which goes clockwise or counter-clockwise often felt counterintuitive and resulted in further untimely deaths.
Otherwise, the transition to Switch is lovely. The artwork is gorgeous and beautifully animated with a great accompanying soundtrack. The game runs very smoothly, without a hint of lag or lengthy load times.
The story itself progresses very slowly, which I felt was a great shame given its fantastic premise. Hyperforma is a game, unfortunately, less interested in storytelling beats than in getting you into the next (admittedly very pretty) level. Completing chapters unlocks some backstory about the boss entity and progresses the story a little, but this felt unfortunately slow.
I often found myself wishing that I could be fed more of the narrative a little more often, perhaps some small snippets between levels.
Do robots dream of chicken dinners?
I was excited to learn that Hyperforma included multiplayer as it appears to be a game well-suited to it. Unfortunately, my previous frustrations with its inscrutable gameplay just piled on from there.
My daughter and I sat down to play, despite the illustrated instructions on how to use the controllers for multiplayer, it took us a while to figure out how to use them. In fact, we had no idea what role each of us had to play at first. We eventually worked out that one of us controlled the hacker and their abilities, while the other controlled the maze structure and tried to prevent the hacker from reaching the middle.
This established, it should have begun to be a lot of fun. However, it only resulted in a series of frustrating standoffs for us. I’d kill off one or even two of her clones, but she’d immediately spawn new clones. She’d get close to the central block, but I’d set off an explosion there, killing any of her hackers that were close. And this right from the earliest multiplayer level.
Eventually, whoever of us was playing as the matrix would win (unless we really, really tried to coordinate it so that hacker could win). A bar was displayed at the top of the screen during each round, and the game ended when that had depleted, but what caused it to deplete was entirely beyond our comprehension.
Despite Hyperforma’s drawbacks, I appreciate its narrative potential and the way Nord Unit has attempted to entwine gaming genres. It’s a gorgeous game, and if you can get past its frustrating moments, its puzzles are quite mind-bending interesting. If you’re into modern versions of arcade classics or the cyberpunk genre, you might enjoy it.
*And by ‘kid’, I mean ‘teenager’. How do you do, fellow kids?
Hyperforma was reviewed on Switch using a digital code provided by the developer.
Game Title: Hyperforma
Game Description: A vibrant arcade-like puzzle wrapped in a cyberpunk narrative.