Huntdown Review: A Blast From The Past
Action sequences in Huntdown usually go in a dozen different ways, but they are nothing short of spectacular. You can power slide on the floor to dodge a bullet, get close enough to an enemy to kick them off a cliff, and bounce a grenade back with the timed hit of a baseball bat in the span of a few seconds.
More often than not, your character will spit funny and often goofy lines of dialogue to accompany the mayhem. "I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher..." sings John Sawyer as he incinerates enemies with a flamethrower.
I didn't expect for a Johnny Cash song to get paraphrased in Huntdown, but it's only one of many throwback references present in the game. After all, it's a living homage not only to retro shooters but also to the movies and cultural movements that took place in that era.
Huntdown Review: A Blast From The Past
At this point, it's not surprising to stumble upon another indie title bent on capturing the simplistic and stylish essence of retro shoot 'em ups. Blazing Chrome proved it was possible to iterate just enough on the Contra formula to bring back some of the genre's former glory, and there are many other examples out there, each offering their own new ideas and quality of life changes.
I was expecting Huntdown to follow a similar approach, at least from trailers alone. It certainly checks all the right boxes: gorgeous pixel art, a deft mix of synth and '80s electric guitars that embellishes the soundtrack, and a whole lot of guns to shoot while running full blast in beautiful 2D environments.
It's not that action isn't the main focus, but it's rather a paced rhythm that pulses through the game itself. Trying to rush through enemy groups will often end in a quick death, and ignoring the use of cover will be punished time and time again. Yet, once you've learned the basics, such as the possibilities surrounding the dodge button that aren't just sideways, it all starts to click.
And that's when this take on the genre really begins to shine.
You immediately know what to expect from Huntdown's setting. It's a dystopian future where criminal gangs run the streets, and the police can't control them. But instead of an elite force mopping up the streets, bounty hunters are the ones on the front lines. Along with John Sawyer, Anna Conda and Mow Man are contracted to find and eliminate a long list of targets throughout 20 levels, each corresponding with four distinct factions.
All three characters can be selected at any time (though changing them during a level will force you to restart from the beginning), and there's even a local co-op mode for up to two players. Aside from dialogue and their base weapons (a starting gun that doesn't run out of ammo and a throwable weapon that takes a few seconds to recharge after use), they're basically the same. Still, it's in Huntdown's wide variety of actions and how enemies react to them that it makes the biggest difference.
That first sequence I mentioned at the beginning of this review is a common series of events that is ever-present, as the game demands these micro-decisions in order to survive. Taking cover is essential, but enemies are varied enough that this isn't the only way to tackle confrontations. Everything about Huntdown centers on destruction and shooting everything on site, but it rewards experimentation, too.
At first, you can blast through levels with ease, picking up shotguns and SMGs using them until they're empty. As part of the gameplay loop, these are supposed to be discarded for other options, and they play as chess pieces on a chessboard. Do I want a close-quarters weapon to try and rush through a roof and gain some aerial advantage? Or would a machine gun and some careful traversal make for a more efficient job, letting me take down enemies from afar?
However, this feeling of ease transitions into something more nuanced the more you play. Those seemingly effortless first levels feel like a quiet tutorial compared to what comes next.
Massive, heavily armed cars full of punks wearing clothes straight out of The Warriors show up frequently, while a giant mech awaits you at the end of the first district. After that, you can expect hockey aficionados coming in packs, samurais, drones, mysterious beings riding hoverboards, and many more that I don't want to spoil.
Boss fights, in particular, are some of the most inventive encounters I've experienced in a long time, iterating on one of Huntdown's primary principles: unique and diverse 2D spaces. Every environment in the game is used in a dozen interesting ways, putting you on the edge of your seat.
You never feel limited by the game's perspective. Instead, you often benefit from it, making the most out of enemy and environmental designs.
The sheer variety of environments in Huntdown is striking, and they never cease to amaze me. There are ancient temples, decaying cities, and old factories, a massive stadium now turn into an arena and a dilapidated movie theater with iconic posters on the wall. Some areas are accented by cherry blossoms fluttering in the sunset or rain falling steadily in the night. But I love them the most when little surprises burst in from out of nowhere.
There's a moment in Huntdown where you're stuck in an empty subway station, and the exit doesn't unlock until you've fought several enemy waves that arrive on trains (making for the most stylish entry possible). But you also end up running and dodging projectiles in mid-air as a monster truck starts chasing after you.
It doesn't always work as intended, sadly. It's never made clear what you can and cannot dodge, and you're expected to find out by simple trial and error. Increased enemy variety also comes with an increase in difficulty that feels at odds with itself towards the end of the game, at times pitting you against enemies with no means of defense beforehand.
And in local co-op, reviving your teammate is simply counterproductive. You need to crouch and press a button several times until you fill up a bar, but instead of resuming the action, there's yet another animation before you can bring them back to life. Those extra couple of seconds leave you ridiculously exposed, even after you have timed the attack patterns on a boss fight.
Huntdown Review — The Bottom Line
- Inventive and rewarding moment-to-moment gameplay
- Carefully crafted scenarios
- Interesting enemies and some of the best boss fights in the genre
- Pays homage to several, but crafts its own interesting setting
- The 2D perspective isn't flawless, and some design choices hold it back
- Some of the dialogue lines are a bit too childish
Huntdown understands the genre and its influences, and it carves its own path. It's short enough that you can play through it on a single sitting, taking four to six hours, depending on the difficulty you choose. You don't need to bother with experience points or procedurally generated elements here. It's all run, shoot, destruction.
Everything is given to you from the beginning, and the game quickly becomes one of skill, timing, and dexterity. I laughed and punched the air many more times than I could count when playing Huntdown, especially when the game's environments rewarded my curiosity.
Despite a few missteps, the game is a genre showcase, proving the genre still has room for iteration and uniqueness. When the vision is as stylish in presentation as it is in design, you end up with Huntdown.
[Note: A copy of Huntdown was provided by Coffee Stain Studios for the purpose of this review.]