Hypno Vol. 1 is a strange one. It takes the ‘dark and edgy’ thing that so often feels forced, then adds a mission-based structure and top-down perspective. After a while it starts to feel a little like Grand Theft Auto. The first one, back in the days before it became a colossal franchise made entirely of ego. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, Hypno doesn’t have colourful visuals or a large world. Instead it opts for black and white minimalism and a compact grid of featureless squares representing a city, relying on its tone and originality to do the heavy lifting.
Without giving away plot points, the premise is that you are a bloodthirsty sociopath named Lydia who has just escaped from some sort of institution. Lydia is blind but has the ability to steal the intentions from the minds of people around her and use them to programme behaviour into others. For instance, if she ‘rips’ the intention ‘I’m going to the bar’ from Steve, she can then ‘brand’ it onto Dave and make him go to the bar instead. This is the core mechanic around which the whole game revolves. I’m sure Dave has no complaints.
Branding soon becomes more elaborate. You have to start stacking intentions to cause a whole series of actions – make Bob go to the sports shop, buy a baseball bat, go home, use the bat to kill his wife. It’s quite grim yet also strangely compelling. For the first couple of minutes this is all there is to the game, but there are only so many times you can make people kill each other before the novelty wears off. Our pet maniac, Lydia, gets bored of aimless slaughter around the same time we do, and that’s where the missions come in.
A mysterious man calling himself Darius asks you to use your powers of hypnosis to carry out criminal jobs for him, all to further his undisclosed agenda. In payment for your services, he tips you off about opportunities for ‘fun’ uses of Lydia’s powers – getting a teenage girl to murder her stalker, or ensuring that a wife is drunk and armed when she discovers her husband’s infidelity. These are basically missions too, though they tend to be more savage and unsettling than the ones that benefit Darius directly. I’m not one to get squeamish or take games too seriously, but there is a voyeuristic tone to these interludes that leaves me slightly uneasy.
The odd thing about all this carnage is that as Hypno progresses it increasingly comes to resemble a puzzle game. The missions cease to be menial ‘walk over here and brand this person with this intention’ tasks, and instead become more about finding ways around various restrictions that are imposed on Lydia. This is where the game comes into its own, and at the same time starts to fall apart.
You’ll often find that areas of the map are walled off; civilians can wander in and out, but Lydia can’t. These walled off regions are usually patrolled by guards who can recognise ‘the branded’ – someone you’ve reprogrammed – and will kill them on sight. It’s never made entirely clear how this happens. Presumably the branded all cluck like chickens and clutch Paul McKenna plushies as they go about their nefarious business.
To get around this inexplicable problem, you have to brand someone to sneakily climb a building for a spot of rooftop surveillance on the guards. Once your spy finds out that, say, one of the guards is a sleazy old lothario, then you can send one branded to intercept and distract him by flirting, while another branded sneaks up and kills him. It doesn’t seem to matter who you send to do the flirting; evidently the developer of Hypno considers everyone in the world to be omnisexual and have no standards. Maybe the whole game is secretly a statement of sexual politics and we should send a copy to the government with signatures attached.
Add into the mix people who can’t be branded, a drug that reduces the number of people you can brand during a given mission and other obstructive factors, and Hypno’s missions start to test the brain a bit. With some experimentation, practice in branding the right people as quickly as possible and a little bit of luck, you can make each mission unfold just as planned and domino its way to a satisfying conclusion.
That might sound enticing, but there’s a down side to all this. Your instructions from Darius are often quite vague, and frequently leave gaps that can have you scratching your head for a while, not because the puzzle is intricate but because the game doesn’t explain what’s happening, or in some cases even what the objective is. Like many mission based games, additional tasks are introduced part way through many of the missions, but sometimes you will simply be pointed towards targets and not given a clear idea of whether you’re meant to kill them or brand them, or something else entirely. Being given a challenging puzzle is fine, but when the challenge comes from poor explanation of the requirements, it becomes a serious drawback in enjoying the game.
It’s tough to decide on whether to give Hypno Vol. 1 a recommendation or not. It’s certainly different to any other game I’ve played on Xbox Live Indie Games, or anywhere else for that matter. The problem is that it expends its effort in the wrong places. The game goes all out to make itself shocking and brutal, and it has a good try at being unique, but it’s so busy with all this that it forgets to have a coherent structure – and in doing so it obstructs the player one too many times. If the idea intrigues you and you have the patience of a Spelunky player, give it a try. If the gratuitous grisliness and the aimless wandering guesswork of some missions don’t sound like your cup of tea, don’t bother.