After taking a quick crack at platforming racers like Trials Fusion or Joe Danger, it can be easy to feel discouraged simply on the grounds of just how skull-crushingly hard they so quickly become. With its playful action figure aesthetic, effervescent visual style and well-judged difficulty curve, Action Henk from Dutch code scribes RageSquid punches a colourful hole in the status quo that has for so long proven to be the exclusive refuge of the white-knuckle hardcore.
Crafting racing tracks out of domestic locations in much the same way that timeless classic Micro Machines managed to do, Action Henk has players taking a cast of different action figures through increasingly challenging tracks fashioned out of tables, skateboards, makeshift ramps and more with a mind to get the best time possible.
Now, for those of you who have clawed scars into your cheeks on an account of Trials Fusion’s frankly ridiculous difficulty curve but still enjoy the base concept of that game, Action Henk is the game for you. Kicking things off gently, RageSquid’s game immediately familiarises players with Action Henk’s unique brand of jump physics which play directly into the momentum dynamic which sits at the core of the action.
Naturally tilting the analogue stick in a particular way will force Henk, or indeed any other of his action figure buddies to forcibly trot in that direction but it’s when the various peaks, troughs and chasms are introduced that the game’s focus on momentum is brought to the fore. Put simply, the best way to generate momentum in Action Henk is to butt-slide down the various slopes that permeate each course. The trick though, is to disengage said butt-sliding as soon as the slope evens out since trying to bum-skate uphill actually slows you down rather than serve to speed up your traversal.
The cause and effect of momentum is indelibly felt throughout each track too, since leaps across certain types of chasms or a series of wall-jumps up and over incredibly steep obstacles only become possible if you have the right amount of momentum to propel yourself past such challenges. The knock on effect of this on your finishing time is ostensibly direct; the slightest loss of speed on a jump, dash or slide is enough to lose you tenths of a second that in turn could very well score you a lower tier bronze medal in lieu of a silver or gold one.
On that topic, beyond the inescapable urge to earn online leaderboard supremacy and generally stick two fingers up to everybody else while giving your ego a nice massage in the process, getting decent times on each course also allows players to nab those aforementioned medals, which in turn open up more and more levels for folks to get their Henk on. An especially nice touch is that the developer has included the ability to race against different ghosts that each represent the bronze, silver and gold tiers and provide a good benchmark of where you need to be skill-wise in order to beat them.
Far from being limited to running, jumping and butt-sliding about the place and just when you think you have the formula nailed, the developer tosses in a new gizmo for you to get grips with and does a great job of not only implementing it into the level design but also in intertwining it with Action Henk’s momentum dynamic as well. Take the hookshot for example; effectively a deployable rope swing to help you get across chasms and progress vertically through some fiendishly constructed courses, it too relies on you having enough momentum to swing and carry yourself through the motions in order to make good time.
Quite like other games that boast a similar design kinship, Action Henk’s more difficult courses are a frenetic lesson in trial and error where satisfying victories emerge from conquering individual challenging segments within the course, before each one accumulates to produce a time-busting best performance for the track as a whole. As par for the course for such games, this sort of rapid-fire repetition is actively accommodated with an instant restart being just a button press away, proving handy for those of us who like to keep our hair attached to scalps and our controllers not embedded in the faces of our television sets.
Beyond the standard set of courses, of particular difficulty are the rock hard challenge races that come at the end of every themed batch of levels. A true test of everything that you’ve practiced and been taught previously, these contests don’t offer any medals but they do offer the opportunity to unlock additional action figure characters for use in any of the races later on, which although different cosmetically, all control the same as one another. What makes these races a little more unfairly difficult than the standard fare is that you’re racing against another physical action figure rather than just a ghost as is normally the case. The upshot of this is that when you’re both running side-by-side, it can be quite confusing which character you are in control of and this can very often lead to a series of failed runs until you get your bearings.
While Action Henk’s furiously colourful presentation and largely buttery smooth sixty frames per second action absolutely blazes along in a retina-stroking marriage of visual opulence, it can sometimes be a little too much. The neon-drenched tracks of 70’s disco inspired Fever section of the game for instance far too often thrusts geometry in the foreground that distracts from the action going on; sometimes blinding the player to peaks and troughs of the course ahead and thus affecting their momentum as a result.
For the more sociable among us, Action Henk’s local multiplayer proves to be a hoot with both players racing each other on the same screen and able to taunt one another en route to the finishing line. Despite this, it proves difficult to not be disappointed when you discover that the game is missing features when compared to its PC counterpart. Somewhat annoyingly, these aren’t features that couldn’t be done on PS4 either, since both online multiplayer and a neat sounding level editor would both serve the game extremely well going forward and help to foster the sort of community that Action Henk would need to stay relevant in the long-term. Here’s hoping that developer Ragesquid manages to address these shortfalls in the near future with one of those patch things (and hopefully chuck in a few extra levels too).
In many ways then, with its bespoke focus on speed and momentum, Action Henk feels like the Sonic the Hedgehog title that we should we have gotten each and every time SEGA starts yammering out the other side of its face about taking “Sonic back to his roots.” More so than its offbeat presentation or even its wonderfully responsive handling might suggest, it’s clear that it’s the gentle, more fairly defined difficulty curve which lends Action Henk its arguably most engaging quality – it’s just a shame that the PS4 owners won’t be able to enjoy the full suite of features that the game boasts on other platforms.