You can probably count on one hand the number of games on a PlayStation platform which have dealt with the politics of running for office. Fewer still, are those who follow the exploits of a purple-hued anthropomorphic rabbit from the future called ‘Bunnylord’ who has hired a group of hitmen to ensure that he succeeds in his mayoral election campaign. So it is then that Not A Hero encompasses the latter scenario and in providing an exceedingly cynical take on the political rat race, it also allows players to rock about the place, blasting criminal folk in the face and spreading the word of Bunnylord’s campaign as they go.
How all these shenanigans come about is in the form of a 2D, pixel-art shooter that takes a nice little bit of inspiration from cover shooters and also from more eminently flamboyant fare such as Platinum Games’ cult classic, Vanquish. It’s not all shooting people in their fleshy cheeks though, as Bunnylord also has his team of hitmen performing other tasks such as destroying drug dens, putting up posters and securing random items such as pianos, wind chimes or escaped pigeons (don’t ask).
Unfolding across a number of similar small high-rise buildings and structures, Not A Hero channels British developer Roll7’s penchant for the frenetic as it allows players to slide, jump through windows, duck out of cover and perform executions on foes. Spicing things up a fair whack are the various power-ups that can be scooped up. Split into two distinct categories, you can improve your firepower with rounds that can penetrate cover, rounds that incinerate and even rocket launcher style ‘Fat Boy’ rounds that can explode and take out multiple goons at once. The other upgrade type comes in the form of accessories such as grenades, mines and even an automated turret with the latter proving especially useful when you find yourself pursued by legions of gun-toting enemies.
Elsewhere, the compact level design that Not A Hero embraces means that each stage can be cleared at less than ten minutes apiece, and thus proves to be an ideal candidate for bite-sized play where time becomes an issue. Ostensibly, it’s just when the aforementioned additional objectives come into play that it all becomes trickier and each mission takes a lot longer to complete. Naturally, you can complete each level without tackling these extra challenges but going the extra mile brings with it the tangible and worthwhile reward of an uptick in approval rating.
Like any mayoral candidate worth their salt, Bunnylord has an approval rating which must be increased and each time you complete an extra challenge, it increments duly. Instead of parlaying his approval rating for baby kisses, helping the homeless out or other such positive vibes however, Bunnylord instead uses his popularity to hire additional hitmen to carry out his nefarious bidding and it’s here that Not A Hero introduces an additional layer of sophistication that might not have been obvious upon initial impression.
Each of these gun-toting assassins you see has different skills and weapon-based abilities that make them better suited for different challenges. Cletus, the frequently-cursing Scotsman, has a shotgun that while requires frequent reloading, can blow enemies backwards, creating enough space for you to consider your next move, or, with enough force that they go crashing through windows to their double-death.
Suave Spaniard Jesus on the other hand, does less damage than the other hitmen but is able to run and execute foes extremely quickly, which makes him an ideal choice for timed challenges. As a result then, the key to nailing the harder challenges is largely aided by getting the right hitman in to do the job, even if these challenges, particularly on the later levels, demand a certain level of trial and error that some folks might not be comfortable with.
Largely, Not A Hero sets into a rhythm of reloading and hopping into cover, taking potshots when you can and then escaping back into cover to avoid a reciprocation of bullet-laden abuse. While it might seem like a simple act to pop into cover to avoid being murdered, all it takes is for a single foe to reach that cover and then they knock you out of it, stunning your hitman in the process and thus making you consider fallback plans to avoid such unfortunate events from happening in the future.
Clearly then, for as much as Not A Hero might seem like a balls-to-the-wall shooter that thrives on eye-bleeding pixel art, adrenaline and hard drug chic, then so too is it also a decidedly more cerebral affair than most might give it credit for upon first impression. One other example of how Not A Hero taxes the old grey matter as much as it does the trigger finger is when hostages pop into the equation. Hostages, for example, will be executed if their captors see you rocking up in front of them and so they must be carefully approached from a different direction; forcing you to plan a new route through the level in order to secure the element of surprise. What we get in the end ultimately, is an affair that is far more thoughtful than it perhaps would have been in the hands of a lesser developer and as such it adds the sort of sophistication to the shooter genre that should be celebrated going forward.
As satisfying as the combat is in Not A Hero there are some idiosyncrasies which do take getting used to. The first is how the sliding mechanic works. Prior to its release, many folks likened Not A Hero to a 2D Vanquish. While it certainly has some base similarities to Platinum Games shooter opus, it’s a comparison that falls somewhat wide of the mark as the sliding action in Not A Hero feels far more stunted and interruptible (certain enemies cannot be slide-tackled) than the free-form surface gliding seen in the PS3 classic. This is not a bad thing per se, it just means that players have to be more frugal with their sliding activities, instead of spending 90% of the game looking like they’re gliding about a polished ice-rink with Hello Kitty Winter Warmer socks on.
The other element that Not A Hero forces player to consider is that of momentum. All that sprinting and sliding about creates a whole heap of unintentional movement after the fact which can lead you into some really unfavourable situations. Whether that’s overcommitting on a slide that sends you out of window, tumbling to your death, or a dash that puts you slap bang in the middle of a throng of armoured goons, the game soon impresses the virtue of patience and control on the overeager player.
Broadly speaking, Not A Hero would seem to be the sort of game that John Woo would have come up with while ingesting his own body weight in LSD after an especially vicious bender on the mean streets of Croydon. It’s a shooter that revels in its hair-trigger excesses as much as it gleefully conceals deceptive layers of tactical depth. Away from the meat and potatoes of the game though, it’s also important that we acknowledge the message that Not A Hero is attempting to ram down our collective throats, barrel-first.
A jet-black satirical take on the politics and running for office, Not A Hero’s colourful pixel-art presentation, wonderfully overdone accents and nonsensical absurdities all serve to hide a much more grim and pessimistic brand of political nihilism. This is a game that raises a bloodstained, trigger-worn middle finger at the contemporary voting superstructure; positing that brutality and blunt force appeasement tactics will secure favour, or perhaps fear, in lieu of typical woolly promises and stagnant personalities that invariably define the real-life political scene. It’s the sort of message that proves difficult to shake even after the sugary sweetness of the game’s retro presentation has subsided long after you’ve put the pad down.
Not A Hero isn’t perfect. The trial and error gameplay which manifests later on will likely alienate some, while the largely repetitive level design will have many other players clamouring something more varied. Yet it’s a demandingly streamlined beast whose unexpected meditation on political farce is only equalled by the surprising levels of split-second tactical sophistication that lurk beneath its retro shooter presentation. Based on what we have here though, I’d certainly relish the opportunity to get back on the campaign trail for Bunnylord’s potential second term in office.