Publisher: Speedrun Games
Developer: Christian Teister
System Requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7/Mac OS X; 2 GHz CPU; 1 GB RAM; GeForce 7600/ATI Radeon X700 or better graphics card; Java Runtime Environment 1.5 or higher
Genre: First Person Platformer
Release Date: Available now
On occasion, gaming can be dangerous. Players’ living rooms around the world are littered with smashed console controllers and television sets. Nintendo tried to stop the madness by equipping the Wiimote with wrist straps and a rubber casing, but broken equipment on all platforms is still a source of considerable income for the hardware manufacturers. All platforms, that is, except the PC (unless you’re playing with the Xbox 360 controller). We PC gamers usually restrain ourselves, since we need our mice and keyboards for more than just gaming. But every now and again a game such as solo indie developer Christian Teister’s Grappling Hook comes along, threatening to unleash the green monster of frustration on our defenseless peripherals.
Teister has cited the early Half Life mod Cold Ice as his inspiration for Grappling Hook, but it’s essentially a stripped-down, low-res version of Valve’s Portal. An alien race has teleported you to a facility in outer space. You are given a hand-held grappling hook (much like the one used in Lost Planet). You are placed at the beginning of a maze and told that you must locate a series of floating, diamond-shaped access codes. When you find all of the codes, the teleporter at the end of the maze activates, sending you on to the next level. The teleporter in the final maze sends you back to Earth, or so says your captor.
On the surface, Grappling Hook is simplicity itself. You use the WASD keys to move through the mazes, space bar to jump, and left mouse button to fire the hook. If the hook hits an object colored in green, it grabs the object and pulls you to it. Releasing the mouse button before you reach your destination slingshots you farther along, and you can alter your flight path with the movement keys, allowing you to fly around corners if necessary. Each of the 23 campaign levels (and the eight bonus levels) has statistics challenges for you to master, including time to complete the level, damage taken, hooks used, and number of deaths. The game also includes a full set of achievements and a built-in level editor.
Gameplay starts out simply enough. The first few levels serve as a tutorial, helping you to see where you’re going and what you’re doing. Large monitors spaced throughout the levels show messages from your captor. They start out helpful, but deeper into the game the messages take on a more menacing tone. The mazes are also littered with large orange arrows that put you on the path to the teleporter at the end of the level. Your journey also takes you outside the facility and into open space. You’re protected by a space suit and helmet, but deviating from the path still results in instant death and a reload at the last checkpoint you reached.
Grappling Hook gives you everything you want from a maze-based platformer. The levels are brief and not overly complicated, although there are few during which you’ll die numerous times before you find the correct route. All of the access codes are easy to find but are sometimes difficult to acquire, especially in the later levels, where in-flight acrobatics are required to avoid laser blasts from indestructible turrets and to grab the codes. The game has a very retro visual style, all basic geometric shapes, sharp corners and lots of primary colors. If I were to pick nits, I’d say that the lack of a save-anywhere function is disturbing, the time-trial challenges are practically impossible to beat for anyone who doesn’t have the god-mode cheat, and your character shouldn’t fall to his death if he jumps upwards in outer space; he would continue in the direction he jumped until he was impacted by something else (and if his suit protects him from the airless void, why is it that he only gasps for air and dies after he falls?). But the most notable factor in Grappling Hook (aside from the numerous obvious references to Portal) is its difficulty. There are only two difficulty levels (Normal, Hard). Once you finish the first five mazes, the difficulty curve takes a 90-degree turn northwards, even at Normal, and it continues to climb throughout most of the rest of the game. This is aided by the hair-trigger motion controls, which had me falling off platforms and jumping in unintended directions throughout the journey. It’s been a long time since a game had me swearing at it and talking to myself; this could be either a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.
It’s impressive to note that Grappling Hook is a one-man production. Teister has taken basic game elements and assets and turned them into an addictive platformer. I’ll admit that the lack of a quick-save mechanic and the frustrating difficulty of the last half of the game had me wishing him ill-will, and there are too many no-escape situations in the mazes that can only be solved by a reload, but for the most part it’s a fun diversion created by an undeniably talented young designer. And for the record, just like the cake in Portal, the hamster is not a lie.