In order to hit as many buzzwords as possible, Highrisers describes itself as a pixel-styled build-and-explore urban survival-RPG. It’s all true. It’s pixel-styled, sure. It has a bitty, pixel art aesthetic like your Metal Slugs and Intrusions. You build things. You explore things in a very urban manner. Survival is in there, yep. RPG, sure, go nuts. But the main thrust of the game is none of those things. It’s not even close. The game is almost entirely an inventory management simulator. But, for those of you who love a bit of inventory management, hold your horses (who am I kidding, you definitely have your horses filed away in a crate labelled ‘Equine, Misc.’) because I think you might be surprised about which part of the game isn’t very good.
In Highrisers you play simultaneously as four survivors of a zombie apocalypse, who must band together to fix the helicopter on the roof of their high-rise building (oh that’s where the name comes from…) and escape to where the grass is greener, or where the zombies are passive-er. Unless it’s a Racoon City situation, I don’t see why the zombies won’t be wherever they plan to go but they’re set on fixing this helicopter up so let’s roll with it. To fix the helicopter you’ll need materials which you’ll come across by exploring and dismantling the objects in the building. However, exploring is dangerous (zombies, remember?) so you’ll need to craft weapons to explore the lower levels of the building – the levels that are properly saturated with the undead. This leads to a vicious cycle of crafting, building and slaughtering until you can finally piece together the materials you need to fix the chopper and escape.
To control the four survivors, you use the number keys to select which generic stereotypical zombie-fiction character you want to control and the mouse to click on objects to interact with. Overall this system just about works but it’s really easy to forget who you’re controlling and absent-mindedly click for the wrong person to do the wrong thing. There’s a readout on the left-hand side of the screen that gives you information about the survivors such as their inventory, health and hunger. The majority of the game is clicking on objects around the map for your survivors to dismantle or collect the materials generated from that dismantling which you’ll then bring to a crafting table to use in recipes. Dismantling and crafting take real-world time so if you set all of your survivors doing something you might as well go away and make a cup of tea while they get on with it.
The key to this scavenging and building mechanic is, as promised in the intro, inventory management. I count myself among the fans of a good inventory management system. My main memories of Fallout 4 are fast-travelling back to Sanctuary after a mission and storing my junk (behave), upgrading weapons and armour and selling the stuff I’m never going to use. Unfortunately for such a key mechanic in Highrisers, the execution of the inventory management system leaves a lot to be desired. Your characters have a very limited inventory on them so need to regularly unload the materials that they’re not currently using but might need in future. There are shelves around to do that, great. However, the number of shelves is very limited and each set only takes around 9 materials, meaning you can barely clear out a single character’s inventory on a single set of shelves and that single set of shelves is all you’re going to get in a convenient place. What’s worse is the materials are stored as models in the world so you have to identify and click on materials when you want to collect them rather than doing it through a menu – not great when the materials look nearly indistinguishable.
The theme of clunky controls and not being sure what’s going on continues through the rest of the game. There’s a very limited tutorial that teaches you the equivalent of the amount school teaches you about how to survive in the real world, only without the benefit of having fun algebra and science experiments. A wide variety of things just don’t work and I don’t know if it’s because I’m missing a control, my characters aren’t levelled up enough to do them or if the game is just broken. The game doesn’t tell you what materials objects will drop and dismantling takes a while so you have to do a lot of slow and frustrating experimenting to get materials. There’s little clarity on what you can click on and what clicking on things does, beyond dismantling and collecting. The screen is half taken up with four character’s inventories and a map so any useful information on how to play the game that you might be blessed with is lost in that screen clutter.
Most frustratingly of all, fixing the helicopter – the one thing the game makes clear is your goal – just doesn’t seem to work. I’ve got all the materials for one of the repairs but the game won’t let me put those materials into the repair or let me carry out the fix. Do I need to unlock something to do it? Do I need to find some kind of tool? Is there a button or menu somewhere hidden away? I don’t know and the game has absolutely no interest in telling me.
I didn’t enjoy playing Highrisers. Clunky controls, poorly explained mechanics and difficult to fathom visuals all add up to make Highrisers a confusing and unenjoyable mess. The game has recently left early access and is still undergoing some fixes so maybe, with some more development, the game that the developers intended to create will start to shine through its issues. But, in its current state, I can’t bring myself to recommend Highrisers.