These days, Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw seems to hop back and forth between being a notable indie game designer who also does hilarious game reviews, and being a hilarious game reviewer who makes notable indie games. Certainly Chzo Mythos remains one of our highly rated favorites. But Yahtzee has always been willing to try something different. Case in point: the creation of Poacher, a Cave Story-styled high-difficulty action-adventure platformer with Andy Capp look-alive Derek Badger as its star. A simple night out hunting bunnies and trespassing on estate of the local lord, leads Derek to a fall through a literal rabbit hole, landing smack dab in the middle of an ancient conflict between the underground Spirit Kingdom and their malevolent enemies, Dark Lords. Will he be able to get up to the surface before his wife starts readying the rolling pin? That's up to you, guvnor.
Derek's movement is controlled with the [arrow] keys and jumps with the [spacebar]. Derek has his trusty shotgun with him, which fires in the direction he's facing. Soon after starting, Derek will acquire the ability to launch spirit grenades with [C]. These grenades can deal powerful blows and are useful for destroying crystal. Enemies and spikes will drain Derek's health, but he can recover by chomping on the pudding and sausages inexplicably strewn about the cavern. Enemies drop coins which can then be spent on various upgrades. Go deep enough and soon you may discover the dark secrets of the abyss... or better yet, earn a few quid!
Analysis: Poacher is hardly an experimental game, but it does feel like an experiment on the part of the author. Obviously, as Yahtzee's first work in Game Maker, there is going to be a period of feeling out what the engine can do. More than that, though , this is probably the first game that the author has done that could be called action-oriented. There's an exhilarating sense of a designer treading new ground, and that exhilaration helps to make up for what flaws the game has.
There are certainly a number of clichés in Poacher, but they balance each other out so well that an intentional sense of fusion feels at play. On the one hand, there is a vaguely epic story of fantasy conflict running in the background. However, when combined with a ridiculously ordinary protagonist, who can't be arsed to pay attention to the backstory, the seriousness deflates. Poacher becomes a case study in how to integrate successfully integrate humor into a work that is not strictly a comedy. For instance, one of the main baddies of the game are rabid rabbits. Now, you don't need Monty Python to tell you that making something cuddly be unexpectedly vicious will get you a laugh However, taking a good look at these things, with their blood-caked mouths and glowing yellow eyes is definitely enough to freak one out should a pack of them descend on you. It can be difficult to mix horror and humor without one dominating the other, but Poacher pulls it off, with a heaping helping of metroidvania along for the ride.
No one's first work in a new engine will be perfect, and there are stumbles to be found here. Having the keys so close together makes for awkward action, and it's a guarantee at least a half dozen times that you'll shoot when you want to jump, and vice versa. This wouldn't be so bad if the respawning enemies and finicky jump puzzles didn't keep you constantly on your toes. For someone who rails against artificial difficulty in his reviews, there was quite a bit of it here.
Undoubtedly, Yahtzee's work with Zero Punctuation will give Poacher a certain publicity that it would not otherwise have. However, its notability is not unearned. Poacher is a solid exploration game with a twisty story, some funny jokes, a couple effective scares, and a satisfying host of secrets to unlock. It is not a perfect game, but it is a very interesting one, and it needs no more justification than that.
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