Man, it’s a shame that recently the only media I’ve singled out for review lately are ones that filled me with enough ragedisappointment to complain about it in a blog post. Hm, maybe next post should be me loveposting about Barbie & The Magic of Pegasus or something. We’ll see.
Anyways, Homestuck‘s had quite the muddy track record, hasn’t it? This is really only the latest mediocre disappointment in a decade-long media franchise. So, this post will go into the overall history with Homestuck and its related media, what I liked about the game, the glaring issues with the game, and finally just my minor nitpicky grievances that are annoying but basically nothing compared to the major problems. So, here we go. Be warned, most of the review will contain light spoilers for what little plot the game has.
Official Rating: Mature 17+ | Personal Rating: Teen
What the hell is Hiveswap (and by extension Homestuck)
Almost everyone who has been on the Internet or in pop culture circles is somewhat aware of Homestuck, either from its name, its infamous fandom, or because they actually read part or all of it. Starting on April 13th, 2009 and ending on April 13th, 2016 (with an additional credits video coming out on October 25th that year), the comic spans over 8000 pages and is a huge timesink when you add up all the animations, text to read, and walkarounds to explore. It’s a story about growing up, interpersonal relationships, universe creation, confusing romance systems, and aliens. The comic was an unexpected smash hit compared to Hussie’s previous works, and managed to crash two websites during one of its biggest updates in 2011. It’s overall a touching heartwarming story… that is also full of ableism, racism, and Poor Takes by its creator.
Finding a post pointing out all of the bad things in Homestuck would not be very hard and is left as an exercise for the reader. While some grievances are worse than others, it’s overall very hard to defend as a good piece of media. Additionally, since its ended, additional official media set in the Homestuck universe(s) (canon or otherwise) were released, which quickly divided the fandom and turned off many fans (including me, for a time). Over time, the creative team behind Homestuck and its related media have repeatedly turned to making the content more and more risque, uncomfortable, and adult, culminating in the official Homestuck Twitter issuing a retroactive statement in November that Homestuck in its entirety is and always was for adults only… which is frankly not a statement I agree with, and seems to be a case of covering their asses for all of the other related content that’s come out since.
At any rate, at the height of Homestuck‘s popularity in 2012, Hussie opened a Kickstarter to create a “Homestuck Adventure Game”, creating a point-and-click adventure based in the world of Homestuck. And fans were thrilled! It was one of the most successful Kickstarters of all time, raising well over its initial goal for a total of about 2.5 million dollars. Well, if that much money was raised, surely the game would come out soon, right? At any rate, Hussie said he hoped for it to be released in 2014. And… well. There is an excellent very long read (approx 31.8k words!) by Gio about Hiveswap’s troubled long development cycle on their blog, which is likely to have more things to say soon due to the release of Act 2. Suffice to say that there are a lot of allegations of what happened behind the scenes that have not been officially confirmed, and considering Act 2 of 4 (of only the first out of two games!) only dropped a week ago this year, it has not been the quick turnaround promised.
In terms of the game’s plot, in the simplest terms possible two siblings on Earth in the year 1994 suddenly find their house to be under siege by strange monsters. While trying to flee from the monsters, one of the kids, Joey, ends up getting sucked through a mysterious portal in the attic that causes her to travel to an alien planet in another universe by switching places with an alien boy from that planet. (The second game that is supposed to come out eventually is supposed to cover the story of the alien boy, Dammek, on Earth.) Anyways, the alien planet of Alternia is populated by another race known as trolls, who have gray skin, orange horns, a “hemospectrum” to indicate caste/position in society, and are nocturnal. It’s also a planet entirely inhabited by children, due to all adults being sent off-world to fight for intergalactic conquest. In act 1, Joey tries to get her bearings, meets Dammek’s friend Xefros, and manages to escape the suburb’s bombing by the tyrannical heiress with him. Act 1 overall is a very short gameplay experience of maybe two hours, but a very fun and entertaining one.
Act 2 picks up immediately after this, and follows Xefros and Joey attempting to figure out how to get her home, help Xefros and the absentee Dammek with their rebellion, and prevent both Earth and Alternia from getting destroyed (which will apparently happen if Dammek and Joey don’t return home in 11 days), by boarding a train to meet the other rebellion leaders. The two end up having to get from the back of the train to the front, working their way through obstacles and the higher class cars to redirect the train on a faster route, meeting friends along the way.
What I liked
So, what I liked about the game. The art is excellent, and the animation is fluid and well done. I liked seeing Xefros and Joey again. Some lines of dialogue got a genuine chuckle out of me. Overall I mostly enjoyed my gameplay experience. …Yep, that’s about it. And unfortunately, most of this is overshadowed by my next section.
The Glaring Issues
The crux of the problem is this: the game isn’t finished. I mean, sure, on the surface it looks finished, it’s for sale on Steam for money and everything. But if you’re someone (like me) who has been following any of the development process, it becomes very clear what has been cut. (It’s also likely obvious to people who haven’t, but I don’t know any people I know who fall into that group.)
First of all, back in 2017, back when they said Act 2 would be coming very soon in Spring 2018 (hah), they began a promotional process with this gimmick called the “Troll Call”. Each week for at least 18 weeks they would introduce two trolls that would be featured in Act 2. In the end a total of 38 trolls would be revealed, due to some additional trolls being revealed along the way. As the game proceeded to not be released in 2018, each of these trolls would then get featured in their own short visual novel routes in a Friendship Simulator, or “Friendsim” for short. This is where we got become acquainted with these characters, many of which became beloved by the fandom. And they were then featured in promotional material! Everyone was excited! And then… the game came out, and two of the characters are missing.
Charun Krojib and Zebede Tongva, who had both been featured in the Troll Call, Friendsim, and promotional material for Act 2 itself, were completely absent. Their vacant homes are visited by Xefros and Joey, but neither of the two are met. The promotional material clearly shows that they were both intended to be there, but were cut for some inexplicable reason. Clearly part of the plot there at the beginning was removed for whatever reason, which okay, that sucks ass but it’s not completely terrible. But the fact that they just… completely axed these two characters too is completely baffling. If they didn’t want the two to be in their homes or write any complicated dialogue for them for the majority of the game where the character is walking back and forth down the train, they could have just left them in the train station. That’s what they did for two or three of the other characters, and the fantroll who got included as a contest reward. Or, of course, they could have just finished the portions of the game the characters were supposed to be in. But they probably had to cut that content to focus on what resulted in the next glaring issue.
This act was hyped up as being longer than the last one (not a hard feat to be sure considering how relatively short the first one was), with some listing the playtime as 8 hours. Unfortunately, four of those hours are spent on one minigame, where most of the writing effort seems to have been placed. Said minigame in question is when you get stuck in an Ace Attorney pastichereferenceparody, or something. Basically, a long-ass confusing trial. I have never played an Ace Attorney game, but I have watched a playthrough of the first game, so I understand how an Ace Attorney trial is supposed to go, and what it’s supposed to feel like. The minigame feels nothing like an Ace Attorney trial.
Once you get stuck in the traincar where the crime takes place, you have to spend a lot of time talking to all dozen characters or so to collect evidence and testimonies. However, a lot of it is very obtuse on how to proceed. After talking to everyone once, you sometimes have to go and talk to someone again after talking to someone else (not that it’s ever indicated), and if you forget to collect evidence at the lockers or the load gaper/bathroom, you’re not going to be able to progress. If you try to, the character “guiding” you through this trial gives you the same response each time, telling you to collect more evidence or get another testimony or something, with no further guidance or direction. If you don’t do things in the exact order that the developers thought you would, you’re doing it wrong. Whatever that order is supposed to be.
And then, once you finally did all the things you’re supposed to, the trial begins! And this part is equally terrible. The trial system is nigh-identical to Ace Attorney’s, which is great if you’ve played an Ace Attorney game. If you haven’t though, good luck because the mechanics are barely explained. You have to listen to each character give testimonies and you’re supposed to poke holes in them to try and prove your client innocent. But unfortunately most of us have spent so much time trying to figure out what the hell evidence we were supposed to find that we actually have no memory of any important details. And if you present the wrong evidence on the wrong statement three times (oh yeah you have to pick the correct statement too, not that they explain that either), you get a “game over”. And by that I mean all of the characters berate you for being stupid, you get a special graphic and the text “GAME OVER”, and then you end up right back where you were. Which isn’t fun and doesn’t affect the outcome, so what’s the point? Once you start getting those game overs, it just makes you angry have to click through the characters’ mockery until you can try again on the trial you have no idea how to proceed on.
Oh, but no need to worry, there is a hint system to help you figure out whatever backwards logic the game’s trying to lead you on. Not that I knew about it until the very end or thought it would be any goddamn help, as the first time I clicked it the character just told me that it should be obvious and I gave up doing that. How was I supposed to know that clicking on the hint button multiple times gives you more helpful advice, eventually to the point of just point-blank spelling the solution out and putting markers over the statement and items to use. If your game has to include a hint system that holds your player’s hand that much in order for them to figure out how to proceed… perhaps your game needs a bit more work.
Five years later the trial ends, and unless you somehow were able to figure out the mystery behind the mystery or whatever you get the “neutral” outcome and the characters make fun of you again for not figuring out the actual answer. At that point I didn’t give a shit and just progressed forward I was so fucking tired of this part of the game. (Apparently being able to proceed to a different ending all hinges on you not giving up some items earlier in the playthrough. Okay thanks.)
That minigame takes up so much time, and other than that one there’s only two others at the very beginning and end of the game. (Looking in the game’s files hints that there were supposed to be other minigames, but were cut for whatever reason.) The first one is a rhythm game, which is somewhat counter-intuitive and tricky for people who aren’t familiar with rhythm games (and was removed with the first patch due to accessibility concerns). The last one is completely indecipherable and is only solvable if you use the hint system.
Oh yeah, the hint system I mentioned earlier? A version of it exists throughout the entire game. I, however, was discouraged from using it… because it’s only available for use when you’re one of the two characters you can switch between at any time (sans one part of the game). Using it as Joey gives you increasingly helpful advice to the point of hand-holding, while using it as Xefros gets you the statement “the hint system is currently disabled”. Why? There’s literally no reason the hints shouldn’t always be available as both characters. Also, again, if you need the hint system to spell out whatever the fuck you’re supposed to do next, you probably messed up the intuitiveness of the natural gameplay somewhere and should go back to the drafting stage.
Once you finally accomplish your task, the game ends and you’re spat out the title screen. It may not immediately be obvious if you’re not thinking about it, but… upon initial release, the game had no credits. Two days after the game’s release(!), a statement was released saying that the credits were initially left out to prevent harassment of team members and will be patched in later. Which is understandable but… This game has been in work for three years, and statements from people who contributed to it but weren’t central to the creative team don’t seem to have been consulted on this. As someone in the replies of that tweets obviously points out, if you wanted to avoid harassment individual team members can opt out of being credited (as has already happened with installments of Friendsim and its quasi-sequel Pesterquest!), but that decision shouldn’t be universally made for every single member of the creative team. Holy shit. It also doesn’t explain why the soundtrack album didn’t initially credit anyone, considering that they widely advertised that the music was being composed by James Roach and Undertale‘s Toby Fox. Overall it just feels extremely skeevy on top of everyone else.
Not to mention that they realistically shouldn’t really be worried or bothered about harassment if they had made a fairly decent game. But… well, the game’s just not that enjoyable, now is it. It’s missing major elements previously promised to be included. And on top of that, there’s all the minor grievances. There’s a lot to be critical of here! Wait, no, but good-faith criticism isn’t harassment is it. And it’s not like putting off the credits will make all the people acting in bad faith just forget about the fact that the credits will be added there eventually. It’s almost like their logic doesn’t really make any sense.
EDIT: Since I first wrote this part of the review (I was squatting on the review in case I thought of something new to add, which I did), the game released a patch on November 28 to add in the credits (guess the hype didn’t last that long! they also added them to the bandcamp around this time)… as well as remove the bee minigame, apparently because of accessiblity concerns. Which like, fair, it was a little tricky. But also… removing one of the very few things left in the beginning section full of cut content feels like a slap in the face. Also, that it feels like they’re treating the actual release of the game as a beta testing period is… demeaning, at best.
(Relatively) Minor grievances
Even though the game doesn’t have any credits, it’s been public that the writing team and lead writer changed between Acts 1 and 2. And it shows. The writing for this route just feels less fun overall, and also full of things that feel like they’re supposed to be “haha it’s funny because it’s a reference”. Which isn’t a great look.
The writing also includes a multitude of discreet or overt references to sex and drugs. Reminder that Alternia is entirely populated by children. And don’t throw any Thermian arguments at me for this one. It’s just extremely uncomfortable.
Act 1 made a large point of condemning point and click games that kept using the same “that’s a no-go” flavor text when combining certain items together, and that they had unique flavor text for every single item combination. It is very quickly obvious that that philosophy was thrown out the window for act 2. Many generic “well that didn’t work” and “you’ll poke your eye out if you keep this up” text is repeated, and the player is quickly dis-incentivized from continuing to experiment.
Speaking of which, there are much fewer set pieces to interact with in this act. While beautifully illustrated, the rooms are for all intents and purposes very bare and unexciting. They’re also very big, which quickly becomes tiresome when you have to walk back and forth all the way down the train for various fetchquests.
Speaking of fetchquests, the What Pumpkin had hyped up Chittr since before Act 1’s release (then called Prongle), and in this game it’s… basically nothing. You can’t talk to other people through Chittr even if you have their handles, other than the two conversations you have at the beginning for plot progression. Despite this, they keep the DM portion of the screen the central focus, and the user profiles off to the right, which is the only interesting part for all but 2 of the Chittr handles, and you can’t even look at Trizza’s profile beyond her “CHUMPOLSORY” listing in your conticks. Would’ve been nice if you could look at the feed, or anyone‘s profiles updated over the duration of the game, or that you could DM other characters instead of walking all the way down the train to say hi. But that would be a lot of work, wouldn’t it? Overall Chittr is functionally useless, and the only time it’s relevant plot-wise is for DMing… which was already done through Rebelgram in act 1. It’s a waste of space.
Every single background character has their own unique idle animations, which are all nicely animated and pretty to look at! However, this does little to help differentiate between the “important” and “unimportant” characters, particularly in the first two cars which are full of background NPCs. Unless you’re familiar with the Troll Call and Friendsim and therefore already know which characters are supposed to be “important”, you just kind of have to hover until your mouse shows a “hey you can click on this” symbol to figure it out.
Additionally, in a scene where the conversation is occurring between many characters, due to all of the idle animations being very… animated, it can be very difficult to tell who is talking due to that lack of emphasis on who the focus characters is. In at least one case, the camera didn’t even pan over to the speaker and she was left off-screen for the duration of her line.
Overall this game is not very good at explaining the basic worldbuilding of Alternia and trolls to people who aren’t familiar with it. For a game that was supposed to explore Alternia’s worldbuilding and advertised as something that you didn’t need to read Homestuck to understand… it fails to do that. It takes until halfway through the game to give explanations for the romance system quadrants, and then they fail to bring up the fact that the quadrants are associated with the suits of a deck of cards, which is sort of the whole Thing. Other basic things that are referenced throughout implicitly or directly, such as buckets/pails being involved with the reproductive process or trolls being nocturnal, aren’t explicitly spelled out or explained for the unaware audience.
Additionally, much of the appeal of the game seems to be around meeting the cast of characters, which is very exciting to people who are already familiar with them from the Troll Call and Friendsim. But to people who aren’t… they’re just a bunch of random characters you have to talk to to progress the plot. See also, the part where you’re stuck interacting with the jadebloods and tealbloods forever during the trial.
The animation for whenever you switch between Xefros and Joey is extremely janky, and moves you backwards every time. Additionally, every time you want to examine a character or an object, the game makes your character walk over to a specific spot near it to comment on it. Which makes sense if you’re talking to them, but just for looking…?
The flavor text for Wanshi and Lynera was seemingly swapped at one point, when Xefros is looking at them for the first time before talking to them.
Basically no plot progressed between the end of Act 1 and the end of Act 2. The two acts also encompass the timespan of less than a day, while the story is supposed to potentially span 11 days (based on Fiamet’s words).
The achievement icons are all the same basic graphic, with the background changed to different colors to match with certain blood castes. Drawing a unique graphic for each one or even just using screenshots from the game would’ve been better…
The cursor interactivity is very inconsistent, particularly with doors. The prompts for doors say “enter”, “leave”, “use”, “exit”, etc. Sometimes there isn’t a prompt at all, just a set of footprints to indicate you can enter it, which is how it was in Act 1. Except that sometimes those footprints just mean “you can walk here”….?? Basically it’s not consistent at all.
The perspective on the character sprites are designed so that the feet of them should be placed below the horizon line, which in almost all of the scenes work just fine. There is one scene where the characters are walking on a suspended bridge that is located above the horizon line though, and it is extremely janky looking. It does not help that it is very easy to make your characters stand on “air” there above the bridge, and that they kept the sprites’ shadows.
The text speed for individual characters and lines is variable, which is good at indicating the tone of a sentence, but makes it extremely easy to accidentally skip a line by trying to click to finish the text scroll and instead moving onto the next statement. There is also no log to backread any lines you might have missed.
The cutscenes featured in this game were much less animated than Act 1, and felt more like a static slideshow and not worth the cut-away focus.
There were some inventory items that got carried over from act 1 that were nothing more than inventory hogs the entire time. There were many other items that were added to the inventory, but then given away within like 5 minutes. The one time where a bunch of items should have been added to the inventory, when you were collecting evidence for the trial, most of them weren’t and instead just vanished into the abyss. Which also made it harder to remember what you had and hadn’t done in preparation for the trial as you try to figure out what won’t make Tyzias call you stupid for not reading the developers’ minds.
This didn’t happen in my first playthrough, but when my friend was trying to enter Zebede’s abandoned hive for the first time xe initially tried to use Xefros’ telekinesis to open the door. It didn’t work and xe gave up on that and did other things, until xe went and clicked on the door again to go inside, at which point it worked. If you do anything other than in the exact order that is expected, you’re punished for it. No thinking ahead for you.
The game’s lore frequently directly contradicts Homestuck, Act 1, or even other parts of the act itself. For example the concept of 7 sweeps (~15 years) being the time when trolls are sent off-world has been stated before, but in this act references to it happening at 9 sweeps (~19 years). Other worldbuilding regarding specific castes is thrown out or ignored as well, with the new basis for all castes seeming to just be clones of the Sburb trolls, even when that makes absolutely no sense or the troll was stated to be an exception to others of their caste (see: Equius and his strength). The train cars were also decorated in disappointing ways, with the gold/olive car being only goldblood themed and that jade/teal car being mostly teal themed (though to be fair considering that jades do not typically go to the surface [maybe, they can’t make up their mind on that one] it might have just been where the jade caste was stuck impromptu).
After three years of waiting and hype, Hiveswap: Act 2 simply doesn’t hold up. The parts I did enjoy were overshadowed by the parts I didn’t, and as the one piece of upcoming Homestuck media I had any hope for after a year of being haunted by the Epilogues, it completely disappointed me. Some sections of the game were fun enough, like the rhythm game or the trial (in theory), but if you enjoyed those play a rhythm game or a mystery trial game. Like, minigames are fun and all, but the point of a point-and-click is the pointing-and-clicking. As one of my friends pointed out, this story could easily be converted into a visual novel and nothing would really be lost. Which is the real kicker isn’t it? This feels more like a sequel to the Friendsim visual novels than a sequel to Act 1.
Basically I currently have no plans to play Act 3 whenever it eventually come out. I’ll just wait to see a playthrough, and maybe if it somehow wows me I’ll purchase it and play it for myself. But considering that I was so burnt out after my first playthrough that I didn’t even want to think about trying to go replay the game for achievements for a fair bit… it’s not looking great. Anyways, I can’t recommend this game to anyone in good faith. It’s incomplete, dragging, not a fun experience, and is full of skeevy behind-the-scenes shit. Honestly, I just can’t really recommend giving What Pumpkin your money in general. Friendsim is seriously overpriced, Pesterquest is also overpriced but slightly less so, and they delivered a blatantly incomplete game with the funds given to them to develop one. I do seriously recommend reading Gio’s blog post about Hiveswap’s development hell, it’s really enlightening.
If you do want to see the wasted potential of act 2, I do recommend checking out act 1, which is really well put together even in its brevity, and full of replayability and experimentation due to its full usage of the click and point environments. But this game simply isn’t a worthy sequel to it. There are other games out there that do the individual parts of Hiveswap 2 much better–if you enjoyed the rhythm game portion, I recommend playing a rhythm game like Cytus II or Project Diva. If you enjoyed the trial minigame, just go play Ace Attorney or Danganronpa or something. And if you like the idea of a mystery on a train specifically that actually has a cohesive plot
and can be loosely linked back to Homestuck if you squint, try figuring out how to play Poptropica‘s Mystery Train Island in this coming age of unsupported Flash. Unfortunately I do not have any point-and-click games in particular to recommend, but really this game played out more like a visual novel anyways so go ahead and try one of those (no not the Homestuck ones). They’re not all dating simulators.
Hiveswap: Act 2 gets a 2/38 missing troll friends from me.
Zebede and Charun will live on in my heart.