Hack your way through dozens of heists in a 1980s cyberpunk adventure.
PC Release: July 25, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Between last week’s The Real Texas and this week’s Quadrilateral Cowboy, one could be forgiven for thinking that this blog is on a wild west kick. Art as Games makes no such claim to a sudden yearning for the cowboy days of yore, despite what the titles of recent reviews might imply. For as The Real Texas turned out to have little to do with the traditional notions of the Old West, neither does Quadrilateral Cowboy, a game that has much more to do with computers than six shooters or getting the rickets.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is the latest release from Blendo Games, a developer known for making wacky, eccentric narratives presented with no context or transitions. The studio’s previous efforts, Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, are both amusing games, though they’ve received mixed reviews for their surreal, scattershot narratives. Quadrilateral Cowboy adopts the same brightly colored, blocky aesthetic as used in the previous two games, though it takes more of a puzzle game bent than its predecessors.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is a hacking game set in a cyberpunk rendition of the 1980’s. Players assume the role of a nameless hacker, who is armed with the best computer in the world. Rather than turn this powerful machine to an altruistic cause, the hacker decides to put her skills to more nefarious means. Whether it’s stealing a rival firm’s data, or photographing secret documents, there’s no job the hacker won’t do if the price is right.
In Quadrilateral Cowboy, players use their hacking tools to enact a virtual recreation of an upcoming heist, the idea being that the hacker will know what to expect when her fellow agents break in to do the thieving. The game is a first-person adventure, in which the hacker gal is immune to most types of physical damage. The game’s challenge lies in its hacking-based puzzles.
Although she gets more tools as the game goes on, the hacker starts out with her trusty computer, which she can take with her on missions. Players can use this computer to disable security systems via console commands. For example, the hacker can disable cameras to allow access into vaults, or open doors for a classic breaking and entering. All of these machines are susceptible to this deck, and players will have to manipulate almost all of them to reach the objective.
Although Quadrilateral Cowboy sounds like the dream of computer geeks and stealth players everywhere, the game is shot down almost immediately by its high number of bugs. The game’s levels are not, shall we say, watertight, and the hacker is prone to fall through the floor and out of the game world for no apparent reason. Additionally, when setting the deck down to do some hacking, it’ll occasionally fly off of the table as if swatted by the hand of God, and soar to the other side of the galaxy. These bugs can occur at anytime, and, needless to say, make Quadrilateral Cowboy a challenge in more ways than the developer intended.
It also doesn’t help aspiring hackers that the tutorials are piss-poor. Although the game does a good enough job at introducing players to moving around the physical world, any gamer who doesn’t have at least a basic understanding of coding and console commands is in for a rough start. For some reason, the hacking tutorial is tied up with a bunch of mini-games that have no clear correlation with, well, hacking. None of this is to say that Quadrilateral Cowboy doesn’t have any reference material, but it can only be found in a handy dandy notebook that’s only slightly less dry than an actual computer manual.
To be fair, Quadrilateral Cowboy‘s gameplay is alright, once these basic lessons are inferred. There is something admittedly satisfying about hacking through security systems to reach an objective. The developer’s stated that one of the game’s goals is to make players feel like a cyber heister, and it does succeed in that regard. Navigating through dark hallways, opening doors with a flurry of keys and then getting out before anyone notices is fun. This game rewards players who are quick at typing; those with deft fingers are obviously going to fly through the missions much faster.
The core puzzle element at play in Quadrilateral Cowboy is not just hacking individual machines, but manipulating the entire environment in such a way as to get the job done quickly. Using the deck, players can type enough commands to operate everything in the heist simultaneously. Typing them out can be tedious, but there is something satisfying about lasers turning off and doors flying open all on a whim. That is, assuming the deck doesn’t randomly get sucked into the 10th dimension by the aforementioned physics bug.
The death-knell of Quadrilateral Cowboy is that there’s almost nothing to be found in the game outside of typing code. The story, if one could call it that, is nonexistent. Missions are presented as a standalone affair without any context. All the player has to do is break into a building and perform nefarious task X, but there’s not an iota of grander context to be found outside of these mission objectives. The developer’s love of randomness is taken too far in this game, as players are shunted from one garishly lit skyscraper to the next. There’s no dialogue, spoken or written, and though there’s nothing wrong with games that imply their narratives through other means, there are no other implications here.
To be fair, however, it could be argued that the set pieces in this game each tell their own sub-narrative, but the stories they try to tell are not clear at all. Between jobs, players will randomly end up in different environments, from a gun shop owned by a cat to a computer containing a story about nightmares on airplanes. Any potential for humor that these scenes have is ruined by, again, the absolute lack of a greater context. In Jazzpunk, for example, the random humor was presented as tidbits against the backdrop of a central narrative. In Quadrilateral Cowboy, the game alternates between hacking missions and these random scenes for no apparent reason. At best, the game feels lost. At worst, it feels pretentious. At least in Thirty Flights of Loving, there was a narrative to be discerned behind all of the randomly assorted scenes. Here, there’s just… nothing.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is further sunk by some glaring issues with its art and sound design. The entire game is presented as a big, blocky world, with colorful environments and cartoon characters with giant square heads. As can be seen in the screenshot preceding this paragraph, the textures and skyboxes in Quadrilateral Cowboy can look quite muddy. The game runs smoothly when it’s not busy crashing, but the visuals in this game teeter on the very thin line between minimalist and underdeveloped. Quadrilateral Cowboy also features little to no music, which would be fine if there were some ambient sounds to fill the eerie void in each level. Just like last year’s Neon Struct, the stark absence of any kind of sound effect outside the character’s grunts is very noticeable.
Overall, Quadrilateral Cowboy is a disappointment. What it gets right as a hacking simulator is vastly outweighed by its high number of bugs, lackluster artwork, and random, story-less levels. Anyone who’s interested in hacking games and cyber-punk adventures should play Uplink. It’s 15 years old, but it’s still by far the best hacking game out there. Whereas that game feels cohesive and draws all of its other elements around the core concept of hacking, Quadrilateral Cowboy feels like a hodgepodge of random ideas held together by typing console commands. Randomness in games is never a bad thing, but without some sort of anchor, Quadrilateral Cowboy‘s design elements shoot off into the sky just like its physics bugs.
You can buy Quadrilateral Cowboy here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.