A game like Humanity doesn't come around too often. Not only is it a high-profile puzzle game, which is rare enough these days, but it has that quirky-but-serious, strange-but-familiar Japanese styling. It’s taken developer Tha Ltd. (or "tha ltd." to be more exact) a long time to craft what it calls a “crowd action game” that was slated to arrive in 2018, but with the aid of publisher Enhance, the toil was well worth it. Somewhere between the cubic layout of Intelligent Qube, the whimsical oddity of Katamari Damacy, and the creative engine of Super Mario Maker, Humanity is a wonderfully modern puzzler that's both challenging and artistic.
Artsy without being fartsy
Trying to describe Humanity is a difficult task and a silly one at that. It's about a shiba inu spirit who guides a continual stream of human sheeples to a pillar of light by barking orders at them. Questioning why a dog is commanding human-shaped lemmings toward an end goal at the behest of some mysterious voice is like asking why The King of All Cosmos wants The Prince to roll up balls of Earth stuff to form stars in Katamari Damacy. It's easier (and funner) just to go along with the concept.
To the game's credit, the narrative does eventually explain why you're going through all these trials by the end. I won't spoil the particulars, but it plays around with a few themes that reminded me of HBO's Westworld. I mean, it's already bold for any game to outright call itself "Humanity" given the immensity of the subject. And it becomes obvious right after the prologue that the story is about human advancement of some kind.
Fortunately, Humanity stays largely metaphorical and light with themes that can easily become grim and bleak. This isn't to say that the game doesn't have its dark moments, particularly in the latter half of the plot, which explores violence, tribalism, and imprisonment. But it neither overexplains nor over-dramatizes these heavier subjects, letting the gameplay speak for itself. Much of the levity comes from the game’s quirky tone and offbeat music that is reminiscent of Japanese shows that combine technology with art, like “cube” from Elevenplay or “PARA BOX” by SIRO-A and Kenichi Ebina. (Don’t ask me how I got myself into this internet rabbit hole.)
Every dog has its day
Where Humanity excels most is in the variety, originality, and overall challenge of its puzzles. In general, the game plays like a contemporary 3D version of Pipe Dream or that hacking mini-game from BioShock, except the stream you have to navigate is made out of people instead of running water. By the way, you don't have to worry about the humans dying, because they eventually respawn anyway (or at least that's how the mysterious voice explains it).
Every chapter, or “sequence” of trials, introduces a new power or concept that adds an extra layer of complexity. You’ll start off In the first few sequences telling the humans where to turn and jump, so that they get over a gap or push blocks in the right way. And it’s not long before you’re asked to tell the humans where to high jump or long jump onto fans, step on switches, and fall from a ledge without dying. The environments become trickier too with some asking you to navigate through water or place both humans and blocks onto conveyor belts. Just when you get comfortable with a mechanic, the game throws a curveball to make you think differently. A good chunk of the 90 or so puzzles in story mode took me an average of about 20 minutes to figure out.
A fair amount of difficulty comes in the form of collecting Goldies, a larger gold-colored human that you can collect in each puzzle. These Goldies are usually placed in areas that are harder to reach and test your thorough understanding of every command and concept. It’s not necessary to grab every Goldie in the game, but you’re required to earn a certain number of them to unlock the final trial of a sequence. Some puzzles also require that you bring a Goldie to a specific point before you can complete them. As a bonus, collecting Goldies will unlock cosmetics for the humans and some important gameplay features, such as the ability to stop time, fast-forward, use the free camera, and know what will happen when you turn on a switch before you step on one.
Mercifully, if you get stuck on a trial, the game provides a solution video that will give you a basic understanding of how to complete the puzzle. By that, I mean that the video doesn’t share how to grab any optional Goldies, so there’s still some challenge left that needs to be wrestled with. The developers trust that most players will abide by an honor system and won’t reach for the answer unless they’re totally stumped. You can also restart a trial while keeping all the commands on the board to save time. However, I wish there was a way to keep commands after completing a trial too, so that you can head back to a previous puzzle without having to start over completely.
Barking up the wrong tree
About halfway through, Humanity takes an interesting, albeit awkward, turn by delving into other genres. The game still retains most of its puzzle elements, but it slowly introduces mechanics from real-time strategy, stealth action, and bullet-hell shoot-’em-ups. This gradual shift adds to the variety and originality of the gameplay, and it makes a lot of sense from a narrative standpoint, as it introduces a group of grayed-out people called The Others who serve as a foil to your group of humans. Thematically, the addition of each new genre style is meant to represent another step in human development.
However, the game isn’t as precise with these added mechanics compared to the simpler puzzles near the beginning. Figuring out how combat works between melee and shooting units is trickier than it needs to be, and the shoot-’em-up sections are somewhat plain and frustrating at times. While the Pikmin-like sequences where you command groups of humans to follow you around are interesting, the stealthing parts can be a bit too finicky. Every now and then, you’ll lose a unit because you’ll get too close to an edge or because an enemy hits a unit that straggles behind. This might not sound like a big deal, but there are some buttons and goals that will only activate if you have a specific number of humans. More than several times I’ve had to restart a trial because I ended up being short by one to three units.
Though I appreciate where Humanity was going with this in its attempt to meld different forms of gameplay with the narrative, the game trades away a part of its identity and loses sight of its core strengths as it progresses. By the end, it became less about logic-based skill and more about reactive timing. The trials in the last few sequences are still challenging and relevant to the story, but ultimately if I’m looking for a shoot-’em-up, I’d rather boot up Geometry Wars or Risk of Rain 2.
The future of Humanity depends on, well, humans
Another important piece of Humanity is its investment in user-generated content, with the game allowing players to create puzzles using all of the building blocks that the designers have. In a way, the story mode is just an extensive sampler of how robust the creation engine really is. Any budding game designer with a mind for puzzle-making should check it out as both a playground and a showcase for inspiration.
While user stages were still in beta for reviewers, the variety of fanmade puzzles already available was impressive. A good portion of them were tributes to gaming like the PlayStation logo, a giant desktop computer, and a favorite of mine called “Rock Is Sponge” as a homage to Rez. Those looking for more difficulty can explore a giant pyramid with multiple floors or a platforming trial specifically for the dog. The developers will also curate what they think are the best puzzles on a consistent basis while featuring those that users have rated highly. With the sheer breadth of the game’s mechanics, I’m sure the community will create trials that will amaze even the developers.
I haven’t felt as challenged or as impressed by a puzzle game like Humanity since Portal 2 and The Talos Principle. Sony likely saw something special about it too (and this time at least, I agree), as it is one of the few games that will be available with a PS Extra or Premium subscription on day one. While Humanity does become less of a puzzler near the endgame, that’s a minor quibble in light of the risks it takes, its inventive range of content, its thought-provoking story, and its curiously peculiar presentation. (The dog is cute too.)
This review is based on a Steam digital code provided by the publisher. Humanity will be available on Tuesday, May 16 on PC and PlayStation for $29.99 USD. The game is rated E10+.
- Conceptual story that treats heavy themes lightly
- Challenging, original puzzles with a lot of variety
- Quirky music and graphics
- In-game solution videos
- Robust user creation tools
- Endgame becomes less of a puzzle game
- Could have added "keep commands" option for past trials