This is the one hundred thirty-fifth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

This random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is climbing ever upwards into view. It’s HATCH, by Rubeki, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Climb your way to the top of a strange tower in a strange land

As everyone knows, strange towers are the best of all things to climb.

HATCH is actually the second game by Rubeki to appear in this series. The first was Hollow Head, a first-person horror game made for the Haunted PS1 Summer Spooks game jam. HATCH shares a similar lo-fi aesthetic, with low resolution texture maps adorning simple blocky architecture, but it is not a horror game. At least, not exactly. There are some weird and creepy things in HATCH, but it’s not aiming to frighten the player, just provide a strange atmosphere through which to climb.

Before I continue, I will mention that HATCH has no options to speak of, so while it is controlled with mouselook, there’s no option to adjust the mouse sensitivity, or — as has become a recurring complaint for many games in this series — to invert the mouse y-axis. For those, like me, who learned to play with inverted mouse, this is very frustrating. Finally fed up, I looked into a third-party tool that might force inverted mouse controls, as described here. This sounded kind of sketchy, requiring third-party mouse drivers, but it actually works! For posterity, I’ll list the steps here as well: first download the RawAccel driver here and install it, then reboot, then download the InvertMouse tool here, install it, and run it. This forces an inverted mouse in games that do not otherwise support it, but only when the mouse cursor is hidden, so the mouse will still work normally in menus (after a short delay). An alternate driver removes the delay but will also trigger anti-cheat software in online games, so I stuck with the RawAccel driver. Most games that don’t support inverted mouse (like HATCH) don’t have many menus anyway. That done, my experience of HATCH was greatly improved.

Players take on the role of a glowing pink humanoid figure, who emerges from an egg at the beginning of the game (this is presumably what the title refers to… or is it?). Another figure is nearby, offering a warning not to stand too long under the half sun. The meaning of that becomes clear as soon as the pink person leaves the hatchery, when the half sun — a sinister semicircular arc in the sky — starts to burn them. A strange crackling noise and dimming vision are the only indication this is happening, so I was confused at first, because I was looking at something else and didn’t realize I was standing in the sun’s rays. But soon enough I learned to put stone walls or archways between the sun and my hapless humanoid, letting me get around safely.

Soon enough I arrived at the strange tower advertised in the tagline. Here, a pictorial image showed me the main mechanic of HATCH: any wall that rises at less than a 90 degree angle to the ground — meaning it slopes away from the base, rather than going straight up or overhanging — can be climbed, simply by walking into it. And so the challenge becomes one of gauging slopes, finding climbable walls around the edges of the huge tower, and making occasional leaps, all while staying out of the sun’s deadly gaze.

This is easier said than done. There’s no guidance given to players in terms of how to make the ascent. There are occasional checkpoints marked by large torches, and sometimes another pink person or other notable scene to stumble upon, with some special text to go with it (but no way to interact after discovering them). But these are few and far between, and at other times players are free to find any path upward that they like. That meant I often got stuck, climbing a good ways up before I reached a point that put me underneath the sun, sending me back to a checkpoint over and over. There are just a scant few seconds to get out of the sun’s rays before succumbing, so most of my attempts to rush across a sun-exposed tower face to safety ended in failure. I was often frustrated, searching in vain for a safe way up, and having to repeat a lot given the infrequent checkpoints. These moments reminded me why a lot of modern game design aims to reduce player frustration and provide guidance.

On the other hand, the freedom is also, well… freeing. Successfully scaling to new heights was extra satisfying because I’d figured out the route myself. Sometimes, some clever jumping (the jump is high and floaty, allowing for nice aerial maneuvering) got me onto a large sloping wall that let me climb a huge distance. Once, I clambered upwards and then looked down only to realize that I’d completely bypassed one of the discoverable vignettes. I’d apparently found a route that Rubeki hadn’t even considered. On balance, I enjoyed the challenge of scaling this bizarre geometric structure, even if the first-person viewpoint meant I didn’t often get to gaze at it. It’s tempting to include screenshots from when I stopped to check out the view, like this one:

… but most of the time, the screen looked more like this:

I should stress just how tall this tower is. I was soon at a giddying height, yet the tower still extended upward past the range of my vision. This massive structure is the game’s true antagonist, although I was cursing the half sun just as often. Without spoiling too much, there are gradual changes in scenery as players get higher and higher, providing a great sense of progress and fitting the mood and theme of HATCH nicely. Later, the climbing changes rather drastically, making for an enjoyable finale. HATCH does an excellent job of maintaining its odd mood throughout, and I found myself respecting and liking it despite the frustrating moments. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I finished it, which is always a good sign.

The itch page for HATCH says it takes 30-60 minutes (or more) to play through. I was definitely on the “or more” side of that, and in fact played across a few sessions before I finished it. Play continues from the last checkpoint after quitting and restarting the game (although the save can be cleared if players want to start over) so there’s no need to play HATCH all at once, but I did find that the music cues did not trigger when returning to the game, so I spent much of the final ascent without the soaring ambient score that should have accompanied it. I’m happy to say that I rarely fell, but even if I did it was easy to respawn at the highest checkpoint I’d reached by hitting the R key. Sadly, falling down until I hit the trigger point for the music, and then restarting the checkpoint, didn’t keep the music going. Oh well.

I’m recommending HATCH, but with the warning that it can frustrate at times. Also, players who dislike heights may wish to avoid this one, given just how high they must climb. But the strange challenge of finding the right climbing surfaces, and weird atmosphere of this strange world, are worth experiencing. If you missed it in the bundle, HATCH is sold for a minimum price of $2.99. There’s also a free thing called Embroy1 featuring seven unfinished games that mark the journey towards the development of HATCH, for those interested. I have not tried it, but I might check it out.

That’s 135 down, and only 1606 to go!