Nintendo Switch Review copy supplied by Adam Robinson-Yu. This has not impacted my review in any way.
Gaming media is so often focused on the larger picture: better graphics, bigger worlds, larger player counts etc. It is easy to get wrapped up in the hype of the next big thing, that smaller titles simply pass you by without making a sound. Whilst a sprawling 200 hour journey is certainly impressive, there is something to be said about a short, paddingly absent experience that hooks you for its short length, and stays with you for longer than it should. A Short HIke is one such game.
You play as Claire, an avian-human bundle of cuteness in a world filled with equally cute anthropomorphic darlings. You are staying in a small log cabin with your Aunty near an impressive hiking destination. Your phone doesn’t seem to be getting any signal at the bottom of the hill, so you’re Aunty suggests making the trek up to Hawk Peak and seeing if you have any luck up there. The game takes about 30 seconds to set up this basic premise and then you are on your way.
As you trundle up the various trails, paths and woodland nooks you bump into a veritable plethora of interesting, quirky and oftentimes downright funny characters who are also making their way to one of the many scenic destinations that make up the hike. Whilst the story may ultimately be about getting to a high spot to check your phone, it is the little interactions between Claire and the characters she interacts with that truly make the experience. Claire slowly grows as a character the further she climbs and the more she interacts and explores her environment. What was once a reclusive, maybe even depressed, little bird-person who was looking at her phone for one reason or another grows to be so much more and it is truly touching to see and experience.
A Short Hike is a game about exploring, although it is up to you how much you want to explore, and therefore, how much Claire herself gets out of her expedition to Hawk Peak. At every crossroads you will bump into characters or signs directing you toward Hawk Peak and oftentimes, other locations that are in the opposite direction. Pottering to these locations offer a bunch of benefits, whether that be hidden treasure, a new animal friend to talk to, a task/quest to complete or even a minigame to participate in, there is always something waiting to be uncovered – literally in some cases.
Claire will come across many items on her journey that allow her to interact with the environment in a number of ways. You will quickly get your hands on a shovel (with a little bit of wandering). Which lets you dig up all sorts of goodies, such as coins. Later on you will find buckets to grow shortcut-enhancing plants, pickaxes to unveil inventive fast travel locations and even golden feather – easily the most important collectable in the game, Golden Feathers act like stamina, so the more you have, the more stamina-draining actions you can perform before you need to take a break. Easily the most important use of stamina is climbing.
Once you are able to climb, the game opens up quite a bit. Items will be hidden in harder to reach locations, your journey up the mountain will be more difficult and stamina consuming and you are heavily encouraged to explore and find more. Thankfully, these feathers are very easy to find if you are so inclined to go off the beaten track, and even if you want to rush to the end of the game, more often than not there are multiple ways to get up the mountain, some of which can completely circumvent the need to actually gather feathers at all. This is your adventure, and the game wants you to tackle its trials your way. It is incredibly rewarding to uncover these sneaky side paths and shortcuts, making the game feel less linear than it really is.
Being a bird-person, Claire is blessed with the power of flight…kinda. She can’t actually fly – it is more of a controlled fall, or glide. Like climbing, this mechanic is used in many creative ways to open up not only the games main path, but oftentimes side paths and option content, such as treasure map locations. The best parts of gliding come in the form of scenic viewing stations…things. Looking through these lenses will show you a destination in the distance, giving you the obvious hint to jump off a nearby cliff and swoop down to whatever it is the game was pointing out. These sections felt amazing every time they cropped up and made descending the mountain just as exciting as ascending it.
But sometimes you just want to go sideways, and in doing that you will bump into a bunch of side content that helps extend the games length in a number of interesting and meaningful ways. Maybe you want to gather money to purchase a new, stylish hat, or you found a small girl who wants an unreasonable amount of shells, or you hired a boat, crashed a few times and accidentally found some children inventing the exciting (and surprisingly difficult…) Beachstickball. The game world is very small, but it is filled to the brim with things to find and do.
In addition to being so dense, A Short Hike also manages to portray its world in a uniquely striking way. It took a little while for me to understand what it was that I was looking at, but I eventually came to the conclusion that I liked it…once I changed the settings. At its base, A Short Hike has big, chunky pixels that are stylistically wonderful in short bursts, but it actually hurt my eyes after a few minutes as I simply couldn’t focus on the screen. Luckily the game comes with a bunch of graphical options that can reduce the size of those chunky pixels into something a bit smaller. When I did this, the game took on an almost painting-like aesthetic that hooked me pretty much immediately. Bright colours, varied environments and quirky character designs in addition to its bold artstyle combine to deliver a visual treat, and the ability to tweak that treat to your liking, even on consoles, is much appreciated.
What is arguably more impressive than the visuals however, is the music. It manages to hit every single emotional beat exactly when it needs to. Whether you are simply walking through the woods and being met with a soothing melody or reaching the highest heights and being bombarded with a triumphant crescendo, A Short Hike simply delivers. The ambient sounds of Claire exploring the world add to this to make a game that feels warm, cosy and utterly engrossing from start to finish.
And that is what makes A Short Hike so unbelievably rewarding – the ending. Story aside, the game knows when to end, and that is after about two hours. It knows the story it wants to tell, the things it wants to show and the activities it wants you to find and scatters them perfectly across its wonderfully designed landscape. Had the game been any longer, then it may have gotten stale or tiring – but it wasn’t. It was perfect. I was hooked from start to finish. It is a quaint, deeply engaging experience that honestly took me by surprise.
A Short Hike is absolutely a game that needs experiencing. Whether you go straight to the peak, or explore every nook and cranny, this is a game worth investing time into. It sets out to deliver a very specific experience, and succeeds every step of the way. This is a modern masterpiece and as close to a perfect game as I have ever come to playing. If I gave numbered scores, then this would break whatever arbitrary scale that I had. If you want something relaxing, charming and touching, then what are you waiting for?
Toast Seal Of Approval
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