Pin me down, knees on my shoulders, nose against mine, spittle on your lips, eyes bloody, and demand to know what my favourite game of 2016 so far is, I'd have no choice, I guess, but to be honest. I mean, don't do that, please. I don't handle being terrified particularly well. But, hypothetically, if I were in that position, my answer wouldn't be XCOM 2, or Oxenfree, or Firewatch, or The Witness. It'd be Action Henk.
The work of a small team at Utrecht's RageSquid, Action Henk is a deliciously simple proposition. You control a fictional action figure, made up for the game – initially the titular Action Henk, but you'll unlock other options – and run from left to right, racing across obstacle courses made of wooden building blocks, skateboards and Hot Wheels-style plastic track. Running aside, there are two controls: jump and slide. Momentum is the name of the game – pick up speed and launch yourself at a wall, springing from one vertical surface to another to ascend at speed; immediately rocket down the track on your arse after a massive leap of faith, your velocity increasing with flaming results. Imagine a Sonic clone based on a knock-off Toy Story cast, but with a greater emphasis on local competition and online leaderboard supremacy – getting a top-ten time on any given track is a total thrill.
"It's only after we launched the Early Access version [in 2015] that we got compared to a Sonic game, or Unirally," RageSquid's "tech maestro" Lex Decrauw tells me. "At that point we were thinking, 'Oh hey, they're right, it does kind of play like a Sonic game.' But the main sources of inspiration were Trials, Super Meat Boy and TrackMania."
With its easy to understand controls but tough to master tracks – which scale up in difficulty the further into the game you get, unlocking new sets of loops and ramps by winning medals (bronze, silver, gold and rainbow) for your times on earlier courses – Action Henk instantly clicks with players of any experience or age. My son, five, thinks the game is completely hilarious – even when he's not completing a stage in any kind of respectable time, he's bellowing with laughter through simply watching Henk shoot down a slope on his backside and flipping off the end of it and into the lava that is a bedroom floor. (What, you never played the "the floor's lava" game at home, pissing your parents off by leaping from settee to coffee table and kicking over a vase in the process?)
"We're extremely pleased that the game isn't bound to one target audience," Lex says. "When we started development, we didn't have a specific audience in mind. We wanted to make something that we would enjoy playing ourselves. A second requirement that we set was that the game had to be fun to watch when it's not your turn to play. This resulted in a vibrant and colourful background with lots to look at."
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The backgrounds, the environments, of the game certainly are a terrific sight to behold. The game begins in a kid's bedroom, walls plastered with posters riffing on action movies of the 1980s and '90s, plastic dinosaurs and space rockets all over the place. Fall off the track and the carpet transforms into molten death. (Don't worry, though – restarting any course is just a press of a B button away, on an Xbox pad, and you can practise particular sections by teleporting back to select checkpoints with X.) Later, the same bedroom turns into a disco, and a haunted house-themed setting, before the game moves outside. Henk hits the beach, butt sliding over the crisp, blue shallows – but should he fall here, he's swallowed by a toothy underwater predator. (Again, no need to panic – he always reappears, ready to "GO!" once more.)
Action Henk's a blast as a single-player experience, where the aim is to rise up the global leaderboards while winning medals enough to open special coin-grabbing bonus stages – gather all the tokens in a certain time to unlock new outfits – and adding more action figures to your playable collection. "Every single toy we put in there is a reference to a toy one of us used to play with as a kid," Lex says, though I definitely never saw a slimy banker action figure when I was still bashing plastic dolls into each other. But it's better as a competitive experience, played beside an actual human being who's trying to beat you to the finish line.
'Action Henk', multiplayer trailer (the game makes a lot more sense in motion)
"It's so much more fun to play locally, and I'm really happy that we're adding that to the (already available) PC version when we launch the console versions. The game really triggers competitiveness in players: you must beat that guy's time, no matter how many turns it takes you. This works even better if you put four people on the same couch and let them duke it out. It's so much more fun to beat your friend and to then be able to gloat in their face."
I've still got a small handful of tracks to unlock, but whenever I find myself with 15 minutes of free time at home right now, it's to Action Henk I'm turning. A single run might last 30 seconds, so five minutes with it allows for a lot of refining, adjusting where you're jumping before a particular slide, using the hook-shot – allowing for swinging from surfaces above you – more sparingly to reduce time spent in the air. Every millisecond shaved from a personal best feels like a victory, and achieving gold medals across a complete set of courses is incredibly satisfying. Better still: seeing that other players, people you know in real life, are languishing below you in the leaderboards. Sorry, Sean, I guess I'm just that bit quicker on my caboose.
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The natural competitiveness Action Henk encourages in its player(s), its vivid art style and easily understandable objectives should make it a streamer's treat – expect to see young people of the internet gathering around a screen to guffaw at their inability to make a fat plastic man fly like a bird, for the entertainment of others. "We've seen lots of YouTubers and streamers pick up the game and enjoy it," Lex says, "and I think we owe that to how easy the game is to just pick up and play." And while the game was squeezed into second place in a recent PlayStation Plus vote, losing to Broforce, which means it's not immediately available as a "free" title via the subscription service, that's not dented its makers' confidence in what they've created. RageSquid is feeling positive about the future.
"We're in a good place right now," Lex concludes. "We're doing a little freelance work for the coming months, while we flesh out our next game design. It probably won't be Action Henk 2, but we'll keep everyone up to date as soon as we have something to show. There will be a next game from RageSquid."
For now, though, I don't need another game from them. Hell, I hardly need any other game at all. Its appeal will certainly wane in the months ahead, as other distractions impose themselves. But today, Action Henk is unbeatable. Like Rocket League when it first came out last year, this is all I want to play. So, if you'd kindly let me up, dust me down, apologise and bugger off out of my house, I'll get right back to it.
Action Henk is out now for PC, and is coming to Xbox One (version tested) on March 4th and PlayStation 4 on March 8th. More information at the game's official website.
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