Beep boop…hello, Madam! Mobile phones are both a wonder of the modern world, but also a total pain in the frenulum when you either get a call at the worst possible time or need to make/receive one but can’t.
For example, I once got a really important call about a house we were trying to buy that I absolutely had to take, but with the worst possible timing my phone had rung while I was in the ‘smallest room’. That’s right – I was doing a poo in the airing cupboard! Again!
Normally, my phone ringing while I was indisposed wouldn’t be a problem and I’d do what anyone would: send it to voicemail, use the loo, and return the call. But I knew this call was time-sensitive and if I didn’t take it we could lose the house, so it had to be there and then.
And of course, it just so happened that ‘there’ and ‘then’ I was getting over a dose of food poisoning, so lavatorial visits were a lot more high-stake events than usual.
Thus, I ended up spending a wretched half-hour attempting to discuss my mortgage with a very polite but somewhat bemused solicitor, with me frantically muting things on and off mid-conversation – under the utterly rubbish cover story I’d concocted in a panic of my neighbour doing loud DIY – to spare them hearing as much as possible of what they’d probably have described as someone repeatedly half-filling a balloon with gravy, then the rest air, then letting it ‘razz off’ into a bin.
Still, these days the country is so strewn with mobile masts it’s starting to resemble the face of that bloke from the 1980s horror film Hellraiser. So while calls at a bad time will always happen, at least not getting a signal when you need it is an increasingly unlikely thing.
Wander out into the sticks, though, and you can still find yourself in a ‘dead zone’ bereft of reception – usually just when you need it most, too. And that’s essentially the premise of the delightful A Short Hike.
You play Claire – a small bird (an actual bird, I haven’t gone all 1970s un-PC slang) who, while visiting her aunt on holiday, is waiting for an important call from her mother. However her aunt is a park ranger, so Claire is out in the middle of nowhere and the only place there’s any phone reception is at the very top of the huge mountain at the centre of the park.
What follows is her adventures trying to reach the summit; along the way she meets a whole host of oddball creatures who are eager to help but naturally have issues of their own to deal with, who all dish out little tasks for Claire to complete for them. Doing these usually results in some reward that will help her on her way and/or a little bit of backstory.
There are also chests and coins to discover hidden about the map, and these often reward you (either directly or via trading with NPCs) with feathers. The more feathers you have, the more stamina you have, and the higher you can climb and fly to take you ever closer to the peak of the…er…peak.
(On this note, admittedly I’m no ornithologist but I’m pretty sure shoving extra feathers up a bird to make it fly better isn’t quite how birds work. It’s a video game though, so we’ll give them some creative leeway.)
It’s all very standard RPG-lite type stuff, and there’s nothing here that will tax anyone for too long. In fact there’s nothing here that will take too long at all, and you’ll probably be done with the story in a few hours tops. But that’s fine, as today we’re not in longevity town. We’re in lovely town.
A Short Hike has been described as Zelda meets Animal Crossing, and it’s easy to see why – the quirky, humorous personalities of all the creatures you meet could be straight out of Nintendo’s town-o-sim, and the exploring, climbing and adventuring is very reminiscent of Breath of the Wild’s (very) open world.
But at the same time, it’s entirely its own thing. There’s no effort here to make a genre-redefining epic like Link’s most recent outing, or something that you’ll keep coming back to for years with busywork (mainly to finally pay off grasping loan shark Tom bloody Nook, who I’m convinced evicts people to die behind the scenes in Animal Crossing).
It is what it is – small, but perfectly formed.
The gentle background tunes suit the action – if you can call something as laid back as this action – perfectly, and delightful pixel-style/cel-shaded 3D art gives the game a slight retro feel as well, like it’s some long-forgotten SNES title. You can turn these off and make the polygons all sharp and modern if you like, but that does take away a bit of the charm.
And charm is really what it’s all about. I won’t spoil the end to the story, but for a game about a bird doing silly tasks so she can climb a hill it’s remarkably touching and life-affirming.
It’s not just the ending though – the game is full of these little nuggets of joy. A funny conversation with an NPC, finding a new vista and the treasures hidden about it, or even just literally enjoying a short hike about the park. There is stuff here for the more trophy-loving too – it’ll certainly take you a fair while to catch every type of fish and find every last bit of treasure.
It’s testament to the game though that you’ll probably want to do this even once the story is done, just because it’s such a nice place to be – and the author clearly realises this. There’s no ‘game over’ screen to bring it all to a crashing close. You can just carry on exploring to your heart’s content once the credits roll.
I honestly can’t think of a bad thing to say about A Short Hike. Its low price reflects its literal brevity, but it’s just such a warm hug of a game I’d be willing to bet you’ll play and replay it more than titles thrice its size and cost.
Leave your cynicism at the door for a few hours, and go for a walk. I promise you’ll feel much better for it.
SCORE: 6 miles out of 10km.