HROT (Demo) by Spytihněv

When iD Software decided to publish future Quake titles with Activision, GT Interactive was in a real bind having now lost one of the most famous intellectual properties in video games. The eventual answer to Quake for GT was signing a publishing deal with Ukranian-based developer Action Forms, who at the time was developing Chasm: The Rift, though largely better known for their most recent release, Cryostasis.

Chasm was a joy, a more technically competent Quake Clone that demonstrated unique features like limb removal and in-game cutscenes with facial animations for each character. As forward thinking as the 1997 game was, it would find a lukewarm reception in the west and ultimately become forgotten in the gaming zeitgeist. Fast-forward to today, solo developer Spytihněv’s HROT picks up right where Action Forms left off, presenting a curious relic fallen out of a mirror universe where Eastern Europe was a hotbed for mainstream first person shooter developers.

Long after the burnout of ‘Meanwhile in Russia’, ascendant gopnik revelry, and the shadow of the Soviet Union no longer being at the front of the mind when western audiences think of the Czech Republic, HROT finds itself at a peculiar time in internet culture. Despite this the setting is decidedly dressed in post-soviet weirdness with it’s grimy brick cities drenched in perpetual rain, stoic busts of famous Czech Composer Antonin Dvorak, and gas mask clad… horses? Neither horror nor science fiction, the game thrives on a cosmic pulp vibe that carries you delightfully through the heavily dithered stone textures and disgusting pukish green sewer waters.

While atmosphere is certainly HROT’s most notable quality, the gameplay is exceptionally fun in a jaunty speed-shooter kind of way. I am hesitant to compare it to DUSK’s extravagant DOS-Era acrobatics, but there is something to be said for how well Spytihněv has managed to govern the player’s pacing. You’ll find yourself, right when you want to, lobbing blinky lo-fi grenades strategically, snatching secret rocket launchers, and quickly blasting your way through catacombs with a very satisfying shotgun. Even on the medium difficulty I frequently found health packs to be scarcer than fresh coffee behind the iron curtain, instead stuck rationing the occasional dropped package of dried skim milk to squeeze a little extra mileage out of my goulash-chugging trooper.

Still, there’s nothing quite like speeding through the tight corridors of forgotten tunnels in a busted up motorbike, crunching eldritch baddies underneath your deflated tires. HROT has an excellent sense of humor that plays into memes about eastern European culture without overdoing it, and occasionally opts for more subtle satire like the flying Lenin statues of death.

In time we’ll see just how well the developer fleshes out the full release, but what we have on display with the demo is a unique throwback to an often neglected era of gaming history. Perhaps in time we’ll see other indies in Europe taking up the mantle left behind by fringe development houses like Action Forms or GSC Game World, eschewing the popular heritage of classic western PC games in favor of something closer to home. If nothing else, it would be lovely to see some of the strategy oddities that came out of 90s Euro game dev like Tides of War, Tzar: Burden Of The Crown, and our editor’s personal favorite, A.R.S.E.N.A.L. Extended Power be revived by way of spiritual successors in the indie scene.

Still, where HROT begins to genuinely shine is in the included Endless Mode, full of new enemy types and several new weapons in a wave-based onslaught that bring the game to life. Helicopters, Electro-Rays, Dogs and teleporting baddies, oh my!

So, why not break out the smoked mackerel and rye, brew a cup of tea, and put that rocker launcher to use? Just, watch out for the uh…. swimming gasmask horses.

Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice