After the obligatory “press this button to do this, dummy” tutorial, Hover drops you into a bright city, stacked absurdly vertical and mildly bustling with activity. Have at it. No agenda. Just get out there. Feel free to tick off the list of activities in the corner of the screen. Or not. Your choice. Of course a game about anarchists skaterpunking sans skates through a plasticky neon dystopia would be this free form. You can run right up to the top or indulge your completionist neurosis in the starting area, which is far more cheerful than you’d expect for a place called “Garbage Village”. Everything in Hover is the opposite of grim.
The inspiration is clearly Jet Set Radio, but you don’t get rollerblades. You don’t need them. Your little guys — you eventually build up a team, leveling up one member at a time and swapping them out as needed — slide around plenty. Hover does acceleration and momentum, but it’s simple and floaty. Nearly low-G. You’re mostly running and jumping, bouncing if you can time it right. The rail grinding is idiot-proof and the tricks are never more than the tap of a button. Hover knows that skill curves can kill momentum. Mirror’s Edge this ain’t.
Instead, Hover adopts the usual RPG concept of leveling up. As your characters gain experience, they open slots on an electronic board. Plug in and arrange chips to determine stats like speed, acceleration, jump distance, slide speed, and bump force. In Jet Set Radio, you had to get good. In Hover, your characters get good. It’s almost like building a car in a racing game.
One of the slots on the board is for a pet. It flies along beside you. It’s probably something cute with floppy ears. It boosts your stats if you keep it fed. Yep, you have to feed a pet. Jet Set Radio totally would have had this if they’d thought of it. There’s even a ball handling stat, because Hover has a kind of soccer game among its challenges. Would you be surprised if I told you the developers were three guys in France? That also explains why the grav cars drive on the wrong side of the road.
A super helpful navigation system makes it easy to get where you want without ever having to look at a map. Instead, a scan button lets you see destinations through walls. Now to figure out how to get over there. Perhaps the most helpful tool is the rewind, which lets you hover backwards along the same route you just came. You’re not rewinding time. You’re just rewinding yourself. So go ahead and fall. A single button sucks you back to where you were a moment ago. This works wonders to encourage exploration and experimentation. It means trying to make a difficult jump is never frustrating. You can try to reach tricky collectible as many times as you want with almost no downtime.
Downward is another recent indie game about traversing through a (somewhat) open world. Because you’re doing risky jumps and wall-runs, you can press a key to drop a recall point. But then you get into the groove of playing and, oops, you forgot to drop a recall point and now you fell into an abyss and died and got reset to the very beginning of the level. Or maybe you didn’t figure you’d screw up a relatively easy bit so you didn’t bother to drop a recall point. Oops. Beginning of the level. Or maybe you’re out of charges to drop recall points. Beginning of the level. Hover wouldn’t dream of this. Hover wants you to be able to back up whenever you want, however much you want, as often as you want. The design is shot through with these sorts of concessions to keep the game smooth, whimsical, and non-demanding.
After you’ve been playing Hover for a bit, it introduces the secret underground movement. Wait, I thought that’s what the “press this button to do this, dummy” tutorial was! I thought I was already in with those guys while we were racing and I was doing little quests for them and playing soccer challenges. Nope. Turns out those were trial runs. The real underground and the real trial runs are yet to come. Hover isn’t just free-form faffing about. There’s a movement here and if you want to join it, well…I’ll let you discover that stuff. Even anarchists’ playgrounds can have structured activities.