Platform: PC (£6.99, Steam Early Access)
Henk used to be the fastest toy in the toybox, at least before the rigours of age and an astonishingly vast pie supply turned him into a flabby plastic shadow of his former self. The nineties now a distant memory, along with his toy line, our corpulent hero sets out to prove that he's still got what it takes in 2014 by sprinting and sliding through a collection of twisted tracks at breakneck speed.
Such is the premise of Action Henk, a new Early Access title from Dutch developer RageSquid, which throws players headlong into an increasingly ridiculous gauntlet of loops, jumps, platforms and hazards. Boosting over a chasm one moment and sliding on Henk's ample behind the next, you'll need nerves of steel and a sense of humour to shave a few precious seconds off your friend's best time.
In effect it's a lot like Trials, a little like classic Sonic and a whole load of speedrun fun. To the extent that I found it physically difficult to prise myself away from its stand at the Develop Conference despite a pending appointment and Project Morpheus demanding my attention on the other side of the room. Sometimes you just know that an early access project is on the right track, and Action Henk is definitely one of them.
Trials proved to be a major inspiration, RageSquid's Gabrian van Houdt and Gary Lobine told me, especially in terms of nailing the sweet spot between immediate accessibility and a high skill ceiling for advanced players. Navigation in Action Henk is platforming simplicity itself, requiring little more taxing than a wall-jump in terms of controls, meaning that getting to the end of the early levels doesn't tend to be an issue.
Doing it quickly, however, requires significant skill. Like Trials, the key to success is maintaining momentum, hitting slopes at the perfect angle before activating a hilariously painful-looking buttock slide to take advantage of the increased speed. Chaining jumps together à la Tiny Wings becomes paramount, as does ensuring that you jump, sprint and stick the landing at the perfect moment. Whether you're racing to unlock new costumes, improve your par time, trying to beat a Ghost or crush your friends on the leaderboards, you're always learning through play and taking your ever-growing skills back into the experience.
Don't fully take my word for that, though, because I'm willing to admit that the aptly-named 'ultimate challenge' humiliates me something fierce. I can't even get over the first pitfall.
It's also pleasingly reminiscent of the classic 2D Sonic games in some surprising ways, beyond the basic ability to run and jump. The level design channels the same insane speed boosters and plentiful loops to barrel through, while also providing alternate routes and platforms that more advanced players can take advantage of. Perhaps more importantly, the sense of sheer unadulterated velocity is also present and correct as Henk gets up to speed, along with a sense of rhythm and flow that you need to hit in order to net a respectable time. Like all of its inspirations, it's seriously good fun and can be replayed ad infinitum. After all, there's always one more leaderboard position to climb or medal to beat.
In terms of visuals and art direction, Action Henk is already deeply impressive, especially when you consider that the project has only been in development for seven months. Toys have starred in plenty of games before, from Army Men to Micro Machines and the LEGO series, but RageSquid's art team has put a lot of effort into presenting the world from the perspective of a diminutive action figure. A child's bedroom becomes a gauntlet of lava and home-made hazards, we'll run past the monsters lurking under the bed and catch a glimpse of a new tropical zone out of the window; a small room and the garden beyond seeming newly expansive and vast from our new viewpoint. Henk and his cohorts have also been well-designed, looking and feeling unique down to each exposed screw joint and hinge.
What I find most extraordinary, however, is the young team behind the it. RageSquid met at university, scraped together some capital through freelance work and developed a few admittedly impressive Game Jam projects, but the quality of their first major title is astonishing. From its smooth visuals to its bespoke assets, unique aesthetic and vibrant art design, squint and Action Henk resembles a project a hundred times its budget from an established studio. And it isn't even finished yet. Enthusiastic yet grounded, they're keen to take feedback on board, deliver several new zones and provide plenty of new levels without succumbing to the dreaded spectre of feature bloat.
By now you know that Early Access games come with a caveat. Caveat emptor, to be exact. Some are great, some are bugged-out prototypes, others are despicable lies and all are worth approaching with some degree of caution. But right now, the only things I'd like more of are levels, a little extra spit polish and time to play it. RageSquid's obvious passion and enthusiasm for developing a quality game is plain to see, and will hopefully make an Early Access purchase an investment as opposed to a punt.
Naturally we'll keep an eye on it over the coming months, especially since RageSquid are keen to bring Action Henk to other platforms (perhaps PS4 and Vita). Watch this space.