System: Nintendo Switch
Developers|Publishers: Pixadome| Zordix
Price: US $14.99| AU $14.99|CA $19.83|£13.49 | €14,99
Age Rating: USA E | EU 3
Release Date: 25th February 2020
Review Code used, thanks to Zordix
Hayfever is a charming technical platformer which tells the story of Thomas the Allergic Mailman as he gathers the scattered letters which he lost across lands and seasons due to one unfortunate sneeze.
When I think of platformers and technical platforming, because the two ARE different, I think of the two giants of each category: 2D Mario games and Celeste, respectively.
Hayfever is unique in that it is striking a balance between these two forms of platforming. It takes the best of both and finds a good ratio. A good ratio does not have to be 50/50. While it leans more heavily towards the technical maneuvering it handles a bit more like a Mario game both in its physics and its powerups, which I’ll get more into in a bit. For now, I want us to think about the technical demands the game makes on the player.
I want to define technical, here, as a kind of platforming which requires fast reflexes, an intuited and self-integrated knowledge of the game’s mechanics/controls/physics, and a layer of puzzle solving which requires you to utilize those reflexes and that knowledge in order to make your way to the end of a screen or level.
If the game offers several puzzles per level, by means of a hard-to-acquire collectible, I welcome that wholeheartedly because it allows for an entry level player to grow with a game and return for the additional challenge. This, in turn, makes it so that you can go into a game as a casual fan of platformers and come out with a skill set applicable to other games. No platformer has done this as well as Celeste. In fact, it is only because of Celeste that I can review Hayfever but even then, I have my limitations.
Though I’ve mentioned it in other reviews, I am an ardent fan of Celeste. I have put over 20,000 deaths into the game and am at the tail end of the post-game.
What I want you to understand is that, in my heart of hearts, I love the pain involved with learning a game like Hayfever and passing the thresholds it puts you through.
Good Pain/Bad Pain
To emphasize this, allow me to remind you that I suck at anything which requires fast reflexes, I suck at anything which requires hand-eye coordination, I do NOT have a natural talent for these games. I’ve worked in order to be mediocre, at best, in a genre where I know the majority of players largely outclass me. Why have I done this, endured the pain, tried to get better?
Well, don’t give me too much credit. While I truly believe that in order to enjoy a technical platformer you have to love the pain. I think it is more important that a game be made well enough to help you endure that pain. This is certainly more complex than it sounds.
Pain is a hard pill to swallow and proper game design can make it easier as it goes down the gullet. We need to recognize there is good pain and bad pain. Pain which makes you feel like you’re overcoming and pain that makes you feel like you’re in a monotonous and unrewarding trudge.
Every time you die a game can choose to make it feel like nothing or to emphasize and rub your death in your face. Celeste and Hayfever both give you a quick respawn at the beginning of a level or room whereas 2D Mario games make deaths excruciatingly tedious by pushing you out to the overworld and starting a level over from the very beginning if you lose all of your lives (if you’re really struggling). While I haven’t played a 2D Mario game in a while, based off of gameplay I’ve watched I still think deaths are handled too slowly. Fractions of a second make a difference. That’s all the time it takes for someone’s impatience to grown and fester into a rage quit. In case it isn’t clear, I’m a big believer in making deaths, death animations, kill screens, black screens, and respawns all pass in no more than a second or two.
Hayfever does an excellent job of making deaths feel unique without drawing out a complicated animation that would make the death last longer. I’ve seen Mario cry out, jump up and sink off of the screen more times than I need to. Thomas the Allergic Mailman pops like a bubble and returns swiftly to the screen and I love it.
I don’t think it needs to be said too much, but good controls are important as well. I consider that to be self-evident.
However, there is no objective “good” control. Good controls can range from being pinpoint accurate to being loose. What matters is whether the world around this is built to match those controls. Without getting into too much detail, this also has to deal with hitboxes and the subtle art of nesting them within reason.
In a game like Reed, I took issues with the hitboxes because they were unreasonably pushed to the edges of a sprite and the game wasn’t tuned in to handle that kind of hitbox.
In Hayfever everything feels right. I haven’t had a moment where I’ve thought a death wasn’t my fault.
This may sound like something which isn’t all too important but it’s one of those things in a platformer which, if done wrong, stands out like a sore thumb. If done correctly, however, you wouldn’t notice it. Simple things like that make the difference between being a “polished” game or an unpolished game. Hayfever is definitely polished in this regard, and though that polish falls a bit short in its menu design, that’s not where the gameplay lies.
Getting back to the topic of good controls. Hayfever’s Thomas the Allergic Mailman is a slippery guy. He doesn’t stop dead in his tracks, and this makes the sections where you’re platforming on the ground feel Mario-like. Mario slides and has momentum, Thomas does too. While I’ve never been a fan of this in Mario games, I ultimately don’t mind. Much of Hayfever’s technicality is instead centered around the allergic reactions he has and the kooky mutated powers it grants him and THOSE are finely tuned in.
The game is told over the course of four seasons and the different allergens of said seasons. For example, the fall brings with it an allergen which allows Thomas to bloat and float his way around a stage. I want to bring attention to this because the developers really deserve some credit here.
One of my least favorite parts about Celeste is the golden feathers. To the uninitiated, while Celeste is more manageable with a good d-pad the golden feathers, which allow you to fly around a stage, are at odds with the levels. They work best with the joystick and even then, it’s not an ideal match and it’s a pain to have to quickly switch, in the middle of a set of inputs, to the joystick.
Here, in Hayfever, the developers found a way to make the d-pad work with the floating by making the levels they designed around it require pinpoint movement around 90 degree turns which often lead into another 90 degree turn to make a kind of square 180 degree turn. The level design flows and matches the use of a d-pad and I’ve haven’t found myself resorting to the joystick while floating around the levels which utilize that allergen. In this sense they found a way to maintain the difficulty by making levels that require you, instead of merely maneuvering, to feather Thomas’ acceleration in order to prevent him from, say, crashing into allergens as he flies in a stream of them.
This brings me to a general overview of the level design.
Hayfever is a game made for fans of technical platforming. To compare it further to Celeste or Mario would be a disservice because each of those have different missions. Hayfever’s mission is to provide a simple backstory and some good levels to really put your skills to the test.
I cannot find a fault in Hayfever’s individual level design. By this, I mean that each level feels well made. My issue is in the “narrative” structure of the game. It is my opinion that a technical platformer should have a good difficulty curve which teaches you along the way with small spikes in difficulty strategically placed in order to boost confidence once they’re overcome and to give players the means to keep powering through.
This is Hayfever’s biggest flaw, it feels kind of scattered. The difficulty from level to level feels arbitrary. Each season feels like a progression of the difficulty from the previous, but it does not feel as though this game’s intention is to teach or build up your skills as you progress. Perhaps that’s what had me most upset with the game. I would reach a level which wanted me to execute a specific kind of movement which it had never given me the opportunity to practice and learn on a smaller stage. This is why difficulty curves matter, not only to keep players engaged but to also make them able to succeed later.
I felt that I got by and relied a lot on my existing skills and worry whether someone who doesn’t have those skills would be able to get through the levels. Then again, I played through the game trying to get every single piece of mail.
However, I also don’t want you to think the game is just a reskinned version of any other platformer but without the assistance others give along the way. While it has issues with teaching you the skills you need to know, in the end it is still demanding that you learn skills not found in other games.
For example, the most basic move in many platformers is a dash. Hayfever has a dash, it’s Thomas’ first allergen skill. More importantly, Thomas has an allergen bar. You can dash once to get a basic sneeze-dash but you can also charge up that bar segment by segment with individual allergen particles and that allows you to tackle certain jumps with a stronger or weaker sneeze-dash.
Ultimately, this is extremely satisfying as it adds a unique feature to an otherwise widely used mechanic.
The game utilizes the meter throughout and it adds this layer of inquiry to every area that is satisfying to figure out. That inquiry being “how much allergen power do I need”. Even the floating mechanic I mentioned earlier implements this element of measuring your allergies in order to make sure you can reach a goal.
By far, the weakest part of the game is its soundtrack, but it is not a bad soundtrack, it is merely repetitive. This being said, I do think it befits the gameplay because Hayfever’s design premise is more in the realm of the original Super Mario game. Levels aren’t meant to create moods or narrative they’re there to be overcome as obstacles and puzzles primarily. Simple songs like the Mario themes, can allow you to feel focused in, in a zone, and the soundtrack which follows our humble mailman certainly achieves this. I only wish it was a bit more varied.
I can easily imagine Hayfever becoming a classic among enthusiast of technical platformers.
While it may not have the narrative strength of Celeste, neither does Mario and that certainly hasn’t stopped him.
Hayfever is a bold balance of two types of platformers. In a post-Braid, post-FEZ, post-Limbo, post-Celeste world of gaming I honestly cannot remember the last time I played a platfomer which made me want to take my time DESPITE not having a story. It’s the kind of game that gets by on guts and asks you to get by on guts as well.
Final Verdict: I like it a lot!
very well written, loved reading this review. Love the character design