PAX East 2019: Heave Ho Latches On to Potential Success

Going into PAX East on the first day, I had only one unrevealed game left on my schedule. It was an unannounced title from Devolver Digital, and needless to say, given their track record as a publisher, I was eagerly anticipating it. They were keeping this under wraps, not a single picture or word about the game at all. The suspense was killing me!

And then, in the expo hall, I saw this new game for the first time, and discovered that it was…a multiplayer game centered around wacky physics and movement?

Well, that took the wind out of my sails a bit. The “wacky physics/movement” subgenre of indie games hasn’t exactly appealed to me much. For every one of them that stands out, there are about five others that basically just exist as YouTube fodder. And this game, Heave Ho, was Devolver’s big reveal? Feh, I say!

And then I actually played Heave Ho. And not only is it the one aforementioned wacky physics game that stands out, but I dare say it was possibly the best game at Devolver’s booth this year, hands down.

Heave Ho easily succeeds thanks to the winning philosophy of “genius in its simplicity.” You and three other players are dropped into a minimalist level, each one controlling a sort of egg-shaped character with only two arms. Press the left trigger, your left hand clutches whatever it touches. Press the right trigger, ditto goes for your right hand. Basically, imagine a version of Getting Over It where you have two hammers with better grips.

It may not sound that exciting when written out, but trust me, when you actually set out climbing, Heave Ho is extremely satisfying. There’s just something about the way it controls so smoothly that makes everything just so fun. One you get a good rhythm going of grabbing with one hand, whipping your body around, grabbing it with the next hand, release, et cetera, this sort of zen feeling almost kicks in. It helps that the physics here are implemented perfectly, requiring just the right inputs on the player’s end for successful swings and the like. To bring up the comparison again, it’s like Getting Over It, minus the parts where you pull out your hair.

Well, I suppose that last part depends on who you play with, of course. As mentioned before, you aren’t climbing the various sets of obstacles solo (although there will be a single-player mode, thankfully). You have up to three other players joining in, all attempting to reach the goal as well. And not are you only able to grasp on to your surroundings, but you can also grab on to other players, joining hands and essentially forming a giant chain, that when working in tandem, makes climbing easier.

Or that’s the theory, anyway. As the other three players were with still fumbling about and grasping how things worked, I mainly tried to focus on just ignoring them and going it solo (because I have a schedule to keep, dammit). It worked well at first, but as certain levels became a bit more complex, it became more and more obvious that I would need to rely on my sudden friends. And while I had my initial doubts, they did indeed finally get the controls down, and we were able to work in sync. And there was just something so…rewarding about it. Like even the smallest of climbs gave the same feeling as conquering Mount Everest when we all completed it together, forming successful human whips and ladders. We even set records for completing certain stages the quickest! And the fact that at least one of these records was over seven minutes may say a lot about how surprisingly challenging things can get…

Of course, the longer times are likely a result of several teammates being distracted by the shiny coin in each level, attempting to grab it and bring it to the finish as well. These coins aren’t necessary for completion (not at the moment in multiplayer mode, anyway), but they do unlock extra costume options for the characters. With the levels being nicely minimal in design yet colorful, a lot of the personality comes not just from the expressions your characters can make, but how you can dress them up. You can alter their hair/headgear, facial hair, possible outfits and more.

As one may expect, this can lead to a few Easter eggs; One of our players was dolled up as Solid Snake, while my own egg buddy was a ringer for 2B from NieR: Automata. It’s a simple touch, but one that adds a welcome sense of humor. Well, alongside the colorful splats each player makes after falling off the screen, leaving stains everywhere for the rest of the level, even on any nearby player. Macabre, yet chuckle-worthy.

Our group only played through one set of five levels (not counting a tutorial), that being a cavern with limited lighting surrounding each of us, and with insta-kill spikes in later areas. Discussing things with one of the people from developers Le Cartel (who previously worked with Devolver on Mother Russia Bleeds), there will indeed be more areas in Heave Ho, each with their own gimmicks and additional objectives. They also talked about the game’s origin, as part of a game jam where they eventually came up with the concept of a title where you have to grab things without using your legs. It’s yet another impressive example of how humble beginnings can lead to something more impressive.

So while Heave Ho may not seem like much at first, beneath its surface lies a particularly captivating game of twisted free climbing. The style is simple yet charming, the levels are well-crafted and the gameplay is just oh-so satisfying. The controls and mechanics are simple to learn, but the game itself is tricky — yet fun — to master. And this is indeed especially true when playing with a group of friends. Sure, you can just screw about, or you can work perfectly in tandem to make it to the finish line. But as the cheers from the others accompanying me suggested, Heave Ho seems destined to be fun no matter how you approach it. It can be a party game, it can be a team-building exercise, it can be a solo endeavor…but whatever the case, this killer climb has the potential to be insanely addictive, and a clever hit. So score one for wacky physics this time around, but we’ll see what the final score is when Heave Ho comes out for PC and Switch this Summer.

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