After a long three year wait since the first installment in the series, Hiveswap Act 2 made its debut on Steam on the 25th of November. Its release has been met with excitement and frenzy from fans, many of whom have been following the game since it was funded via Kickstarter in 2012. The game series is a spin-off of the wildly popular (and oftentimes infamous) web-comic, Homestuck, the development of which has followed a similar sporadic update (or upd8) schedule.
The first game in the series, Hiveswap Act 1, follows the story of Joey Claire, a 14 year old girl whose already odd life is turned upside down when she’s dragged through a portal into an alien dimension. She swaps places with Dammek, a revolutionary from the planet Alternia, and must team up with his partner Xefros to get back to Earth. However Alternia is a very different society, which Act 2 demonstrates all too well. But how does Hiveswap Act 2 shape up as a much awaited continuation of the story?
** Warning, the following review does contain mild to moderate spoilers. **
The graphics of Hiveswap Act 2 are much the same as its predecessor. There’s updated sprites and a few additional animations, along with the ability to switch from Joey to Xefros as your playable character at will. Whichever character you don’t choose will then follow you around the screen as a companion. The backgrounds have a 3D element to them where the player can interact with the foreground and the background and move in and out of an otherwise flat plain.
On a design level, the game is quite frankly beautiful. There’s some fantastically detailed background work done, especially in some of the elaborate train carriages later in the game. The character designs are cute and appealing, with some endearing animation carried over from the previous instalment. The trial sequence of the game has separate talksprites which emulate the distinctive style of Ace Attorney very well, including a host of typical exaggerated reaction sequences. Cut scenes images are typically drawn in a style that’s more similar to the preceding webcomic and provide a similar amount of humour no matter if your character is dying or not, which they often are.
The toolbar doesn’t look intuitive at a glance, but after a few minutes of playing it’s simple enough to figure out where things are. There’s a few minor glitches where sometimes you can’t flick through your inventory, but it doesn’t appear to affect the gameplay. It can also be a bit fiddly to investigate backgrounds and other characters as I found the companion character sometimes gets in the way. After a few reconfirmations that it is in fact still Xefros behind me, however, I got the hang of keeping him out of the way. All in all, the game interface can be a bit finicky at times, but not enough so to take away from the fantastic work the design team clearly put in.
Hiveswap is a point-and-click adventure game, paying homage specifically to those from the nineties. It’s mostly puzzle solving and story-based, which works considering how plot-heavy the game is. It otherwise has three minigames and an extensive trial portion which mimics the style of the popular Ace Attorney franchise.
Since my playthrough of this game for the purpose of this review, the “bee dance” minigame has been removed. There were complaints that the game had accessibility issues, but it’s unclear if the removal is permanent or subject to a later update. The minigame was set up to resemble Dance Dance Revolution, a game I’m sure most people are familiar with, where the player would press “q, a, z” and “o, k, m” in time with the beats to perform a dance for a picky bee lusus. Doing this, however, involves propping your wrists at an angle that is less than ergonomic. I played this minigame to successful completion three times, and after each time had to take an extended break from continuing the game. I still found a few days after completing the game that my fingers hurt, though I’ll partially blame it on a prior injury and the cold weather. However, seeing as other complaints led to the games removal, my case probably isn’t unique. I will say that aside from the whole pain element, I found the game cute and challenging and I hope it’s either replaced with one with more ergonomic controls or replaced with an option to skip for those of us who just can’t handle the beats.
The second minigame is much shorter, and much quicker to get through. On the train, you attempt to stop a fight between two aliens that leads to Joey and Xefros duking it out with one of them. It’s pretty simple and breaks up the routine of chatting to characters and moving on, but ultimately is rather forgettable. It’s cute and resolves the issue nicely, but doesn’t pose any particular challenge on either a fighting level or a puzzling one.
Meanwhile, the final boss has the opposite problem. This one isn’t exactly a minigame, so much as it’s a series of well-timed clicks. Even after completing it, I’m not entirely sure how I did it- I just know it didn’t involve actually figuring it out so much as getting lucky with clicking random things. I had the hint system thoroughly worn out at this point. While the thought process behind disarming the conductor and re-routing the train makes sense in theory upon going through it a second time, the execution seems needlessly convoluted and I was left feeling more frustrated than victorious when I eventually completed it.
The trial portion of the game was unexpected, but something I was eager to take a stab at. I’ve been a massive fan of Ace Attorney for over a decade, having completed the original trilogy when I was 11. Naturally, I was ready for this to be a breeze, and was sadly mistaken. I won’t deny the possibility that I’ve just lost my legal mojo- it has been a year or two since my last Ace Attorney marathon- but gameplay during the trial proceedings never felt intuitive to me. Aesthetically, the homage to Ace Attorney was excellent. Plot twists, vernacular, and interface were all handled true to form. However a lot of my time was spent presenting evidence willy-nilly and wondering if I’d missed something. I’m hesitant to call this a flaw as maybe I’m out of practice as I said, but while I expected this part of the game to be the most fun it ended up being where it dragged on the most.
The trial has three endings that I’ve found, aside from the typical “out of guesses” game over. The best of these endings, where no one winds up dead, required me restarting the whole game twice, and replaying Act 1 to get the required items for my inventory. This scenario is avoidable if you know you need the items from the beginning, but in reality only achievable if you’ve hit it lucky since 2017 or sought out spoilers in advance. If nothing else, it served as a very frustrating lesson in not giving my worldly possessions away to cute alien girls at train stations.
Hardcore gamers probably won’t be hugely impressed by what challenge Hiveswap Act 2 does pose and smaller time gamers may end up frustrated with the gameplay. However one element that shines out beyond all that is the story. Hiveswap has a riveting story that keeps you guessing and clicking into the next room, wondering what if. Even former Homestuck readers have something still to learn about Alternia and Alternian customs, and the swathes of information are nestled perfectly into the typical humorous and engaging dialogue you would expect from the series. It contains a cast of colourful (literally) characters, who will be familiar to anyone who played the companion game Friendsim, which is an aptly named friend simulator for Hiveswap’s many alien NPCs and others.
Story wise, the plot follows Joey and Xefros as they attempt to get to Jeevik Week, a multi-caste party, where Xefros’ friends can hopefully help Joey get back to Earth. First they have to journey to the train station, then procure tickets for the train, then make their way up through all the carriages to reroute the train so they can reach their destination on time. A reasonably simple section of the story is made that much harder by all the personalities the two encounter along the way, each one of them memorable in their own way and each one teaching Joey a new thing about Alternia, from the weird right up to the menacing. As a player, you’re kept wanting to learn more the further you get, and the story keeps you guessing as to how it’s going to play out right up until the (thankfully, now included in the recent update) credits roll.
As for the characters, Joey and Xefros develop in fully engaging ways throughout the game. Joey learns more about Alternia, the specific cultural dynamics it has, and who she can and can’t trust because of this. She learns more about herself too with the narrative clearly gearing towards an LGBT coming-of-age subplot which has received overwhelmingly positive responses from fans. Xefros meanwhile learns more about his partner, Dammek, than he bargained for and seemingly starts to come to terms with their questionable dynamic, even beginning to question his core beliefs.
Ultimately, like Homestuck that came before it, Hiveswap too is a tale about what it means to be a kid growing up. Quite frankly, if you play it expecting it to be anything else, you won’t be getting the most out of it.
Hiveswap: Act 2 is available now on PC, macOS and Linux.
Writer, artist, perpetual holder of notions.
An engaging story with a cast of colourful characters, even where the gameplay itself lets it down in places, Hiveswap Act 2 is everything one could have expected from the second instalment of the series.