Game Name: Herman
Publisher: Dirge Game Studio
Developer: Dirge Game Studio
Release Date: 12/11/2009
There has been a ton of office related humor in media today. We can probably thank Office Space for really capitalizing on it and kicking it off, although Dilbert surely helped as well. Well, Dirge Game Studio is tossing their hat into the ring, offering up an Indie title on Xbox Live called Herman. Is it worth your five dollars? Let’s take a look.
Herman opens within the title character’s dream. Herman is walking through a dark landscape, with the lights of a city in the background. Eventually he walks up some stairs, opens a door, and wakes up. A series of trash cans open up and set the stage for what is to come. See, Herman works in some cube farm somewhere in the city. He’s had enough of it, he’s fed up, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Herman would rather spend more time with his girlfriend. He goes to his office to get his lucky fedora, and quits … and that’s where the trouble begins. Herman is beset by coworkers who aren’t going to let him out alive. Herman must make it through twenty-five levels of horrible co-workers who will stop at nothing to keep him sitting in cube and filling out TPS Reports. There isn’t a lot of writing here that is going to make you think about the deeper meaning of life, but for five bucks I don’t expect there to be. What you do get is a frequently hilarious, darkly troubled speech here and there. Some of the lines in the game feel like they’ve been cribbed from The Catcher in the Rye because of the references to phonies and liars. Much of the story is conveyed through the level titles. Things like “Childhood,” “Hrm,” and eventually “I am Jack’s Wasted Life,” point to a man who is tired of the nine to five grind and absolutely isn’t going to take it anymore. There aren’t that many conversations or even monologues, but the occasional description of a scene will probably make you chuckle. For instance, there is a great fight between Herman and a Janitor that lasts four hours. Well, it is only a few seconds while the Janitor pokes Herman with a mop, but the explanation has it going on much, much longer.
At first glance, Herman can be easy to pass by. The graphics are not spectacular. This isn’t the same thing as saying they have no worth, however. Herman is a side-scrolling platformer, nothing more and nothing less. The game itself is all cell-shaded, and pleasantly brings back memories of games on the Sega Genesis or SNES. The background pictures are amazing though. Some of them look like abstract art. Most of them look like photos from the real world that have been made grainy and then had Herman painted into them. This really helps capture the malaise and oppression that Herman feels. They seem to say “Look, he doesn’t even belong in the world outside of the office. Some of them are downright strange. The end-mission screen features a bunch of kitten heads on duck bodies. Meanwhile, in the office, Herman is dealing with all manner of enemies. There can be a lot of action going on at once, from candy-throwing women to geeks with radio-controlled planes to office workers with rocket launchers. The graphics are a little jaggy when all of this is going on, but that look is clearly intentional, and it works. The graphics provide a fun back-drop to the fact that everyone in your office would rather kill you than see you go fishing.
There is a very minimalist approach to the sounds in Herman. You have all the sounds you would expect your enemies to make, or even Herman himself, but very little. There is not much spoken dialogue either, and most of it is from your former co-workers yelling at you for leaving between missions. Every once in a while a ghostly woman will float past and moan about how she misses something, like Herman or Chester the Cat. The music is amazing though. In fact, the website for the game and the extras menu in Herman are advertising a CD of the music, and I’m half-tempted to go for it. The soundtrack is just … sublime. There are sad piano songs, chiptune dirges, up-tempo guitar bits, and more. The music for Herman is very, very well done.
Herman is a very basic platformer, and anyone who has ever touched a controller should be able to pick it up and play right away. As you run from left to right on the screen, you can jump over low-flying enemies and climb ladders across four levels of office space to escape. Strangely, tangerines are you ranged weapon. You have to find a fruit basket first, but then you can use them to pelt enemies with repeatedly. Most of the office workers take two or three pieces of fruit hurled-face-first to go down. When you jump, you also put your foot out in front, which does some damage. This isn’t always the best choice though, as it means you probably land right next to a salesman who wants to punch you.
Herman then adds a bit of Dig-Dug into the mix. You also have a shovel, and the left and right triggers will cause you to dig a pit to your left or right respectively. This will drop your pursuers into either a lower level or off the screen entirely. You can also use the pits to drop rapidly if you need to. Each level is really just a sprint to the exit with very little variety, but there are packages and performance ratings that you can use to purchase buffs to your speed, damage, and resistance. The nice thing is that you can balance your upgrades to suit your play style. If you just want out of the levels as fast as possible, drop points into speed. If you want to live longer, buy shin guards and a bubble shield.
There isn’t a lot to recommend Herman for multiple playthroughs, and even extended playthroughs can drag on a bit. The reason for this is that the level maps are completely identical. Sure, there are a few differences based on where the power-ups are placed, or the steel filing cabinets that you have to go around. Aside from that, the area that you traverse is the same throughout. Only the backgrounds change. Yes, there are some cool backgrounds, and the Chester levels made me feel like I was watching a psychedelic lolcats screensaver, but there isn’t enough difference in what you do. Once you’ve seen the first few levels, don’t expect much difference. The only reason to keep playing is the story and the upgrades and the frequently awesome background images. If you don’t buy into that, you are in for a long, tedious game.
While there might not be a reason to play it over and over, Herman does offer a lot of options for how to play. There are five difficulty levels to choose from. These range from super easy to super difficult. Most players will find themselves at least slightly challenged even on the lower difficulty levels, if only because you will encounter multiple enemies coming at you at different heights. If the nerd with the radio controlled airplane is attacking you, you will need to duck. The bowling expert will cause you to jump. When both are attacking at the same time, things get hairy. The good news is that you will rarely die on the easy levels of difficulty, but you will be pushed to the limit on the higher ones.
Herman might have a basis as old as gaming itself, but the strange backgrounds and wonderful music keep it fresh. The various enemy types make for an interesting bit of strategy, as you have to decide whether to jump, duck, dodge, or dig to best deal with them. I certainly wasn’t expecting a full-on They Live reference about a third of the way through the game though. Remember that Janitor fight I mentioned earlier? He gives Herman a pair of sunglasses that you can toggle with the Y button. The enemies go from their normal, colorful selves to bug eyed monsters. Of course, aside from the fun writing, you are left with a basic platformer, but there are worse things to spend your money on.
It is very easy to get into the flow of Herman, at least for a while. The music and the backgrounds help, but the repetitive nature of the platforming hurt. Shortly after playing through one level, and then a similar level, and then another similar level, I was looking for something else. Or just an excuse to keep playing. Buying the powerups just didn’t excite me after a few. There is enough here to keep you interested, but it is a game best suited to small doses.
Addictiveness: Above Average
9. Appeal Factor
The appeal for Herman lies mostly in your happiness with your current job. If, like many people, you aren’t satisfied with where you are working and dream of escaping, then this is a great game to vent your frustrations with. It also isn’t overly complex, nor does it take long to play. You can knock out a few levels in ten or fifteen minutes. The problem is that if you are looking for a deep or challenging game, or a game that isn’t made up of four parallel lines, you’ll be looking elsewhere.
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Herman is how much the game rants and lashes out against corporate excess and consumer greed when it is delivered on the Xbox 360. Microsoft has been the symbol of giant corporate excess for decades. It is like passing out fliers on paper recycling, or staging a drag race to protest oil companies. With as much of a counter-culture feel that Herman the character has, Herman the game is saying much of it tongue-in-cheek. At least to a certain degree, anyway. Just reading the enemy bios will make you wonder if you really like that lady over in accounts receivable who loves Barry Manilow, or of you just tolerate her because she makes copies.
Miscellaneous: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Good
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Herman is an entertaining platformer that celebrates humanity’s built-in disgust of a nine-to-five corporate gig, and asks you to help escape the grind by hurling fruit at your co-workers. The game’s graphics are fun little cartoon caricatures of office drones, but the real stars are the background pictures and the touching soundtrack. The controls are well done, and the action can be adjusted to make it easy to play, but there’s not a lot of reason to go back and play it again. Herman is often very funny though, and there are worse things you can do with five dollars. This is a solid indie title.