A few hours in
Ah! Revolver-driven grappling rounds! Of course, it all makes sense now.
If only that was the end of it, though. No, I’m afraid this case has just gotten a whole lot more complicated.
It all seemed straightforward enough at the start. My contacts and the evidence all pointed towards rat involvement. So I went down into the Dumps, partially on my own accord and partially thanks to Scratch’s cruel sense of humor, to find out if any of them knew about possible suspects. Well, they did and they didn’t, all suggesting that I ought to check the lower reaches of the Old World for the Three Blind Mice… except that that place was blocked off by mountains of strike-related trash. But trash is flammable, so I went back up to get the Chief’s help in finding some portable fire source…
…only to find a murder had been perpetrated while I was out.
Fast-forward to several hours later, and I’ve just arrested the CEO of a major chewing gum plant. Yeah, don’t ask. It’ll make sense if and when you play it.
And of course, the case isn’t solved yet. It will be, soon, if I have anything to say about it. But we’re not quite there yet.
From the above, me talking about ‘hours spent in-game’ and ‘I’ll solve this case still’ and whatnot, you might come to the conclusion that I liked Hot Tin Roof. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong for thinking that… but neither would you be entirely right. While I did enjoy existing in the world and the city of Hot Tin Roof, particularly where the writing was concerned…
…the actual gameplay parts were much more of a mixed bag. Hot Tin Roof’s gameplay model is built on a solid foundation, but it suffers from some several oversights, the occasional glitch, and a curious lack of player direction.
Starting from the ground up: Hot Tin Roof’s basic gameplay structure is essentially Metroidvania-esque. We’re presented with a large, mostly open world, with sections that are locked off at first gradually opening up through gaining new knowledge and abilities. This primarily translates itself to finding new cartridges for your revolver: fire rounds to burn trash, grapple rounds to climb walls, knockback rounds to move heavy objects… you get the idea. Additionally, as the story progresses, the clues you gather sometimes allow you to get new search and arrest warrants from the Chief, opening even more doors.
Most of Hot Tin Roof, then, is platforming and puzzle-solving. Even though you carry a revolver at all times, there’s nothing approximating combat: you’re a private investigator, after all, not some kind of cowboy gunslinger. Instead, you use your growing assortment of specialist revolver rounds and your six-foot vertical leap — picked up, no doubt, while saving kitties during the Global Firestorm — to make your way through underground cities, dilapidated apartment buildings, and entirely-on-the-level gum factories.
Assuming you can figure out where to go in the first place.
Hot Tin Roof is incredibly light on player guidance. On two levels, no less. On the macro level…
…Okay, there’s this case, right? You start Hot Tin Roof on the Ossified Egg will heist. You comb through the penthouse, you talk to rats and Boxians and a pigeon near a construction site, you find out you want to talk to rats, so you go down there. So far, so good. Then, you go back up, to ‘get help from the Chief’, because you need some sort of fire source to be able to get down to Old World…
…but then if you ask Chief for a hint, he just sends you on a whole new murder case.
Or at least, this is how it happened to me. I was so confused by all of this. And when you get to the second murder scene, all characters there act as if you were called over with intent, and you know what’s going on. Maybe I broke something? From my (limited) experience, Hot Tin Roof doesn’t seem like the hardest of games to sequence break.
This is Lack Of Player Guidance part the first: Hot Tin Roof’s story progresses based on what the characters are supposed or assumed to know of the world, not what the players know. It’s evident in several places. Once, while clicking through dialogue options with the Chief, I managed to procure a search warrant for the Hi-Table Gum Factory. Why did I get a search warrant for the Hi-Table Gum Factory? I didn’t know at the time. Jones seemed to know, but she sure as hell wasn’t sharing any of that with me. It was only until later, when I meticulously went over every Clue I’d collected, that I noticed that several of them name-dropped Adrian Fois — a man who, I may or may not have learned at some point, owns the aforementioned gum factory. And that other clues obliquely referenced the smell of gum at crime scenes.
It all makes certain sense from the perspective of the characters, sure. But with the game never stopping to check if I the player also understand everything, it looks like the story just advances every now and again. Leaps and bounds.
Oh, and that fire source thing? The Chief doesn’t actually help you with that. But I hope you explored the alleys of Hot Tin Roof carefully — and you should, because exploration is like 50% of what makes this game tick — because if you did, you may have seen that a trio of merchant cats sells ‘torch rounds’.
This one small three-cat store is the only reason I can think of to justify the inclusion of the currency of ‘bits’, by the by. You get them from breaking boxes and grabbing tin, silver and gold ‘Voots’. And then you use them to buy upgrades here. One sequence-important upgrade of torch rounds, which you can’t get because your wallet is too small… so of course there’s also a sequence of wallet upgrades you can buy. And then there’s a few additional things, like upgrades, more upgrades, and the ability to buy your way past some puzzles.
Yeah, this does mean there’s at least one section of Hot Tin Roof you can’t get past without collecting enough in-game money. And while it’s not necessarily hard to do so during the course of normal play, it’s not entirely impossible either to run out of easy money pickups without realizing your wallet’s full. And once that happens… I hope you like shooting cardboard boxes for money!
The majority of Hot Tin Roof’s running time is spent platforming to places. Getting from entrance A to goody location B in the most roundabout way possible. And… I don’t really have anything cute to say about this. It works fairly well, what more do you want me to say? There’s a reason puzzle-platforming is a staple of the Metroidvania diet. There’s lots of puzzles with boxes, and switches, and buttons, and fire, and invisible platforms, and it all works more or less exactly the way you’d expect it to.
I’m not a major fan of the way the revolver is currently implemented, with the four-bullet limit that you manually have to switch around. Did you know it’s actually possible to never figure out you can hold down R to auto-reload your revolver? It’s a cute gimmick at first, but I don’t understand why it doesn’t just become possible later to switch bullet types with hotkeys. There are, like, three puzzles where having different sorts of bullets in your gun is a time-based necessity. But still, on the whole, the special-bullet-driven platforming works fairly well. Even if knockback rounds break the whole thing a little. Or a lot.
Hot Tin Roof is missing one mainstay of the Metroidvania diet, though, and the experience is sometimes a little starved for its exclusion. God, that metaphor was tortured. But anyway, this is Lack Of Player Guidance part the second: there’s no map.
Nope. No map, whatsoever. Not a single one. Forever.
The lack of any map is annoying at first, when exploring the two halves of Hot Tin Roof, America’s Maziest Town, without any idea of where you are or where you’re going. ‘I’m in North Hot Tin Roof, but this way goes to South Hot Tin Roof… but now I’m north again? Is there even an east or west?’ It becomes more than a little abrasive inside the larger platforming ‘dungeons’, for lack of a better word, where large open paths and unintuitive shortcuts can lead you to increasingly aggravated backtracking several times. And once you hit the stage of the game where you have to explore the entire world for several hard-to-spot locations you didn’t at first know to look for…
Hot Tin Roof isn’t so large that the lack of a map breaks it entirely. But I had to resort to flat-out tweeting at developers to get a clue for a later section of the game, solely because I just couldn’t be clear I’d seen and done everything in a given location. A good map, one with annotations, would have prevented that whole scenario. It’s sorely missed.
A good hint system is sorely missed too, yes, but at least for that I’ve been told it’s in the works. The current system, where you ask Chief for help, breaks down at exactly the moment you need it the most.
And no discussion of Hot Tin Roof would be complete without talking about visual and audio design. Honestly, I really like both: the boxy world style is an acquired taste, but one that I find charming. Different locations use different styles and different colour palettes, which manages to make the world actually feel large. And the different flavours of smooth jazz and other supporting audio go a long way towards alleviating exploration tedium.
That said… it does seem obvious that Hot Tin Roof’s engine wasn’t really thought up with rotating 3D in mind. The stark black background to everything is a little unnerving, at best. And I’ve lost count of the number of strange glitches involving world space I ran into. For instance, did you know you can actually jump over the trigger that moves North Tin Roof into South Tin Roof? You just keep walking on off-screen, it’s great. And I’ve been able to see into the distant forever while rounding corners more than once.
Hot Tin Roof’s strongest point is that it nails the noir atmosphere it goes for. Sure, a lot of it is silly, and punny, and incredibly fourth-wall-breaking. But comedy noir is still noir: overcoats, revolvers, illicit investigations, sources, spooks, leads and dead ends. It’s almost a shame that the whole Clue system doesn’t get more play. I’d have loved to play a Hot Tin Roof that cut about 50% of the ancillary platforming for more different cases, and that relied on me to actually piece evidence together more often than it currently does. It certainly has the audiovisual atmosphere down to support it. And the story, as-is, is basically the principal reason I want to see it through to the end.
Right now, my task to to comb the world for clues. No map, no support, no indication of when I’m done save for that I’m supposed to be able to get some warrant. It’s incredibly dark outside, moving through the various spaces of the world is only less of a slog than normal because of my self-propelling revolver rounds, I’m wearing an extra-strength boutonniere, and someone important to me is counting on my success. Let’s do this.
As you can tell from my 4000-ish words, Hot Tin Roof leaves me very conflicted. I like it, but it definitely has a lot of room for improvement: in gameplay structure, in player guidance, in having an actual map. It has a lot of room for improvement, but I like it: the jokes, the style, the noir. I don’t know if I would play it again — apparently there are multiple endings? — but I’m fairly glad I played it to begin with. It definitely delivers on a lot of its promises, and it’s a major leap forward in technical terms from Jones On Fire. So who knows? Maybe we’ll see even more of Emma Jones in the near future.
Hot Tin Roof currently runs 15 bucks on the Glass Bottom Games website, for both DRM-free and Steam versions. Or 30 bucks if you want the excellent soundtrack and I-don’t-know-if-it’s-cool art book. And yes, that is pricey. It’s definitely high enough for me to not be super comfortable blanket-recommending it, particularly with the amount of gameplay and design quibbles it so very clearly has. Still, if you’re at all interested, maybe keep an eye out for this one? For better or for worse, it’s certainly one of the more interesting games I’ve played in recent weeks.
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