Poacher is a FREE!!! Downloadable 2D shooter/puzzle game. You control shotgun-wielding Yorkshire man Derek Badger as he falls into and explores a large and mystical world. But more importantly, it’s created by internet celebrity and video game critic Benjamin “Yahtzee” Croshaw, so that gives me the chance to call him on things and say he’s a hypocrite. Let’s begin.
Derek Badger: The Alien
It’s clear from the very start, as large wooden signs explain the simple controls to you, that Poacher is fully aware of its limitations as a 2D game. The controls are generic, sound effects loop, the animations and graphics are simple and objects follow clearly programmed actions. But, even with those restrictions, Poacher is skillfully constructed, resulting in a delightfully magical universe.
Unfortunately, the character of Derek attempts to be charming and fun but rarely becomes either one. Not only is it ironically difficult to understand what he’s actually saying in his outrageous accent, but his personality and attitude is inconsistent and jarringly adjusts to the situation.
At first, he’s confused and annoyed at being invaded by a spirit, attacked by killer bunnies and then forced to find artifacts, until he finally accepts everything and even encourages his ghostly partner to continue with their journey.
Derek doesn’t even become that much of a character at all, instead settling as a mildly humorous stranger that just reacts to stuff.
we feel just as bemused by Derek as we do with a flopping piece of brown sludge that shoots red balls at you
We also don’t get much background on Derek’s life, with the exception of him saying he has to record Jonathan Creek, so the fact that he’s a ‘surface dweller’ in an odd and alien land crumbles apart because we feel just as bemused by Derek as we do with a flopping piece of brown sludge that shoots red balls at you.
Having the protagonist mirror the strange world he’s in so we become more attached to its inhabitants than Derek himself may have been Poacher’s intention, but there’s no contrast to anything so it’s hard to feel invested in the journey in any grounded way.
We’re just being Derek’s puppeteer, not Derek himself.
BANG! Chi-Chik BANG!
The shotgun is your primary weapon and tool. All the enemies’ nicely idiosyncratic movements and attacks force you to frequently change your tactics in certain areas, whether it’s dodging a bat to shoot it on the ceiling, blasting a zombie twice to finish it off or even just blowing apart a demonic bunny before it touches you, causing you to spontaneously explode…somehow.
Every single enemy has a completely different way of behaving which keeps virtually all situations interesting. They also split apart with a delightful explosion of blood and guts which is always satisfying.
The most clearly programmed element of Poacher is the animation of something getting shot by the shotgun’s blast. Truthfully, the shotgun barely acts like a shotgun at all. If you line an enemy up, about 20 feet away, the bullets from the gun will pop into the air and instantly hit it like a sniper with auto-aim. But if you randomly shoot the air, ground and sometimes a wall, no bullets even appear; just a small burst of red from the nozzle like Derek loaded the gun with pasta. It’s a broken piece of the game which was unintentionally useful for shooting enemies that were off screen, like those freakin’ bats!
Annoyingly, many enemies style of attacking is more advanced than Derek’s’ ability to wield his own shotgun. There are times when you feel/are uncomfortably helpless, trapped in a dangerous and unforgiving world where there are giant worms in the library for some reason.
Bats, birds and piranhas are some of the most annoying little bastards I’ve ever encountered in any game. All of them can pass through solid objects (Even the piranhas can jump right through the ground), and can be damned near impossible to hit, especially the birds that can fly out of nowhere and knock you into the ocean.
With the help of MAGIC, Derek is given several arbitrary yet practical abilities that allow him to traverse through puzzles and fight enemies more strategically. These magical talents are given to the player at a satisfying and methodical rate and add a whole new dynamic to game play each time.
Even when you’re told to find vague artifacts from vague places, the upgrades Poacher hands to you makes you feel like you’re making real progress, at least when it comes to game play.
Poacher’s level design contains areas that are placed beyond your reach and hint at paths to take and particular abilities to obtain beforehand. This, however, can backfire when you finally realize you could reach a ledge, but didn’t work with the overly delicate controls enough to jump the gap. This is relatively rare but can result in needless backtracking.
Even jumping out from the water onto a ledge becomes mind-shatteringly annoying when you’re given the ability to sink in water. I spent an unfathomably long amount of time tirelessly slamming the SPACE bar to try and hop out of the ocean onto a ledge. Instead, 90% of the time, Derek’s chubby body just stuck to the water which automatically made him sink and pop into the ‘underwater levels’ ‘frame’.
I jumped up and down on the water’s surface so sporadically that Poacher should come with a warning saying “May cause seizures”.
There will be many times when you will be lost. The map you get later helps slightly, and shows you just how massive the world is, but the levels are so labyrinthine that I was constantly trudging from location to location, trying to find some ledge or opening that could send me where I need to go. And since every enemy respawns each time you go to a new ‘frame’ of the game, you’ll waste time and possibly grenade ammunition getting past an area that you’re not even supposed to be in.
Poacher needs a walkthrough, and fast.
The magical land of (Insert generic fantasy name here)
The quest you’re thrown into is paced well and contains many inspired locations and scenarios.
The incredible attention to detail spans forests, underwater areas, libraries and caves, all of which have specific and appropriate ambience, enemies and puzzles to put you in the right mood, and gives every setting a sense of identity and distinctiveness.
I can gladly appreciate games that link pathways in the same area to other locations in the map; it makes the whole game feel ‘alive’ and tangible.
Even something as simple as three plain white pillars at the entrance of the Crystal Cave flawlessly introduces you to the setting you’re about to step into. Actually, my first trek through the Crystal Cave was honestly one of the most terrifying gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I loved it.
Finding a save point is always a god-send
Travelling across the 2D landscape can get rather laborious though. Finding a save point is always a god-send because they’re spaced so far from each other. Yahtzee himself criticized Demon Souls for having checkpoints too far spread out, yet he’s made the very same mistake here.
I make my way down to a beach, get hit by a bunch of birds, jump in the water, hurry through so I don’t suffocate, get hit by a few fish, get to another piece of land…only for a FREAKIN’ BAT to swoop down and swipe away my last piece of health. All of that wouldn’t be that big a problem if checkpoints weren’t so scarce. The challenge would stay the same, but the heart-sinking feeling of failure would be lessened.
I’m just going to go right out and say it, I rage quitted a few times here. Poacher’s annoying enemies and finicky controls can almost completely destroy the entire experience. There’s a monumentally long puzzle/plat-forming section in the Oil Rig area which nearly made me stop playing altogether.
HERE COMES THE BOSS!!!!
Boss fights are where trial and error really comes into play. Most have very dynamic ways of telegraphing their attacks, like a giant bunny jumping higher to do an area attack, yet the arena and movement of many bosses themselves must be memorized to ensure victory. The giant jellyfish is one that comes to mind as a fight that was too challenging for its own good.
However, probably the most surprisingly good thing Poacher has is its awesome boss music. Each track perfectly encapsulates the mood of what you’re fighting while staying energetic and exciting, like a spooky yet groovy electrical buzz for a jellyfish and heavy metal for a giant rolling skull.
Getting killed by a boss is much more bearable when, instead of Derek’s hat just floating off screen like Mario, the boss’s music plays a quick ‘dying tone’ in the same theme as their own track.
The arrangement of objects in all boss arenas is very clever and handy. Using walls as cover and ledges for aiming advantages; Poacher’s boss fights are intense and fun. The size, shape and placement of everything allow you to perfectly utilize every factor to expertly take a boss down, after a few tries of course. Aggravation always shows up in some way, especially since many of them have a nasty habit of randomly spawning enemies which is distracting, tedious and nothing else.
Poacher is a clever and very well designed game. Using impeccable attention to detail, well crafted levels (mostly), an amazing variation of situations and some awesome boss fights, this is a game I found very satisfying. It fills me with a sense of childish wonder that I haven’t felt in a while.
Frustration can come very easily to anyone who plays this. The areas are packed with deadly creatures and traps that, given some circumstances, can be impossible to defeat or get around. The save points are also too far spaced which causes a lot of wasted time and annoyance. Also, some of the ‘tight’ positioning of ledges and traps can make certain levels infuriating. Be prepared for that.
Yahtzee should be very proud of Poacher. Many key moments definitely show how to construct a perfect game, which may have been his intention. There certainly are some issues, but overall, it’s an enjoyable adventure.
Poacher BOG’s Score 7.9
Why so high?
- Clever level design, especially during boss fights.
- Boss fights have remarkably good music.
- Surprisingly engaging story, mostly.
- Varied and innovative enemies.
- That moment in the Crystal Caves when the room goes dark was PETRIFYING.
- It has a giant worm as a boss. Every game should have that!
Who so low?
- Difficulty and spaced out save spots causes wasted time and effort, as well as keyboard crushing frustration.
- Derek Badger is vacuous and uninteresting.
- Confusing world design and map results in unnecessary backtracking and monotony.
- Inconsistent shotgun animation, which can be exploited.