Remember Lemmings? Remember Chu Chu Rocket? Remember all those puzzle games in a post-Tetris (the game, not the movie) world all wanting to be the Next Big Thing? For every World of Goo there are countless Candy Crush imitators with little to differentiate between them. A good and proper puzzle game should have the right combination of mental stimulation, physical exertion, and vibe. Vibe is critical in any good puzzle game. So many puzzle games settle for moving pieces around a board, but how many attempt to move your soul?
Humanity is the result of a near-perfect pairing of intent and purpose by Enhance’s Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Tetris Effect) and industrial designer Yugo Nakamura (THA ltd.), so it’s no surprise that Humanity doesn’t just want to be a puzzle game, it wants to be a puzzle experience. And it vibes. It vibes hard.
There’s a story, and it’s weird. You take control of an adorable (and celestially luminous) Shiba Inu, tasked by a higher power to guide endless humans through a series of Trials to reach their square-shaped goals where they’ll ascend into the heavens upon pillars of light to become part of a greater purpose. The more Trials you complete, the more is revealed – and made available – to you.
The basic premise is dead simple: you’ll lead endless streams of humans to the level exit using a series of commands barked at specific locations. Humans that touch these commands will obey without question, so it’s your job to figure out how to get them from point A to B, then from C to D and so forth as they trudge their way to the shiny pillars of light waiting to whisk them off to their next adventure.
Less simple, however, is how these commands can work in tandem, or against each other. Physics plays a role, as do environmental factors like height, speed, even time itself, meaning the humans’ trajectories can be stymied, altered, or thwarted by walls, chasms, or cliffs. Blocks must be pushed, air vents floated across, switches activated (or, cruelly, deactivated), walls climbed, and so forth. Conveyor belts whisk humans away on a topsy-turvy track, only for you to discover that pushing a fan onto the right spot alters their trajectory to where you want them.
Scattered across each level are Goldys, slightly larger humans that resemble Oscars, that join your throng by touching them. You’ll need to collect a number of Goldys to unlock more levels and extras like bonus costumes, accessibility features and other goodies. Some levels even require you to lead a number of Goldys to the end. Maybe it’s commentary on capitalism that golden humans are valued higher than the anonymous drones serving them?
The developers keep adding new toys to the toybox, new challenges, new gameplay wrinkles to the formula so often that it’s impossible to become complacent. There’s even ‘boss’ battles, so to speak, and the later introduction of rival tribes (the Others) add an entirely new dynamic to spice things up even more. There’s a mind-boggling level of creativity and innovation constantly added to this toolbox that never seems to end.
The conceit of Humanity is that your humans never actually die; the only way to “fail” is to lose an important block or object needed to complete a level. Failure takes on new meaning as you can reset levels while choosing to keep previous commands in place, easily letting you observe and tweak your solutions before trying again (and again). Solutions that can seem impossible at first will slowly reveal themselves through trial and error; solving an especially tricky one can make you feel like a god.
As wonderful as all this sounds, the open nature of Humanity’s puzzles can easily lead to frustration, especially in how often you’ll have to multitask and micromanage throngs of humans, which can lead to some anxiety. Thankfully, a generous number of options are available to navigate each trial. You can pause levels at any time, swing the camera in any direction to survey the landscape, zoom in and out, see what triggers activate platforms, or even fast-forward to speed up the process. Sadly, there’s no “rewind” feature, which would have been great.
Solution videos are available to watch at any time that show how to solve the increasingly intricate levels, offering merciful hints to some of the more baffling puzzles. While helpful, these videos won’t reveal how to obtain Goldys and only share the most basic commands for each level.
The controls are sublime, easily handled via a controller thanks to an interface that’s been streamlined beautifully. You gain increasingly complex abilities (direction arrows, jump, big jump, float, follow, etc.) as you complete levels, though not all commands are available on every level, and some are stripped to the basics.
Other levels add environmental conditions, like limited choices, where you’ll have to plan and anticipate everything before activating the humans, like a turn-based strategy sim. You’ll plot, plop, and execute commands, watching helplessly as your Mousetrap-like design plan leads them to victory, or yet another level reset.
You won’t have total godlike control over levels however, as every action and command must be handled via the dog, which means criss-crossing across levels on foot (paw?), jumping, swimming, or possessing humans to reach higher or lower platforms. It’s easy to become overwhelmed (and distracted) by the visual stimulation and mistime jumps trying to direct and redirect humans when there are time-sensitive objectives.
This is especially frustrating when you’ve actually figured out a solution, only to struggle getting your pooch to the right platform in time to actuate the right command, especially when there’s scores of humans darting or floating across the screen. A single missed jump can mean restarting an entire level over (and over) again, watching the humans go through the motions you’ve planned for them lead to either victory or defeat.
Screenshots won’t do this game justice; you’ll have to watch a video of things in motion (or better, just play it) to really get a sense of what’s going on here. Watching endless swarms of humans pulsing across the screen can be a dazzling, hypnotic experience, making Humanity one of the more beautiful and visually impressive titles in years.
Unlike the pulsive soundtracks of Rez and Tetris Effect, Humanity’s soundtrack by Jemapur (a self-described “wave addict, electronic musician, sound designer and coder”) is more industrial than melodic, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Most tracks are pleasant, which is great as you’ll be hearing them a lot, but they won’t be for everyone. It’s available on Spotify if you want to give it a listen.
Like Super Mario Maker, you’re able to create, upload, and download homemade levels from across the globe with a hugely intensive level creator. Humanity is also compatible with VR on both PlayStation and PC, but I didn’t have a chance to experience it personally.
It’s wonderful, and brave, to see Humanity launching alongside The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, which also attempts to reinvent old tropes by allowing players new levels of freedom to solve its mysteries. It’s as much a game as an interactive visual experience, one that’s both forgiving and cruel, open yet secretive. These contradictions, as well as its otherworldly presentation and sincerity of purpose, make Humanity an easy game to love, but often hard to like.