Review: A Short Hike
Do you play games to beat them? In the past that was an important goal for me, but these days I’m far more content to just exist in a compelling game world. Open world games that give you plenty of options are some of my favorites, allowing me to go where I want and see what I like freely instead of trucking along towards a set objective. That’s why games like A Short Hike are such a treat for me, games that are entirely about the journey and not the destination. It’s a central theme of this game, and its brilliance comes from how completely it expresses that theme in every corner of its cozy world.
Claire has been whisked away on a trip with her aunt May and her siblings to Hawk Peak Provincial Park, an idyllic island topped by the aforementioned peak. It’s a lovely day to kick back but Claire is restless, waiting for a particular phone call to me. There’s no reception at their cabin, but according to May, there might be a signal at the top of Hawk Peak. With nothing better to do, Claire sets out on a short hike up the mountain, and into the lives of dozens of colorful characters dotting the trails. Everyone has a reason for being there, some more relevant to Claire than others but all of them compelling stories to share. Eventually she might just make it to the top of that mountain, but what she finds along the way could be more important.
I definitely put too much stock into howlongtobeat, because it told me this would take about 90 minutes to finish and I believed it. If you book it up the mountain that might be the case, but I spent three hours exploring Hawk Peak and its environs and I still don’t feel done. It’s a big island, and Claire being a bird offers you some very fun options like flapping and gliding to get around. The only thing that gates progression at all is golden feathers, which work like stamina for flapping and climbing, but you only need a fraction of those available to reach the top. Exploration turns up more than you need, along with money and all sorts of items that your fellow travelers might be interested in.
It shouldn’t take you more than one or two encounters with folks at the park to see what’s so special about this game. A Short Hike is very much presented in the New Sincerity style that so many earnest, heartwarming games like Celeste and Oxenfree make use of. The characters you meet have very natural opinions, problems, and responses, even on absurd topics like beachstickball and sandcastle politics. The people you meet are unsure of themselves, need encouragement, or put up walls that need to be broken down, and it all happens in silly dialogue bubbles over quests to go fishing or find a headband. One encounter touched on talent and self-doubt in a more poignant way than I’ve ever seen a game handle it, becoming an emotional moment that decades of dense RPGs and dialogue-heavy games never really matched.
I can’t stress enough how much of a pleasure it is to interact with the cast of A Short Hike, and exploring the island to find them is almost as much of a pleasure. There are trails and ledges leading to all sorts of places, including abandoned buildings, graveyards, and hot springs. Secrets are tucked away everywhere, whether they be in out-of-the-way chests, buried in conspicuous dirt patches, or at the end of a treasure map’s riddle. The further I got, the more it reminded me of a Mario Odyssey level, a fully-realized world jam-packed with things to find and features to experiment with. You can collect feathers, gather money to spend, go fishing, run races, dig up the beach, and so much more. And all the while you can glide freely, and fly or climb incredible distances once you get a few feathers.
The chunky 3D pixels and colorful models only add to the whimsy of this experience, giving the whole game an Animal Crossing-esque sense of welcome. The soundtrack is just as fitting, with comforting tunes and more upbeat pieces playing as you reach different parts of the island. This is a total package designed to make you happy and see things maybe a little differently, and it’s very effective at doing both. Really it’s exactly what I was hoping it was, a rich, beautiful world to poke around in and simply enjoy. And enjoy it I did, because few games are as charming and meaningful as A Short Hike.