Quadrilateral Cowboy Review

With a few notable exceptions, games don’t do hacking very well. It’s always relegated to the status of a mini game, from a tale on pipe mania in BioShock, to the simplistic node clicking of Deus Ex. Quadrilateral Cowboy makes you really feel like a hacker, as you pull out your Deck, typing into a command line to open doors, turn off laser grids, control remote drones and more, as you plan and pull off a series of heists.

Set in 1980s – the opening train heist sets the period perfectly with a “Happy New Year, 1980” sign fluttering behind it in the wind – you don’t have to worry about encryption, passwords or anything quite so troublesome. Simply, open up the Deck on a flat surface, load into the telnet programme in the command line and you have free access to doors, cameras and so on, turning them off as you please. If that sounds intimidating, it really isn’t.

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It’s easy to quickly internalise the process of typing in ‘door5.open (3)’ to open a door for a few seconds so you can pass through, and just a few levels in, as the game drip feeds you new commands to try out. I was able to line up a long series of commands in the proper syntax at the very start of the level, making everything open just as I got to it and closed a few seconds later, so as not to set off any alarms. ‘skylight2.open (3);wait (20);door9.open (3) …’ and so on.

Commanding the little ‘Weever’ quadruped drone and the ‘Aimbot’ briefcase remote rifle is a similar process, switching programmes in the command line, issuing orders such as ‘go 50’ to move forward 50 units to the Weever, or ‘pitch -0.15’ to ever-so-slightly alter the gun’s aim. Both have built in cameras that can be viewed on a pair of separate CRT screens that you have to place alongside the Deck, again with commands to connect to the remote tool.

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What makes this special is how this all exists in the game world and how natural it feels. You’re not sat, glued to the computer screen, but are free to look around, perhaps checking what a door number is, continuing to touch type new commands, or turning a little to get the CRT screens in view. It gives a pleasing physical feel to how you interact with the world.

It’s also because while, yes, the Deck is at the heart of many of the game’s puzzles, they’re all about manipulating the world and gaining physical access to your objective. You play as Poncho, one of the three women in this heisting crew, able to clamber up walls twice her height and making her ideal for a spot of cat burgling, and that’s before later physical abilities are added.

There’s a constant feeling of growth through the game’s four or five hours – this depends on how quickly you get to grips with the command line and puzzle design. Each heist is split up into a trio of smaller jobs, early on, using different parts of a level and letting you master a particular toolset before introducing a new one with a visit to a black market for new gear. There are also small tutorial areas to give you the very basics and let you play around for as long as you want. It’s the second half of the game, after a surprisingly dramatic moment, that these pieces are all brought together at the same time.

In actual fact, each level isn’t a heist in and of itself, but the planning stages of a heist in virtual reality, explaining how you can restart a level at will, alter entry and exit points, even enter a ‘NoClip’ mode and fly around the level to explore. It’s a clever layer of abstraction, and allows for more complex puzzles later on with all three of the crew involved in different capacities.

The story is subdued, to say the least, but one that I really enjoyed for the way that it hangs on little touches. There’s not a single line of spoken dialogue in the game, with only mumbled warbling, as though speaking to adults from Charlie Brown cartoons, but you gradually get a sense of who they all are. Missions are preceded by little moments of normal life: the carpool to the crew’s hideout, the sleeping boyfriend as you get dressed and leave for work, a game of badminton on a rooftop in the somewhat surreal world of Nuevos Aires. There’s a lovely moment at the very start where you clamber up through a hatch and see Poncho in a mirror for the first time, before it comes full circle as you see her reflection in a mirror at the end of the game in what I found to be a rather touching and grounded epilogue.

Admittedly, the art style used won’t be for everyone, leaning on the style of some of Blendo’s previous work in Thirty Flights of Loving – it too is set in Nuevos Aires, it should be said – with relatively minimalist world design and blocky characters with their cuboid heads. It’s a charming and distinctive look, in my opinion, and one that works well with the soundtrack of classical music played from vinyls, but there are some flaws in the graphics at times. Trees and tracks noticeably disappear from view if you look back from a fast moving train, blowtorches spew out black squares in a little graphical glitch, and other things.

I’d also say that, while the way in which it leaves you to figure things out with direct prompting, but rather through picking up on instructions in the world – I’m very fond of the post it notes around the Deck’s screen and the scrawled heist notes in its instruction manual – it can be a little obtuse at times. It wasn’t clear to me, for example, that I could simply move forward into the abyss during the first time testing the VR equipment, and one puzzle seems to rely on picking a new point of entry in order to solve it, which isn’t something used elsewhere.

What’s Good:

  • Intuitive and fun retro command line hacking
  • Clever puzzles that gradually build in complexity
  • Nice, simple underlying story

What’s Bad:

  • Graphical glitches here and there
  • Some overly obtuse moments of tutorial

Quadrilateral Cowboy’s a game that gets hacking right – if you permit me calling it that – with the command line interface brilliantly letting you manipulate the world and use the other tools of the cyberpunk heisting trade. It’s effortlessly cool, from a slightly nerdy retro perspective, but hidden beneath that, there’s a simple and very ordinary feeling tale of a trio of kickass women living outside the law and pulling off ever more outlandish heists.

Score: 8/10

Version tested: PC

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I'm probably wearing toe shoes, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!

1 Comment

  1. “Quadrilateral Cowboy makes you really feel like a hacker, as you pull out your Deck…”

    This was a moment to really make sure that no typos were made. Pull out your Deck indeed

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