Hypnospace Outlaw (PC)

Hypnospace Outlaw managed the unusual feat of making me feel nostalgic for something I didn’t personally experience. Second-hand nostalgia, perhaps. Set in 1999, Hypnospace Outlaw has you playing as a moderator for Hypnospace, which is clearly a knock-off of GeoCities. Even though I was a teenager at the time, I never used GeoCities and I was worried the experience would be lost on me. It wasn’t.

Hypnospace Outlaw tugs at plenty of other nostalgia strings for those of us who were around in the nineties. There’s the faux desktop, complete with chunky icons and hideous moving imagery, the tinny sound effects, more loading bars than a two-hour session of Anthem, and even a trail as you move your mouse around the screen.

Nostalgia only gets you so far, but fortunately, there’s a solid detective game underneath the garish shell. Hypnospace Outlaw has moments of sheer brilliance scattered throughout its eight to ten-hour run-time. I finally understand why being a moderator, or enforcer, to use the in-game lingo, can make the power go to your head. As a YouTuber, I should sympathize with someone using copyrighted material, but I didn’t hesitate to bring down the banhammer like a rogue algorithm that’s been promised a raise and a corner office. Anything to close the case.

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You interact with the game through a fake operating system called HypnoOS. For story reasons, users of HypnoOS are technically connecting with it via headbands, an early form of VR, but you use it like any old desktop. Although Hypnospace Outlaw takes place in 1999, the vibe of the desktop, in particular, is more mid-nineties, with a distinct Windows 3.1 vibe to it.

I initially assumed HypnoOS would just be there as a hub for email and a browser, however, it’s so much more than that, and is practically a full operating system. You can download files and pin images to your desktop, play songs in a basic music player, and even install new programs through executables which automatically add a new icon to your desktop. The operating system can get infected with viruses, and if it does, you’ll need to buy, download, install, and use anti-virus software. There are even three different versions of the anti-virus software with the more expensive ones having extra features that all actually work in the game. The true brilliance of HypnoOS hit home when I realized I could download a virtual pet that lived on the desktop and required the odd bit of food and some attention every now and again.

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This sense of time-traveling awe and wonder lasted for a good hour or so, but Hynospace Outlaw doesn’t coast on nostalgia. As a new voluntary enforcer for MerchantSoft, the owner of HypnoOS, your job is to solve cases involving content infringement, malicious software, harassment, illegal content, and financial transactions. For example, an early case asks you to crack down on people publishing copyrighted images of a cartoon character called Gumshoe Gooper. A simple search of the name reveals a few incriminating pages, so you report the images and close off the case. Other cases have you hunting down illegal software, deleting obscene images, and dealing with people acting like dicks on the internet. Thank God we got rid of that problem in the nineties.

One of Hypnospace Outlaw’s best features is that the pages don’t remain static. The content changes as we move forward in time and people react to your previous actions. The woman you reported for posting images of Gumshoe Gooper gets angry and complains about pathetic 20-year-olds with too much time on their hands, and she even starts a little protest group which gains some traction. Early on, I found a page warning me that using HypnoOS causes beefbrain. It was framed in much the same way we used to panic about mobile phones causing brain cancer. Fast forward a few weeks, and some webpages have a special beefbrain shield that supposedly protects against the disease. And of course, there are people claiming beefbrain is a hoax.

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My major gripe with the cases is that they aren’t consistent in their quality. I loved about half of them. I’ll keep things vague for spoiler reasons, but personal highlights included figuring out how to access an encrypted file and exploring a separate region devoted to banned sites. The encrypted file, in particular, was so incredibly satisfying, requiring you to follow some clues and interact with a few different programs in a way that brought the whole operating system to life.

And then there were the cases that didn’t work, such as the one where I had to find four illegal images and went in circles for an hour before finding them due to sheer luck. Hypnospace Outlaw is, at heart, a puzzle game, so there’s always going to be those parts you don’t get and other people do. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad puzzle. However, I decided to check out other playthroughs online and I’m definitely not the only person who had the same problem with this one and others solved it through luck as well.

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At one point a couple of hours into the game, you’re left to your own devices and told to just find problems and deal with them. There’s a minor story reason behind it, but I much preferred having actual cases to solve and it could easily have been more structured without causing any problems. As it was, I kept clicking on pages until I found what the game clearly wanted me to stumble upon and things finally progressed.

That was a minor inconvenience a few hours in, but a similar problem popped up near the end and it could cause much bigger issues. Given that I’m talking about the ending here, I can’t keep it 100% spoiler free, however, I will keep it vague. I think the potential benefit of discussing my experience is worth the drawback of hearing minor spoilers.

You see, I thought I’d finished Hypnospace Outlaw after about five hours. The story came to a surprisingly dark conclusion and I was left in what felt like an end-game state or epilogue. I was satisfied with how things had ended and had enjoyed the game a lot. You’re given a few optional tasks you can undertake if you like but they aren’t cases and there’s no sense of urgency. Had I not been reviewing the game, I would probably have stopped here and not realized how much I was missing. Fortunately, I was curious to see if you could solve cases in different ways. There was a piece of software I’d downloaded but hardly used and I wanted to see if the case I’d just solved could have been done a different way. It seemed like an important point to make in the review, and indeed, you can solve cases multiple ways.

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I messed around for a while and helped with those optional tasks. At one point, I even uncovered what looked like a big conspiracy but it turned out to be nothing. I was about ready to give up when I stumbled across a puzzle that I hadn’t been able to solve earlier on. Curiosity got the better of me, so I kept going and came up with a solution. The only problem was, testing the solution cost money. I didn’t have enough and there was no obvious way to earn more. I’d hit a brick wall and, worst of all, I didn’t know if there was anything on the other side of that wall worth reaching.

Then eventually, and I really do mean eventually, I stumbled on a way to make the money I needed and completed that puzzle. This set in motion some huge reveals and, seemingly at random, I triggered more content and the true ending was finally in sight. I must have done things in the wrong order because I’d effectively already solved the cases and just had to submit the info to complete them.

Anyway, I mention this because the full ending is even better than what I thought the ending was and I highly recommend you keep playing until you experience it. Again, I double checked to make sure it wasn’t just me who had this issue, and heard a couple of people reference this final part as the end game and clearly thought of it as optional. It’s not.

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If you do get stuck, there’s a built-in hint system that I didn’t find it until it was too late. It would be ironic if I missed a hint for how to find the hint system. Anyway, there are loads of clues in there, all categorized by how helpful they are so you can take a minimal hint or an extreme hint or somewhere in between. You risk getting minor spoilers doing this of course, but it’s better than getting completely stuck and, as of the time of writing, there aren’t any guides online.

I also want to give special mention to the music because this probably triggered my nostalgia more than anything else. There’s something so quintessentially nineties and early internet, about the heavily compressed light rock music that often plays automatically when you open up a user’s home page. It’s music that you know isn’t actually good and you wouldn’t listen to it in your free time, but for some reason, because it’s being automatically played over a browser window with incredibly poor sound quality, it becomes the best thing you’ve ever heard, and I say that as someone who has two Taylor Swift albums.

Detective games of this quality are rare and Hypnospace Outlaw sits nicely alongside Her Story and Return of the Obra Dinn as games I wish I could wipe from my memory and play again. I’ve referenced my own nostalgia a lot during this review, however, I firmly believe you don’t need to have been online during the nineties to appreciate Hypnospace Outlaw. A passing interest in the early internet should be more than enough to appreciate this excellent detective game. The nostalgia isn’t necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.

4/5

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