Humanity, a new action puzzle game from THA Limited and published by Enhance (Tetris Effect, Rez Infinite) took less than 30 minutes to make me feel like I, in fact, had no functioning brain.
A game that first appears like a version of Lemmings in 3D space, it tasks you with shepherding endless flocks of mindless humanoids through minimalist environments, setting out commands to tell them when to turn, when to jump. As you progress, you coerce the mass of bodies into manipulating objects and creating new paths, lest they fall to their deaths like the fools they are. The ultimate objective in each stage is a bright light, which ascends the humans to what I assume is a greater plane of existence. Also, you are a Shiba Inu dog.
At first, I was excited to play Humanity, drawn in by its stark aesthetic. Soon after, a handful of its puzzles frustrated me to the point of leaving the game in spite. A day later, something clicked, and I realised I was approaching it all wrong. In short, I had a transcendent experience.
Then, another brick wall, and another revelation. Rinse and repeat. Was this game forcing an introspective look at my own human behaviour? I wouldn’t discount that possibility.
Puzzle difficulty in Humanity can vary dramatically, whether by complexity in design, or the state of mind you find yourself in at the time. With some stages, I was able to instantly cotton on to the solution. Others were far more convoluted; a series of switches, uneven terrain, and movable parts that required me to do a dry run of the stage to feel things out, before trying again with the knowledge of everything I’d just learned.
Initially, the struggle for the ‘perfect’ route to shepherd my humans into the light poisoned my brain. Each stage has a handful of optional ‘Goldy’ individuals to collect – tall giants that can be absorbed by the mass of humans, to be ideally delivered to the end goal. However, progress through Humanity’s chapters is locked by how many Goldys you’ve managed to collect, so going out of your way to collect each and every one feels vital, especially early on.
The fact that there is seemingly only one ‘correct’ route in each stage that allows you to collect all the Goldies and survive the route to the light was my downfall. My route needed to be perfect, first time. Sometimes, you simply have a mental blindspot where the answer lies. In some cases, the solution still completely eludes me – there’s an optional stage in the first chapter of the game that I simply have not been able to complete, and I feel like a fraud.
Initially, I got frustrated when I hit a wall – Humanity began to tax my brain to such an extent that I couldn’t play it for more than half an hour before needing to take a break. I was especially frustrated with the controls of Humanity, which task you with being in direct command of the Shiba Inu dog.
In some of the more complex levels, having to be able to physically get to the location where you want a command placed can be annoying – access might be restricted until the crowd of people triggers a certain switch, or you’ll have to ‘swim’ through the people to get to the front of the pack and up steep surfaces.
A command being placed too late can result in a Goldy being lost, but also, I would find that my Shiba Inu plummeting to its own death was a common occurrence, as it’s difficult to judge the distance between surfaces. Humanity is not a platforming game. It also doesn’t help that some of the more useful assist abilities at your disposal are initially locked, requiring the collection of several Goldys to gain access.
It wasn’t until a level deep in Chapter 2 that I began to understand that Lemmings this was not, and that the direct control of the Shiba Inu dog was integral to maintaining order and your focus. I began to see the endless stream of humans as not people I needed to save, but rather as tools that I could willingly sacrifice for the greater good.
I would micromanage the flow of humans, leading a stream of them to a switch. And then, like a bouncer at a club, suddenly cut them off, placing a series of commands that doomed them to walk in an endless holding pattern to keep the switch activated. I would send the rest of the stream to their deaths, until I was ready to feed them back into the rest of the route I had plotted.
My Shiba Inu was an ambivalent deity, but it was suddenly exceptional at its job. The path to a higher plane of knowledge feels like you’ve transcended. You can see the perfect paths. You feel like a god.
There is something unsettling about the personal character arc that Humanity created out of my interaction with this mass of bodies, but that’s not the only narrative that’s at play. There’s something greater going on regarding Humanity’s string of puzzles, a strange abstract narrative about creation and the nature of – you guessed it – humanity that goes to some very interesting places. Later, it became one of the primary drivers that pushed me forward.
Your momentum will be limited by how quickly you cotton on to the various shifts in puzzle mechanics and strategic approaches Humanity contains as you move from chapter to chapter. But unexpected twists, turns, and surprises are what make a puzzle game great. The frustrating lows are required for the highs that come with finally figuring out the impossible.
Even when I harboured the most animosity towards its puzzles, the striking, unnerving aesthetic of the game was always one of the strange pulls goading me into giving it another go. The stark minimalism of the stages is accompanied by loops of thoughtful, ambient electronica that tickle your brain. The intriguing spectacle of literally hundreds of bodies walking and tumbling and pushing into each other is hypnotising – like watching a lava lamp for the first time.
Humanity is an incredibly alluring piece of work. It’s a puzzle game of strong design and concept, evident in how it stretches and bends your method of mental approach in a variety of different ways – sometimes to the point of frustration, often to the point of elation. Visually striking and aurally satisfying, at times it felt like I could watch the endless bodies flow through its levels forever.
Four Stars: ★★★★
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC
Developer: THA Limited
Publisher: Enhance Inc.
Release Date: 16 May 2023
A copy of Humanity of PS5 was provided and played for the purposes of this review.