Valve's Portal is generally considered one of the most original titles of recent years, and originality is bound to breed imitators. SpeedRunGames' Grappling Hook isn't exactly a rip-off, but its influence is obvious. This doesn't mean it doesn't have plenty of original ideas, but the blend of first-person platforming and puzzling will likely appeal to those charmed by Valve's creation.
The premise is familiar. You're being used as some sort of alien lab rat, with only an experimental tool to survive and escape. Instead of the ability to tear the fabric of space, your weapon of choice is far more plausible, a special gun that can grab distant surfaces and yank you toward them at high speed. It only works on certain spots (colored a bright green), forcing players to think about how they can use their limited opportunities to collect all of the "keys" in a stage and then reach the exit.
With all the mid-air swinging, some are quick to draw Bionic Commando comparisons, but this is much more of an action-puzzler full of nasty stunts than it is a run-and-gun. In fact, there's no combat at all. The quiet, lonely levels are abstract worlds of cubes, uninhabited by enemies or characters of any kind. This minimalist approach makes sense, since this game was created by a team of one, but it later proves to be an asset in some ways.
The game's mechanics seem simple, and they are, but the use of physics makes the grappling hook an interesting tool. With good timing you can use the hook to fling yourself across gaps and over tall hurdles. The solutions to puzzles are usually apparent, and this isn't as much of a brain-bender as Portal, but there are a few devious tricks in there as well. Even the obvious solutions are often much trickier in practice than concept.
As the developer's name would imply, this is a game meant to be played competitively for time, as well as other achievements tracked by the game, like number of hooks used, number of lives spent, and damage taken. All of these stats come with a challenge score to meet, and the game is loaded with Xbox-style achievements to unlock. Of course, as the game progresses, just completing the levels becomes quite a challenge and the challenge scores seem quite daunting, calling to mind games like Trials 2 and Trackmania.
It's good that SpeedRunGames has gone to such lengths to make these levels replayable, since there aren't a whole lot of them at the moment. The 23 campaign levels and 8 extra-hard bonus levels will only take most gamers a few hours to complete. There is some hope of longevity for those not interested in scoreplay, though.
Grappling Hook comes packed with a very complete level editor. It's here that the extreme simplicity of the environment becomes an asset. Level editors are terrific fun, but the more powerful they are, the less accessible they become. By keeping the stages to simple Lego sets, you make things simple and easy to comprehend. Unfortunately accessing the editor and saving stages requires debug console commands, which seems like burying one of the best features, but this is unimportant. Motivated players can easily create and share content, and hopefully this will help give the game some real longevity.
With no Steam release and slightly ambitious $15 price point, Grappling Hook could go easily overlooked, which is a shame. While perhaps not as immediately novel or original as some games on the indie market, this is still a well-designed appealing action puzzler that can be very addictive. If SpeedRunGames continues to support the release with additional level packs from time to time, it could well prove to be a great long-term value.