Four Horsemen Review

The righteous die fighting, while the cool kids throw dance parties and give away banana cake.

Four Horsemen Review
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Nuclear Fishin’ Software

Four Horsemen is a visual novel and life simulation game centered around four immigrant teenagers trying to make it in a country that has been their home for the majority of their lives, yet still bears resentment towards them simply for existing.  Distraught by this, the four teens, who are referred to as War, Death, Famine, and Pestilence, settle up a home in a disserviced WWII bunker that they make their base, chill out zone, and place that they can call home.

From there, the game adopts a very open structure that details the possible paths taken by these teens, also referred to as the Riders, detailing their day to day lives, struggles, friendship, and general antics.  The ensuing stories aim to capture both an informed and honest view of immigrant life formed through a variety of sources, pointing out just how poorly they are treated in certain communities and situations through a loosely generalized and abstracted version of history.  Resulting in a series of heartful tales of people trying to stand up for themselves, claim their identity, rebel against the cruel system that wishes to erase them, and fight the power in general.

Though what really makes these stories are the characters, who are written incredibly heartfully and are positively drenched in personality, resulting in an exceptionally well written cast of characters who are fully believable in their roles as rebellious teens, even if their personalities are a bit… Americanized.  Their general means of speech and demeanor feels as if it is primarily influenced by contemporary American internet culture more than any other, and while I certainly see nothing wrong with it, it does stand out as an oddity considering one seemingly major aspect of this game.

One of the more interesting aspects of Four Horsemen is the ability to choose which nation the Riders hail from, which in turn alters quite a number of things, such as their given names, certain bits of dialog, what profanity they use, and their skin color.  However, it is all ultimately cosmetic and does not impact the story or the underlying personality of the Riders in any meaningful way. It also means that numerous aspects of the countries inevitably overlap with each other, but in doing so I was regularly left a bit confused as to what exactly the underlying history between the countries the Riders currently live in and the one they immigrated from.  

I mostly stuck with the Republic of the Green Isles for my successive playthroughs, and I am not sure if the nation is basically destroyed, in shambles, thriving, and how it is supposedly a more corporatized and progressive nation, yet for some reason lacked the military power needed to defend against the Xiongnu.  Furthermore, this decision goes to homogenize a lot of the fake cultures depicted in this title, which really does make me wonder if it was really necessary to have 12 of them.

Still, the story does have plenty of moments that are poignant and intriguing, and many, many others that left me stifling laughter.  One thing that I really, and perhaps weirdly, enjoy seeing in media is the interactions between friends that showcase their comfort level around each other, the bonds they share, and how they rely upon each other when faced with adversity, and I have encountered few better examples of this than Four Horsemen.  They are a cast of characters whom I grew to love over the span of my successive playthroughs, and, as a writer, actually made me a bit jealous due to how well they were presented.  

Moving onto the presentation, and skipping gameplay for a moment, what initially drew me to Four Horsemen is its distinctive art style.  With angular character designs, and a rather ragtag looking cast, and sketchy backdrops, I would say that this game has something of a punk aesthetic going for it, capturing the whole fight the power mentality as reinforced by its story, while also affording the characters a lot of personality in their visual designs.  From idle behaviors as seen in the Riders’ base to subtle expression changes, mouth flaps for when characters are talking, a few instances where the sprites are bopped around, and backgrounds with foreground elements that place characters behind tables and such. There are a lot of small details here that help the visual presentation go a long way, and I’m always glad to see visual novels that go the extra mile in this regard.

As for the soundtrack, it simultaneously manages to fit in with the overall atmosphere and aesthetic of the game, while also being, well, just kind of silly.  It can go from these atmospheric tracks that capture the dour and hopeless nature of the character’s situation, and then switch over to another track dominated by somebody jamming out on their trombone like a goldarn champion.  It makes for a surprisingly endearing mix, and actually led me to rip the soundtrack from the game for my own listening pleasure. I’m not sure what to call it as a genre, but the tracks say that it is anti-folk, and I guess that’s as good of a label as any.

Now, I mentioned how this is a simulator of sorts, right?  Well, it might be more accurate to say that this game is structured around a day cycle where the player chooses what activities should be partaken in to occupy the Riders’ time through a variety of activities.  These activities rang from dumpster diving for randomized crafting materials, working at a shop to gain a pittance, shopping for crafting materials, starting a crafting project, gaining public support, or progressing the story in some way or form.  

In one respect, I can admire the ambition here and can see how this could be an involved and interesting way to handle this plight by forcing the player to scrounge about and rummage their way to progress.  In the other, it really does not work all that well in practice. I could try and break down in detail the gripes I have with it, as a lot of the game is not very clear and there are certain instances where I felt blindsided by the game.  Yet I would rather try communicating how this game works, while also providing something of a loose walkthrough for this game, as I do not believe that one exists.

The beginning of the game, also known as Act I, has the Riders go about their business casually and is generally a free for all with regards to how the player can spend their time, with no dire responsibilities and generally unlimited time to work, dumpster dive, and craft materials, while also showcasing a lot of the main cast and developing them to some extent.  However, the player will eventually reach an impasse where the game splits into two halves which are referred to as the Occupy and the Death’s Door arcs.

To reach the Occupy arc, the player must choose to hold a party, as making that decision summons a cop that tears through the Rider base and fills the Riders with a sense of righteous indignation that causes them to drop out of school and begin a protest.  As protestors, time gains new meaning, and the player is given one general goal. Maintain public opinion, which can be raised by holding dance parties, giving away cakes, passing out fliers, and making protest signs, while progressing through the story, where it will decrease periodically either through unpreventable circumstances that come with progression, or by sheer randomness.  

What does public opinion really determine here?  The ending. A low public opinion results in a bad ending filled with death, and a high public opinion results in the a deus ex machina good ending provided by none other than two of the game’s Kickstarter backers (no, seriously).  So how does one manage to gain enough Public Opinion to get the Good ending?  Well, that requires having a steady supply of materials before moving away from Act I, so that the player can use those materials for crafting in the Occupy arc and not need to worry about relying on RNG to get materials when time is of the essence.  

To do this, the player must dumpster dive, get a load of fat splatters and unlabeled cans to make cakes, while also exercising caution when moving into a new day, as whether or not the player loses 30% of the public opinion is based on sheer randomness, but if they reload their autosave right when that screen appears, they will have the opportunity to retry the day again and, more likely than not, will avoid being set back that far.  Or in other words, scum your way to victory and abuse these mechanics by spending 100 days dumpster diving and 50 days working in hopes of reaching the good end, as I genuinely do not think that either of the bad ends for this route are worth pursuing nor do I believe them to be necessary. That is the route for one of the Riders, Pestilence, and thankfully the endings for all of the other Riders’ routes are far less mechanically involved.  

The Death’s Door arc involves Death forming a relationship with an online friend who she met using a ragtag laptop that can be found almost immediately, and is very straightforward, only involving a few events and the crafting of items with zero costs attached to it.  All of which culminates in an honest to goodness multiphase boss gauntlet against one character’s internal demons where the player must win internet arguments against a nationalist bastardization of a child’s innocence. It is genuinely the highlight of the game for me, and is likely what players will stumble upon first, for better or for worse.

This arc is also how the player accesses the Famine route, which involves the soft boy gaining the assertiveness through interactions with his father that are triggered upon progressing through the second and third acts.  Only by standing up to him can this route be fully accessed, through what entails is actually quite brief and does not add as much to Famine’s characters as I would have anticipated. Which is kind of upsetting, as I was really excited after seeing him in a frilly apron and after seeing him develop an awkward crush towards Pestilence.

As for War’s route?  Well, it does not so much involve an ending as much as it involves doing very specific things.  Go shopping, encounter the doppelganger, buy a shovel, dig up an unfired bullet, have Death build a makeshift taser that could kill a dog, pull the taser out on the doppelganger, have Death build a gun, pull out the makeshift gun on the doppelganger, and do not abide by the way of the sword.  It is more of an odd aside to be fully honest, with a lot of War’s character being reserved for other routes, possibly due to how she is presented as the leader of the group.

Only by completing all of these routes can the seal for the final route be broken, which I believe involves an arc where the Riders join together to form a band.  I say believe, as I could not access this route. I tried 4 times to go through the steps that I believe to be necessary to reach this point, and attempted to craft the four instruments that are unlocked by completing each of the Riders’ routes.  However, the game stopped giving me the option to craft War’s instrument, and as such, I could not reach what I interpreted as being the true ending.

After 17 hours, decompiling this game’s code, downloading Ren’py to view the code, and creating a series of backups of my save files to get around this game’s aggressive autosave system that does not allow the player to make any manual saves, you can imagine how I felt.  The process of progressing through this game is so bogged down in RNG driven mechanical gobbledygook that I wish the developers had the foresight to gut these mechanics from the game in order to deliver a more narrative driven experience that is not padded out with this repetitive nonsense that must be completed every playthrough.  As simply wanting to have the ability to work a part time job requires grinding for 25-30 Respectability and going on, what, 10 dumpster dives?

The mechanical underpinnings are filled with frustrating aspects that I hopefully lessened through my explanation, and despite my vocally abundant frustrations, I do believe that Four Horsemen is a very special game.  With excellent character writing, a righteous heartfelt story that dabbles with more complex subject matter, and a well executed presentation with a distinctive visual style. I could easily see a game such as this making waves if it were released in a less saturated market, to the point where it is among the more obscure titles I have covered, and despite its many mechanical shortcomings, it is still a game that I would aggressively recommend.

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