It’s telling that French indie studios Fusty Game and Midgard dropped the Revolt of Gamers subtitle for Hover. For all its attempts at coolness and swaggery, nothing screams ‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ like the use of the word ‘gamer’. It’s a term this game uses a lot in its story to denote a team of young rebels hoping to stick it to the proverbial man, but hey, at least they had the sense to drop it off the name.
This is also a set of developers who aren’t afraid to show their undying admiration for Sega's seminal Jet Set Radio. From the neon colours of its online open-world setting ECP17 (or Hover City as it’s known to some of its denizens) to the rail-grinding and graffiti-painting of its moment-to-moment gameplay, Hover is an elaborate tribute to the Dreamcast classic; an interactive love letter that wears that affection on its cel-shaded sleeve. Hell, it’s even got Hideki Naganuma - the composer of Jet Set Radio - contributing a handful of EDM-style tracks. This is a game that absolutely wants to be the spiritual successor to a much-loved series, but does it pull off this lofty tribute act?
You start off as a customisable clone with the handy ability to parkour around the city's surroundings at high speed. You can customise your Statistics from the menu, and the more you rank up, the more slots open up on a trait-based grid (a skill tree, in other words). Completing missions will reward you with Items, which can be placed in these slots to gradually enhance your stats (such as jump height, bump resistance and hacking). The idea is to create multiple ‘builds’ on a single team. Your rank applies to your team, so you won’t have to re-rank, but you will need to earn more Items to enhance stats in the right direction.
So, back to that all-important parkour. Pressing ‘ZR’ or ‘B’ will make you jump, while holding either button a little longer will extend the height you get out of it. Pressing ‘ZL’ will enable you to pull off tricks in mid-air, slide along you floor and grind on almost edge or rail in the game. You’ll build speed as you push forwards, enabling you to wall-run across gaps - Prince of Persia-style - or even wall-slide for some extra trick points. It's got a real TrickStyle vibe to it, which seems intentional considering that was another Dreamcast classic. You can even play in first-person, which makes its Mirror's Edge-aping movement far more intense.
When you’ve generated some serious momentum and you’ve nailed the floaty movement Hover serves up, mantling and leaping your way around the city can be a blast. You can even run straight through the brightly-coloured NPCs wandering its multi-tiered setting, so crashing to a halt only ever happens when you fail to effectively read the environment around you. Verticality also plays a big part in navigating ECP17, and it’s here Hover’s floaty movement can sometimes be an issue. Your avatar will automatically grab any ledge above them, but pressing jump once too many times will bounce you away, too often leading you to plummet down to the bottom. Ouch.
Thankfully, you can’t die from taking fall damage, but the real saving grace is a rewind feature. Rather than rewinding the environment around you, pressing ‘R’ or ‘X’ will turn back time on your character’s position. So if you mistime and jump and fail to reach a far platform, or jump to reach a ledge and bounce away in frustration, you can just hold either button to drag your avatar back to a previous location in the last few seconds of play. You also leave a neon trail behind you, so recounting your previous movements is easy and negates the lack of tactile response climbing often produces.
There are even spawn points located on almost every level. These enable you to respawn via a series of glowing blue portals, but the fact you have to manually access them by scanning with ‘L’ or ‘A’ (rather than having them log your last position automatically) renders them redundant if you’re moving at pace and need to keep that speed going. There are, thankfully, plenty of green smoke-coughing jump pads that launch you to much higher platforms, but the hitbox for these is tiny, so it’s easy to miss them entirely.
The city is also filled with a generous serving of missions to complete (over 90 in total), but these often boil down to two main types: races and Gameball. Races, as you might expect, are Hover’s strongest suit and task you with beating another character in lapped circuits. With giant pink markers to leap through, these competitions make full use of the game’s mechanics and level design and you’ll soon find yourself chaining together every trick you’ve learned while exploring areas of ECP17 you may not have found otherwise. You can even take part in these races with other players, should they choose to join the same contest. There are also stealth, hacking and other mission types, but these two are by far the most common.
Gameball feels far less natural, mainly because it’s trying to mix basketball, rugby and a love of TRON all into the same volatile melting pot. It’s a simple premise - grab the titular ball and either throw it or leap into the opposing team’s wall-mounted box. You can grab the ball by running into another player, but the frame rate always takes a kicking in these matches when multiple players converge on the same point at speed, so winning is usually a case of luck. You can, of course, create a build geared towards Gameball, but it doesn’t make this persistent mission type any more enjoyable.
While inconsistent in the quality of its missions and the trite ‘Gamer’ angle of its story - cool kids rebelling against authority via vandalism and sick tricks, blah blah bah - Hover’s performance on Switch is admirable. Running at 30fps for the most part, this is a fully explorable open-world full of other players that only occasionally finds itself struggling to maintain that framerate. The developers could have made a little more effort to help other players integrate by joining the same missions, but it’s a nonetheless a successful litmus test for MMORPGs running on Switch.
No one on God’s green Earth loves Jet Set Radio as much as the developers of Hover, and it shows in every strand of its DNA. The fast, trick-focused movement model is pure Dreamcast, and with spray-painting, challenging races and an anti-authoritarian attitude, this is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a full franchise revival. The problem is the elements it brings to the mix - such as its shared online world, the variety of its mission types and the crux of its story - never manage to live up to the legacy of an 18-year-old game.