Setting up a good workspace is crucial in Quadrilateral Cowboy. In front of you, you’ll place your deck. This jerry-built laptop – constructed by you, since you find and install its memory, CPU and other components – features a keyboard and screen to display a command-line interface, and it’s your most prized piece of equipment, used for hacking into external networks and to control various amazing tools.
To the side you’ll place your CCTV unit. Its twoscreen display feeds video from some of those tools, so you’ll angle it so it’s visible as you type commands on your deck. One feed might be from Nell, your Weevil, a four-legged remote bot that’s small enough to get under pipes and through vents. After you’ve connected to it using WEEVER.EXE you might tell it GO 150; TURN 90; GO 50, commands that tell it to move forward, turn to the right and move on again. Then you’ll hammer out DATAJACK 0 to activate a node on the wall, which might switch off laser fields, perhaps, or open a window. Another video feed could be from your Auto Case, a briefcase that you set on the floor and which transforms into a gun. Run AIMBOT.EXE, zoom in the view with CAMZOOM 10, then TURN -15; PITCH 30 to position your laser guide on the target.
Not on a human, of course. This isn’t that kind of game. The Auto Case is all about hitting buttons from afar with FIRE. The object of Quadrilateral Cowboy is to perform a series of simulated heists from your company’s studio, formulating and practising elaborate raids on surreal banks, funiculars, luxury apartments, space stations and moving trucks, before getting out again, preferably without setting off alarms. The what and the why of a heist isn’t important; it’s the how, since this is essentially a puzzle game in which you figure out how best to use the tools at your disposal.
As you’re steadily granted more, learning what they do is a thrill. You initially fumble around, resorting to typing HELP into the deck, reading sticky notes attached to it, and opening the in-game manual until, eventually, you master them. Getting Blink is a moment when you particularly begin to feel that mastery. By pre-programming Blink with chains of commands, you can perform them without having to set up your deck, allowing you to manipulate the environment as you go.
Quadrilateral Cowboy takes place in entirely discrete locations, but it feels like it’s part of a wider world, one spun out from a greater universe Blendo Games established in its previous games, Flotilla, Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights Of Loving. The characters are similarly blocky and the environments just as simple, but details are every bit as obsessed over. This is a game of incidentals, where every book in every bookcase has a different title; every functioning object has a name and has warning stickers and operating notes; every drawer opens and every tap and toilet flows. It’s a tactile game, taking pleasure in presenting you with three-stage airlocks to negotiate and complex machinery that springs into life with the press of a button. It’s evidently in love with that part of the ’90s when environments in games such as Duke Nukem 3D and Deus Ex began to respond in a realistic way to your passage, feeling like slices of cogent greater worlds.
And yet Quadrilateral Cowboy also feels entirely artificial. You’re aware you’re exploring sets, each painstakingly composed so it both gives you a cleanly presented puzzle to solve, comprising alarm systems to bear in mind, sightlines between windows for your Auto Case, and vent systems to send your Weevil into, and also works on a visual level, able to tell a story of what this place is and to also look great from every angle. The very substance of Quadrilateral Cowboy is in some ways a rumination on the way games are worlds built in computers. There’s the programming you perform as you play, and also the fact it’s built in Id Tech 4, Doom 3’ s engine. In Quadrilateral Cowboy it gives clarity and a noirish visual drama to each scene, and it also harkens to the modding communities that sprang up around Id’s engines. Blendo Games’ Brendon Chung has always been very active in them, using Id Tech 2, Quake II’s engine, for previous releases.
If all this wasn’t enough, there’s also an affecting story going on of a hacker and her two friends establishing a company, Impala Solutions, building up their tech and taking on jobs. Between levels, through Blendo Games’ trademark crash cuts, we experience vignettes of their lives, visiting their homes and playing badminton with them. The finer points are told through details, there to notice if you care, in contracts and certificates, with time communicated through a plant steadily growing and seasonal decorations in the office.
With so much going on, all of it so carefully realised, something had to give. Quadrilateral Cowboy isn’t long, and by the end of its 11 levels you’ll feel you’ve only scratched the surface of the challenges your many tools and abilities can provide. Most levels feel like tutorials, singlemindedly exploring a sole ability with only one clear solution, and only a couple give you a chance to put them all together. Some ideas are presented and thrown away entirely a level later, including a Super Time Force- like time-manipulation mechanic.
On the other hand, it keeps Quadrilateral Cowboy focused and more broadly accessible. Your friends’ best times are there to goad you into executing a better plan faster, so there’s some replayability, too. And besides, Blendo Games’ ambitions seem to be on another plane. Quadrilateral Cowboy comes with a guide to modding, so perhaps its potential will be fully realised by its players. For a game so delightfully preoccupied with the magic of its making, that’s actually pretty fitting.
By the end you’ll feel you’ve only scratched the surface of the challenges your many tools and abilities can provide