Action Henk doesn't have any ideas of its own, but at least it borrows from the best. Take the tracks from your childhood Hot Wheels playset and swap out the car for a figurine of a pot-bellied man named Henk. Now add in the ghost-racing, microsecond-shaving, leaderboard-chasing element of Trials HD. Wrap it all around the physics-based inertia of early 2D Sonic games and Tiny Wings' angle-seeking for the best slides, and sprinkle it with some occasional grapple line and wall-jumping fun, a-la Speedrunners. And there you have it: Action Henk. A 2.5D game that's all about reaching the goal as quickly as you possibly can.
Combining all of these brilliant elements should, by rights, equate to a fantastic time-attack game. And at its core, Action Henk does deliver a decent realisation of its premise. In full flow, it's fast, frantic and well-grounded in competition, both against the computer's set times or your friends’ best leaderboard efforts. However, while the whole works well enough (in single-player), it somehow feels less than the sum of its parts. The reasons for this are many.
Firstly, very little of the presentation is what I would describe as likeable. The grotesque, stereotypical characters, and constant background pop culture references from 20 or even 30 years ago are not witty, but I suspect they're supposed to be. The in-game music is far too repetitive too, which grates when you're replaying one level repeatedly in an attempt to win Gold. And while it's pleasantly colourful and mostly smooth (in single-player), it does look like a last-gen XBLA game.
By now, you're surely wondering why I'm constantly qualifying statements with parentheses about the single-player. That's because the multiplayer - which is new for the console versions - is far worse than the decent solo game. There is already some noticeable judder in some later single-player environments, but in multiplayer on Xbox One, the frame rate often takes alarming nosedives (though there is a patch coming ready for launch, promising optimisations). When we played retail code in 4-player mode, one section became literally unplayable if all four characters were on the screen, because the frame rate dipped to around two frames a second. You can't time a jump when you're looking at a still picture.
There's a story too...
I would love to talk about the story, but despite having finished it, I have absolutely no idea what any of it was about. The characters have visible joints on them, so they're definitely toys, yet there's an island and a fire and… look, I don't understand.
But even if the technical issues are banished, even when it does work, the multiplayer is underwhelming. You're all running on the same track at the same time, and on the same screen - no splits here - with a Micro Machines-style 'die if you get left behind' system. Depending on the settings, it's entirely possible that everyone can be left waiting for one person to finish the whole level after failing the first jump. And if the last player gets stuck in a halfpipe, it can become painful. Is it a faux pas to say 'give it here' and do it for them?
With only one mode of multiplayer play, the party mode plays exactly like the single-player game, by which I mean you don't interact with anyone else. No tripping, no weapons… just running as fast as you can. The result feels detached. Some late comebacks and close finishes are exciting, but considering how great Speedrunners is (and how similar the two games are once the hookshot is introduced in Henk’s later levels), it's impossible not to compare the two. Speedrunners proves that this sort of game can be dynamite with friends, but Action Henk isn't.
Still, the level design is good when playing solo. It could so easily have been too difficult, or massively frustrating, but only the very last few levels feature potential impasses. For the most part, there's very much a 'correct' way to play each course. Go fast enough and jump at the right moment on a ramp, and you'll usually land on the optimum angle on the next hill.
There's very little scope for deliberately holding back on a ramp to make your landing more beneficial like you would in Trials HD. But even so, getting ahead of the ghost gives you the feeling that you're the best, and that is very pleasant indeed. Still, if you're not aiming for gold, simply completing the tracks won't be very rewarding, and you'll likely see most of the game in a couple of hours.
I sound very down on Action Henk, which saddens me because I did enjoy playing through the single-player, racking up Gold Medals and zooming around loops. If you live by the motto 'gotta go fast!' like I do, you will find enjoyment here. But I'm obliged to tell you that all of the best features of Action Henk have been done better elsewhere. The graphics are more likeable in Joe Danger, there's more subtlety to the control in Trials HD, and even the very best bit – the grapple line – is done better in Speedrunners (which is coming to Xbox One). What a pity.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.