Browsing a popular internet auction site for old games, I am not going to lie, fills me with joy in a way that — for whatever reason — browsing an online storefront does not. It must be the physicality, the thought of getting a box of something. Maybe it’s the restrictions, of only being able to buy what’s available rather than being overwhelmed with an immense catalogue of… everything.
Or maybe it’s finding weird obscure stuff that even a place like gog will never rescue. I had never heard of K.Hawk: Survival Instinct before, but it looked like a third-person action game and I know I like those. I couldn’t resist.
K. Hawk: Survival Instinct
The titular Kitty Hawk is a helicopter pilot who gets shot down while taking a special ops dude to carry out a secret mission. Obviously, the special ops dude dies in the crash and it falls to Kitty to save the day in his place.
Except Kitty’s not a pro special ops soldier, which means she can’t go in guns blazing. She doesn’t even get a gun until half-way through the first level. Although the game looks like a third-person shooter, it is in fact tense game of stealth avoidance. Interesting!
In order to successfully avoid patrolling guards, you have the “EPU”. This gives you a traditional top-down minimap, populated with vision cones and hearing circles so you always have access to a pretty complete picture of what enemies are nearby and whether or not you can get by them reliably. The challenge, then, lies more in working out how to navigate the interlocking patrol routes as you track down key cards and work your way across the island and its military installations.
For all this could make it a game of sitting about, waiting endlessly for people to pass by, K.Hawk is actually very snappy. Guards wander briskly, which means most windows for safe movement are quite short — giving the game an action-packed feel even though you’re deliberately trying to avoid starting any action. The clarity of vision cones and hearing circles means that you can be absolutely confident of whether or not you’ll make it through a gap… as long as you can perform the right moves.
If action does occur, things get hairy fast. First off, the EPU is described as needing two hands to operate — so as soon as you bring out a gun, you lose that powerful situational awareness. Trying to run from a fight means you’re as likely to blunder into more guards whose positions you forgot about in the panic.
Then if you do need to do some shooting, ammunition is very scarce and entire clips of the early pistol need to be sunk into guards before they’ll finally keel over. Enemies play elaborate pain animations when they get shot, which keeps them from firing back, so a one-on-one fight isn’t usually much trouble — but if they manage to alert other guards (whether they’ve been attracted by the noise or your intended victim has literally run off to summon them) it’s pretty much guaranteed lights out.
Basically, everything serves to reinforce that central conceit: you’re not an invincible marine. Combat is, nine times out of ten, a failure state.
Of course maybe it leans a little too far into that fantasy, especially when it hits you with boss fights that force you into battle (a lesson that even modern blockbusters like Human Revolution failed to learn). That’s when you start to feel less like you’re a fragile, ill-trained and ill-equipped fugitive and more like the controls are just permanently in your way.
Movement, for a start, is mostly broken. It’s very easy to get Kitty stuck on protruding edges, and she struggles with even gentle slopes. This is a particular problem when you’re rushing through the beautifully lush — but very lumpy — jungle level. Yes, I do want to be in that ditch so I can hide from the patrolling guard, but will I be able to get out again? Who knows!
The climax of this jungle is facing off against a sniper boss who doesn’t show up on the EPU’s map. This allows him to hitscan snipe you to pieces as you stumble drunkenly around the level, getting stuck on bushes and rocks until you finally spot where he’s hiding. I eventually won this one not because of my superior skills, but because he bugged out and got frozen for thirty seconds or so, which allowed me to pump him full of rifle rounds. (This was distinct from the time where he just started running between hiding spots six feet off the ground.)
For all of the stuff that’s plain old broken, there are other mechanical choices that contribute to the feelings of clunkiness. Changing weapon, for example, requires Kitty to stand still, so when you run out of rifle ammo and need to switch, yep, you’re probably dead before you got the pistol out. Throwing a grenade holsters your gun too, so grenades are barely useful except as an opening gambit (assuming you even have time to get your gun out before more troops arrive to investigate).
Then you have to find keycards and codes, which is in itself fine, but in order to get through a keycarded door you have to manually flip through the inventory and activate the matching keycard at each door it affects. Why doesn’t the keycard just get used automatically when I press the door control? It’s extra keypresses for nothing.
So yes, K. Hawk: Survival Instinct is janky as sin and has some awful difficulty spikes; I definitely cannot recommend anybody else touches it with a barge pole.
And yet… it’s just a little bit charming. I a sucker for a tale of exploring a mysterious tropical island full of evil soldiers doing evil research, and for every fumbled implementation there’s still a compelling idea lurking elsewhere. Yes, absolutely, it needed a lot more time in the oven, but you can at least see a genuinely solid wee game on the horizon from here.
Ultimately, it made me smile. Isn’t that enough, sometimes?