There’s a whole bunch of Austin Powers – and specifically Dr Evil – in Henchman Story, but one scene comes to mind. Austin Powers and Vanessa Kensington are on a steamroller, making an extremely slow getaway. But Henchman Steve is in their path, screaming. Then we flash forward to his family receiving news that Steve has died in a horrific steamroller accident. It’s a great joke, not because we’re into gruesome steamroller deaths, but because it plays on the red-shirt thing: that unnamed extras and henchpeople have lives too.
While you don’t play Steve, in Henchman Story you play Stan, which is close enough. You’re a low-level but long-serving henchman for Lord Bedlam (somewhere between Darth Vader and Emperor Zurg). He’s a complete buffoon, and you’re pulling off street-level crimes like stealing dog food from pet stores. But it suits you to a tee, as you’re more of a career henchman: looking to survive as long as possible by running away, avoiding confrontation, and dodging promotions that would put you in harm’s way.
It’s a simple, familiar premise (the recent movie Free Guy did something similar with the lives of non-playable characters) but it’s fantastic grounds for a story. Rather than being the superhero, like we’ve been umpteen times in other games, in Henchman Story you get to observe them from ground level. That can lead to comedy, as you can laugh at the sheer absurdity of them, but it also means you can stray into other territory, as you see the collateral damage, the unsustainable lives they lead, and just how many normal people it takes to prop them up. Henchman Story has fun with all of these themes, and moves nimbly from comedy to thriller to – occasionally – tragedy.
All of this plays out as a reasonably typical visual novel. You read and read and read, before making the odd choice that spins you off in a direction. It comes with the usual caveat of any visual novel: this won’t be for everyone, and you should be aware about the lack of interaction before you go in. If anything, Henchman Story has more choices and divergence than the average visual novel, but you can still get to the end of the game by pressing A every three seconds.
There are several directions that Henchman Story could have gone with its cracking premise, and it opts for effectively two major branches. Branch one is chasing promotions. You can embrace the thug life, and see what it’s like to rise up the ranks of Lord Bedlam and Madame Scorpion’s (a thinly veiled Madame Hydra reference) evil organisation. There are some surprisingly pertinent references to the gig economy and data-harvesting down this path (Cambridge Analytica get a kicking), and there’s even an otome-style relationship if you’re flirty enough.
The other branch is for the paragons. You can team-up with some superheroes to take Team Bedlam down from the inside, and the result is a little more on the tropey side as it loses the evil henchman hook, but it’s probably the more satisfying, with a more natural romance option and the chance for redemption. There are twelve endings here, and kudos to Top Hat Studios that they can feel so wildly different.
What we liked most about Henchman Story, outside of living the henchman dream for a bit, was how well it handles choice. The secret to its sauce is that Stan wears so many masks. He pretends to be a henchman while really being a regular Joe; pretends to be evil when confronted by supervillains; pretends to hero worship Lord Bedlam in front of his supervisor; and pretends to be strong in front of superheroes. This many masks means that the choices get loaded and complicated. What mask am I wearing now? Which one is more important? The irony that Stan wears so many metaphorical masks while being one of the few not to physically wear them, is not lost on us.
Where Henchman Story falls down, though, is in some of its characterisation and its comedy. You could summarise the majority of Henchman Story’s characters with a single word. Lord Bedlam is a buffoon. Your supervisor is a try-hard. Madame Scorpion is just straight-up evil. There’s no nuance to these characters, they’re caricatures, and it weakens the Bad Guy route in particular. Stan and Kate, a rookie that you train up, are far more complicated, and we found ourselves gravitating towards her simply because she was three-dimensional.
Comedy is also famously hard to get right, and while it can work here, it often falls on its face. Stan is a kind of Woody Allen mixed with Simon Pegg in Spaced: a self-effacing, nerdy guy who has a sarcastic comment for any situation. He’s clearly intended to be a cypher, a likeable chap, but we found him frequently annoying. He’s a smart ass, but smart in a slightly superior way, and wisecracking without being hugely funny. Women seem to fall over themselves to be with him, which never quite feels authentic, and the only viable romance option talks and acts like Stan. It has a whiff of wish fulfilment to it.
But let’s not overdo it: Henchman Story is one of the good ones. As visual novels go, it’s substantial, and has twenty or thirty choices before you reach one of its twelve endings. It dares to be different, taking the story of a supervillain’s lackey and stirring in some social commentary. And it has a couple of stories to tell that will have you glued, skipping between genres like a Deadpool and Cable team-up. Sure, it could do with a touch less snark and a degree more characterisation, but this henchman’s costume is well worth pulling on for an evening.
You can buy Henchman Story from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and optimised for Xbox Series X|S