Has-Been Heroes: review

Has-Been Heroes is an interesting take on the strategy genre. Mixing RPG, roguelike and strategy elements, what would normally sound and – to be blunt – does actually look like a incoherent mess, actually plays really well and is enjoyable once you can get your head around the combat system which is incomprehensible if you don’t learn how it works first. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have faults, because it does. Quite a few, but never anything bad enough to make us lose favour with it.

You get a group of Heroes who – while hugely customisable over any single adventure – never gain stats, items or anything else permanently. The only thing you ever unlock is more stuff to customise over the course of subsequent adventures. It makes progress slow and the rate that you unlock Heroes – or at least the first few – is glacial. We’ve spent 24 hours (in game time) with this and we’ve unlocked only four Heroes.

It’s not because we’re that bad (honest); the game is just hard. Really, really hard. It’s also often unfair. Because all damage is based on numbers and you haven’t got any real maneuverability, you can eventually just get swarmed by the tide of undead or beaten by a boss that has some sort of advantage that you simply can’t counter on a particular run.

At one point during one of our runs we come across a boss that raises Zombies. Zombies take a real beating and, while our team had a high amount of damage, much of that was elemental and doesn’t help much against these rotting foes. Eventually, the increasing tide of Zombies alongside their Master overcame one of our heroes and that was that. We gave it our all, but on that run there wasn’t anything to save us from that demise. This is what separates it from more active games like The Binding of Isaac where skilled player control can make up for the lack of items that give you “big numbers” to use on enemies.

The difficulty masks what is an otherwise challenging but fun game that sometimes feels less like a “typical” roguelike and more like it was influenced by choose-you-own-adventure style books. It’s fun derived from making interesting paths through a basic map with interesting events dispensed across it. Since you can’t backtrack without the use of a magic candle, you realistically can only make so many moves or only visit certain areas of the map before you have to finish up at the area’s boss or backtrack and be consumed by the darkness.

Weaving your way in and out of Merchant camps, Occult Altars, Spell dispensaries and battlegrounds makes for a really fun game. Planning your journey in a puzzle-like manner is half the fun of it all. Especially when you get to see how you’ve masterfully maneuvered about to get as much done as possible. In theory the combat should be much the same, but in practice it can verge on tedious when you’re fending off a relentless horde that doesn’t have weaknesses that are exploitable without you having picked up very specific items or spells beforehand.

Combat uses three lanes, one for each hero, where you send one of them to attack an enemy. Each hero has a different number of attacks and each enemy has a certain amount of hits it can take to its stamina before its defense is broken and it’s left stunned briefly. Hitting it while stunned knocks the enemy far back down the lane, and removes one point of stamina permanently; but if you hit more than this, it will do a bit of damage over their defenses but they won’t lose a point of stamina, and won’t get hit back as far in the lane.

It’s a very odd way to do things but what’s even more odd is that the swapping of heroes from one lane to another is only available when one hero has finished an attack. Helpfully it pauses the game here to allow for such things, but it won’t just let you rearrange them as you please. No, it requires you to swap the one that attacked with any of the others, which you can then do again, and again until you have them all where you want them. It’s almost the same out of combat too, which makes grabbing items from merchants more fiddly than it should be. Why we can’t just put them wherever we want so long as it’s a “legal” move is perplexing at best, a huge failure for player convenience at worst.

It gets more complex when you take into account that heroes cause backstab damage to enemies that they pass through when they return to their lane position. Using this will extend stun durations, can spread fire if your hero is on fire, and probably other things we have yet to unlock. Pulling off a seemingly impossible string of attacks and spells that levels a force of enemies is an immensely satisfying power trip.

It has a steep learning curve; the tutorial doesn’t help much, so lots of people will end up floundering for a few hours like we did but once you start to get into the swing of things it’s easy to lose hours in it. It’s very satisfying when everything goes to plan but it’s far too easy to just not get what you need to finish a “run” or to get caught out on a simple mistake and lose within moments. It can feel unfair rather than an error on our part; though we still just start a new game and have at it again, and again, and again. If you can get past the difficulty, it has a great depth that will suck hours of life out of you, and you’ll love every moment.


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Written by Sean P

I enjoy playing games and I enjoy writing things, so I decided to combine the two. I do bits here and there and have a twitter that mainly just announces things I've done as my life revolves around very little that is truly interesting.

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