Has-Been Heroes Review
A paradox of grueling repetition and addictive bliss
You know those video slot machines at the casino? The ones that have all sorts of bells and whistles, and entice you to keep throwing away your money, whilst actually achieving very little? You understand that the game is essentially rigged to work in favor of the house, and yet somehow you can’t help but keep playing? Frozenbyte’s Has-Been Heroes feels a bit like that. The key difference is; rather than draining your money, it instead succeeds in sucking large quantities of your precious time, while providing little payoff. But despite a grueling and somewhat tedious experience that wasn’t always rewarding, I felt strangely compelled to return for “just one more battle.”
Has-Been Heroes is something of an enigma - and it is one that is difficult to review. This is a game that is not for everyone. You’ll either “get it,” or you won’t. Those who are masochistic enough to hang in there for long periods of time and overcome the steep learning curve will be rewarded with both a satisfying experience and a bounty of unlockables that never seem to end. Yet, even gamers who find enjoyment in the somewhat repetitious and unforgiving gameplay will still likely be forced to power through endless attempts just to sniff some real progress. Assuming you have the patience to battle through frequent sessions of trial and error, you’ll find a roguelike experience that is both mechanically solid and feverishly addictive. Hidden beneath its surface is a satisfying and rewarding game; the problem is that this surface is tough as nails and tremendously difficult to penetrate.
If you have even a vague understanding of roguelikes, you know the drill - grueling gameplay, waves of baddies that all want you dead, randomization of stages and enemies, and most notably; one-and-done attempts. No saves are permitted, and getting just one of the three heroes killed will abruptly end your run, at which point you are forced to dust yourself off and try again. In fact, Has-Been Heroes’ difficulty may even go a step beyond many of its ilk. Where most roguelikes at least provide some sort of significant common thread of progress you can cling to and apply towards your next run, Has-Been Heroes takes a very minimalistic approach regarding permanent unlocks and upgrades. That’s not to say these unlockables aren’t plentiful - quite the contrary. The problem is the pace of rewards comes at a slow trickle, and even once obtained, they have little immediate impact during your next run.
Yet, despite the sluggish sense of progression, the gameplay proved enjoyable enough during my playthroughs, giving just enough incentive to keep returning for another run. I can’t say definitively that a significant portion of other gamers will agree, but - at least after several butt kickings early on - things eventually clicked, and my enjoyment of the game escalated immensely.
The game starts off with three characters; a Warrior named Crux who can absorb more blows thanks to his higher stamina, Metacles the Monk, who wields a debuff that freezes enemies, and Tam the Rogue, who emphasizes speed and can attack more frequently. As a band ex-heroes that are seemingly washed up, you’re unexpectedly called upon by the king to fight through a slew of enemies, and ultimately get his daughters to school... What, were you really expecting a serious and elaborate narrative with a game like this?
During your journey, you’ll fight through an assortment of different environments with diverging paths. These environments include a snowy woodland, a cemetery, a desert, and the more visually stimulating “Magic Forest.” Navigating your way across the randomly generated paths in each biome will lead you to various “nodes” which are littered with battle zones. Within these hotspots, you’ll be fighting against a vast array of enemies who mostly come in skeleton form; complete with their own aesthetic flair, mannerisms, and (in some cases) powers. To help you on your quest - at least to a small degree - you’ll find merchants, treasure chests containing loot, as well as stamina and HP tents that can heal your heroes, scattered about the map. In true Vegas fashion, there are even “gamblers” who allow you to snag items or spells on the cheap if you’re lucky enough to pick one of three chests that contain a random goodie. You can also unlock additional points of interest as you progress, such as an Altar, which generates a random item, stat boost, or extra gold after placing a candle upon it. These candles are limited, and are burned through when backtracking on the map, forcing you to plan the route wisely.
When it comes to the battles, which are the meat of the gameplay, Has-Been Heroes clearly draws a great deal of influence from the classic Plants vs Zombies franchise. Its mechanics, as well as its strategic elements in many ways resemble the addictive tower defense gameplay, along with a touch of side-scrolling action for good measure. The name of the game is - keep hordes of skellies at bay by attacking with your three heroes, in addition to casting spells, buffs, and debuffs during a series of battle sequences. Once you’ve won, or rather survived a battle, you press onward to the next node, which randomly generates another instance, until eventually reaching an imposing and often overpowered boss that awaits you at the end of each stage.
The game is somewhat simple from a fundamental standpoint, but often proves to be quite intricate when it comes to survival strategies, especially in the later stages. Your heroes, along with the enemies, come equipped with their own designated portions of strength, HP, and perhaps most notably, varying bars of stamina. In order to maximize the odds of survival, your primary objective will be to stun and/or knock them back by overpowering their stamina with your character’s attacks, and ultimately defeat them by depleting their HP. Sounds simple, but the kicker here is that you will often need to juggle multiple tasks, as each of your heroes will occupy one of three lanes. Pressing a corresponding button in any given lane will send a hero from that lane to swoop in for an attack. Every lane will typically be populated with an assortment of several monsters, all of whom slowly but persistently saunter towards you. Each attack will wipe out a stamina bar, and whittling an enemy’s stamina bars to 0 will stun them. Landing an additional attack after removing their stamina will knock them farther back, giving you more time to regroup and continue your assault.
Each of your heroes can attack an enemy a designated number of times before they are out of commission for a few seconds while their attack recharges. In addition, after one hero has landed a strike, you can swap lanes with another occupying a different lane, and can piggyback off their attack in order to more efficiently stun or finish off an enemy. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around this tricky mechanic at first, but I eventually got the hang of it, and things became at least a touch simpler and noticeably more enjoyable.
The amount of strategy involved in the early goings usually boils down to attacking as much and as quickly as possible, but as the enemies get tougher and more frequent, this no longer proves sufficient. You’ll eventually need to be as resourceful and efficient as possible, so as to avoid your heroes being defenseless or vulnerable against an enemy drawing near. For instance, an enemy approaching your line with three stamina bars should be met with your rouge, since she can land three strikes before cooldown. You typically won’t want to attack this same monster with your warrior, who will only be able to land one hit, as this will fail to stun or knock back the enemy. You’ll often be forced to time everything just right in order to stand a fighting chance - and it still may not be enough. This is thanks to a difficulty that constantly ramps up, and which usually seems to outpace your heroes.
You’ll also want to constantly strengthen and buff your group. This is partly achieved through equipping various spells, a few of which are tethered to your character, but most of which you’ll need to either purchase or pick up during a run. Using these spells is a key component which can often help to turn the tide of battle. Your heroes can also equip items, which usually come with a unique set of buffs.
To more effectively utilize these actions, you’ll often need to initiate a sort of “soft pause” using the “L” button, which will freeze the action and allow you to better plan your attack most efficiently. This will help you utilize each of your heroes’ abilities to their full potential while minimizing the damage you absorb as enemies approach and attack you. This is where the game’s strategic elements reside over its deceptively simplistic action, and where it begins to resemble a realtime strategy game. The constant pausing can unfortunately slow down the gameplay something awful and clash with the intensity of the fast-paced battle. However, you’ll find it is largely a necessary evil to deal with an increasingly hostile skelly army.
This isn’t to say the “soft pause” technique is foolproof, however. Much of your success or failure will simply hinge on luck, and probably more than it should. Everything from level layouts, to the placement and frequency of battles, to the spells and items made available, and even bosses to a degree - are random, and thus can make all the difference. While this highly randomized setup of the game keeps things feeling somewhat fresh every time you play, it can also burn you. You might end up with a tricky run in which you aren’t given any useful spells or items to help beef up your party, or you could clash with an unusually high frequency of tough battles. You may find yourself having a particularly unlucky few rounds at the gambler instances, losing a good chunk of your money with nothing to show for it, or unable to afford a spell with no immediate way to obtain gold. This is where the biggest fault of the game comes to the forefront - no matter how well you play, or how powerful you might find yourself, the random elements usually seem to have the final say.
You will, thankfully, at least be granted the game’s miniscule form of a reward throughout your many likely failed attempts. These come in the form of “soul orbs” which are obtained by defeating enemies. The orbs you’ve accumulated at the end of each run will be put towards a threshold, which will net you two newly revealed items or spells once this threshold is reached. These items range from a Wizard’s Notebook that increases your critical hit chance and deals fire damage on a kill, to mushrooms that raises spell damage, and even a somewhat creepy hovering skull that shoots enemies every few seconds. Many of these items produce modest results by themselves, but they can be stacked, eventually leading to a noticeably juiced-up band of heroes. You’ll also unlock better items the more you play, acting as a subtle but nonetheless effective carrot dangling in front of your face that entices you to keep playing.
Unveiling more items over time does take a bit of the sting out after losing, as it will reveal their descriptions in game, which allows you to better plan your attack in future runs. For example, you may come across an item that grants additional stamina to a hero, which you’d ideally want to give to your rouge, as she is more vulnerable and begins with less stamina than the warrior. After awhile then, you can begin to nudge the odds, however slightly, in your favor. Yet, despite “unlocking” these new goodies, you’ll still need to actually find and obtain them in the game, putting things once again in the hands of the Has-Been Heroes gods. Considering the game draws from a pool of hundreds of spells and items, one can quickly see just how much luck plays a role in this game.
While there is similarly a vast quantity of spells with their unique attributes, they all fall under a few basic categories - which include water, fire, ice, lightning, as well as non-element or buffs. Each hero specializes in one element - that is to say, they come with one default spell in each respective category. They also possess unique slot bonuses that can add further impact to a particular type of spell when equipped. Spells can come in the form of isolated strikes, powers that scorch an entire lane of baddies, elemental buffs or resistances, and even walking bombs that damage all in their vicinity upon exploding. You can also take advantage of coupling multiple spells together, granting the potential to deal additional damage to enemies. For instance, one hero might hit a group of skellies with a water spell, while another can unleash a lightning power that will pack more of a punch against your soaked victims.
Unfortunately, even as you gain more powerful spells, the game annoyingly throws increasingly powerful enemies at you as well - not just within one run, but from game to game. This makes advancement even more arduous, as your enemies will always seem to more or less keep pace with you.
Your biggest goal - and indeed, any real progress you can hope to achieve essentially hinges on finishing a “run,” which consists of getting to the end of a stage and defeating a boss. Doing so will prompt a brief end cutscene, throw a slew of new unlockables your way, and land you a brand new hero. Each time you’ve completed a run, the game will tack on one additional level, chock-full of even tougher monsters. This certainly ramps of the intensity and keeps things interesting, but also further slows the pace of the game’s system of progression by its amplified length and difficulty.
With that said, it does makes it that much sweeter when you finally defeat an end boss and earn that new hero. Most of the heroes I’ve unlocked have proven even more amusing to play around with than the initial starting lineup, and come equipped with some better spells to boot. There is a seemingly large palette of unlockable heroes, but in my 40 plus hours spent with this game, I’ve only managed to unlock a handful of them. These colorful characters include an obese spandex wearing wrestler and a flame-wielding tiger straight out of the Jungle Book. I’ve also unveiled dozens of increasingly cooler spells and items, but there are still countless more for me to unearth.
The aesthetics of Has-Been Heroes on the other hand, are far simpler. Aside from some neat looking spell effects, the graphics appear to come straight out of a flash animation, and a rather basic one at that. The flat, simplistic, and colorful style resemble a Saturday morning cartoon, and the minimalistic animation almost seems anime in its influence. There are some nice orchestral tracks to help inject a deeper sense of atmosphere and intensity, though after hearing the same few tunes over and over they grow a bit dull.
I think it goes without saying, but if you are looking for an epic and bombastic cinematic experience, you’d best look elsewhere. There also isn’t much to be found for those who prefer their gameplay simplistic or hand-holding, nor is there a progression system that showers you with rewards or immediate gratification. However, if you are prepared to grind your way through this war of attrition, and willing to perish with regularity, you’ll find an addictive gaming experience that keeps on giving - at least in small, spaced out rations. This game is probably destined to appeal to a relatively small niche, but it promises much to those that answer its faint call. The steep learning curve, relentless difficulty, and randomized mechanisms that hinge a bit too much on luck handcuff this game from reaching any level of greatness. Yet, Has-Been Heroes proves a surprisingly fun experience overall, and one that at least worth giving the old college try.