I love character action games. Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising are probably some of my favorite games, with their fluid combat, satisfying movement systems and palm-drenching intensity. I was so excited to check out Heart&Slash on the impression that it was a mix of that Devil May Cry character action and the addictive endless loop of roguelike games. While Heart & Slash is definitely a blend of those two genres, neither half really comes together in a satisfying way.
In the near future, robots have revolted and destroyed humanity. 1000 years after this revolution, you awaken in an abandoned development facility as the bipedal robot Heart, and fight your way from within to find out who you are, and why the Vergil to your Dante, a robot named Slash, has it out for you. The game is light on story, and has a handful of instances of awkward English or grammar hiccups. The most engaging aspect of the story, the mystery of your encounters with Slash and its reason for stopping you from moving forward, helps give a sense of progress during the many, many runs you’ll make through the game.
As a member of the Roguelike genre, when you die, you lose everything, start from the beginning, obtain random equipment in randomized levels, and try to make it further than last time. Rinse and repeat. One of the more successful modern entries in the genre, Rogue Legacy, kept these repeated playthroughs engaging by having multiple systems of permanent unlocks and progress. Hearth&Slash does very little of that. As you play through the game, you’ll complete various missions which permanently add new weapons and equipment to the list of possible items you’ll come across in-game, but aside from that system and being gifted some upgrade points on subsequent runs, everything you do is erased. That’s part of the thrill of roguelike games, but for some people, that might be more of an annoyance factor than an engagement factor.
Something else that’s definitely equal-parts engaging and annoying is the gameplay. It’s an action game that harkens to things like Devil May Cry or God of War, but with a bit more of an old-school feel. You’ll double jump, evade, and sprint away from or into enemies, utilizing light and heavy attack buttons to string together combos. The random weapons you acquire in the game are varied and unique, and you can equip three at a time, using the triggers to dynamically switch between them at any time to string together an endless array of unique combos. With over a 100 different weapons to acquire, there’s a lot of room for experimentation and variety.
Now, in many action games with an evade or a dodge button, using this button is incredibly advantageous. You dodge an enemies oncoming attack, landing near them in time to land a counter, and usually have some invincibility to ensure you’re actually evading any kind of damage. On top of that, you’re usually able to utilise this ability at any moment, meaning you can bust it out mid-combo to deal with a sudden threat if need be. It’s convenient, satisfying, and useful.
The evade button in Heart&Slash is none of these things. In my time with the game, I felt like the evade button was basically a glorified roll animation. It never consistently got me out of danger, especially in moments where multiple enemies were attacking me and my lack of evasion invincibility meant I would be taking damage no matter what I did. Even worse, I could never consistently cancel attacks to go into the evade button. If I saw an enemy attack coming at me but was still in an attack animation, that animation would usually have to finish before I could evade. It left me angry and confused, and tacked onto other minor issues like poor 3D-platformer style camera controls, loose character movement and a lack of a lock-on system, there are a lot of issues lying at the core of Heart&Slash.
Thankfully, the style and aesthetic of the game make up somewhat for the gameplay shortcomings. The environment and character designs are varied and interesting, and the beautiful cel-shading and lighting help bring it all to life. While you may struggle to escape the first area of the game, rest assured that there’s a variety of them, and with the exception of an underwhelming city environment with an ugly skybox, each is more eye-popping and unique than the last. The game also features some awesome chiptune inspired music, but it takes a while to encounter it, as the first area of the game has a weirdly up-beat, poppy music loop that’s insanely dissonant to the robotic carnage happening on screen.
The game presentation has some hiccups here and there, but it’s probably at it’s best during boss fights. When you come across your first boss fight, you’re treated to a goosebump-inducing introduction cutscene with haunting lighting, masterful camera work, and an intense song that builds up to the reveal of the boss and drops just as you’re thrown back into gameplay. It was my favorite part of the game by far, and made me audibly curse. It’s just a shame that the rest of the game couldn’t live up to that one, brief moment.
Hearth&Slash has a lot of great ideas. On paper, a Devil May Cry roguelike is probably one of the most amazing ideas ever. Unfortunately, the reality of that idea never lives up to that promise. The roguelike features were relatively basic compared to games like Rogue Legacy. The action gameplay was nowhere near as satisfying as Metal Gear Rising. In the end, Heart & Slash just made me wish I was playing one of those games instead of this one.
Version tested: PC