Timing is everything. That’s particularly true in the case of Frozenbyte’s Has-Been Heroes, not just in terms of playing the game itself, but as something of an indie poster-child during the Nintendo Switch’s launch window, helping gain it more attention than it might otherwise have had.
Coming from the same development team as the Trine series, and simultaneously launching on PS4, PC and Xbox One that’s not the be-all and end-all for this Roguelike, but it’s safe to say that its bite-sized gameplay loop makes it perfect for on-the-go gaming.
Has-Been Heroes has a distinctly unconventional control scheme, and one which feels pretty jarring at first. You take control of three heroes – initially a Rogue, Monk and Warrior – who’ve been tasked with one of the least important quests the King has: taking the kingdom’s two princesses to school. You use the right analog stick to direct your team through a randomly generated course that ultimately leads to a tough boss at the end, with battles, merchants and camps occasionally appearing along the way.
When entering a battle, each of the heroes positions themselves at the end of an on-screen lane that enemies make their way down. You are, of course, tasked with eliminating them using a combination of standard attacks and magic. This is a hybrid turn-based combat system, with a tap of a button letting you pause or resume the action, while switching lanes and attacking is also just a single button press away. As your hero charges down a lane to launch their attack, the key is in following it, as you can immediately swap in one of the other heroes to continue the assault. Most enemies have a set amount of stamina that dictates how many hits they can take before you start to whittle down their health, making it essential to think and plan out who’s attacking who, and when they’re attacking them.
Your Rogue delivers three medium hits, the Monk two light ones, and the Warrior a single huge strike, so you’ll often find yourself using the Monk or Rogue to break an enemy’s guard before going in for the kill with the Warrior. You can’t simply jump straight back in with each of them either, as you’re forced to wait for their strength to recharge once they’ve attacked. Your heroes having charged forward, you can gain extra hits by swapping them into other lanes and having them fight back to their starting position.
Despite the odd setup, it’s actually a lot of fun. The strategic elements keep combat interesting, and the interminable forward motion of your enemies lends everything a sense of urgency, even if you are able to pause the action. However that fun is tempered pretty effectively by the brutal, unforgiving difficulty level and soul destroying permadeath. That’s right, when just one of your characters fall in battle you lose all of your progress, restarting your journey back to the very start of the the randomly generated levels.
Your Rogue and Mage can barely take a couple of hits before expiring, and when the pressure is being piled on it’s they who are most likely to be overcome. Things ramp up very quickly, and with the levels being randomly generated, fate may smile on you, providing you with powerful spells or items before you arrive at the exceptionally tough boss characters. On the other hand it might not, and you’ll face a swift and ignominious death, plunging you back to the start.
Right there is where the Switch version of the game wins out, as the bite-sized chunks of strategic action fit perfectly with a handheld console you might pick up for fifteen minutes, where sitting with it at home can feel a touch too much like banging your head against a medieval brick wall. Extended time with the game just doesn’t have the same degree of fun, but I could happily pick it up again later each day for another run at a few levels.
Visually things are much more suited to the small screen as well, with the 16bit cartoon-esque visuals looking clear and colourful, while the smaller screen helps to mask the plain backgrounds and the fact that two-thirds of the screen are taken up with a control and information bar. Playing on a television really highlights the game’s lower resolution, especially when the camera zooms in on something important, though you can turn the effect off.
The opening cutscenes are fairly humorous, but it feels as though the designers wanted to carry that through into the main game and didn’t really know how. It’s a shame, as the characterful visuals combined with the premise of taking these weathered old heroes on an adventure certainly provides a decent foundation, but it may just as well be any old po-faced 2D fantasy game beyond that.
Has-Been Heroes has a genuinely inviting and involving combat system that requires real strategic thought to master. However the rest of the game just doesn’t pull together to form a cohesive whole, with brutal difficulty, frustrating permadeath and an under-utilised premise all serving to taint the end product. It does at least benefit from the Nintendo Switch’s portability, and this is where it’s at its best, but at home you’ll likely be turning it off far quicker than Frozenbyte were hoping for.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch