When the king put his faith in two aging heroes and a scrappy rogue to escort his twin daughters to school, he must have known he was sending them off to their deaths, right? In Frozenbyte’s new roguelike Has-Been Heroes, defeat seems like the only probable outcome. This genre typically thrives on the holy trinity of difficulty, permadeath, and randomization, but Has-Been Heroes’ use of these features is both unrewarding and erratic.
The experience isn’t entirely bad, mind you. Has-Been Heroes is, in some ways, unlike anything I’ve ever played. That alone is an impressive feat.
It draws perhaps the most similarity to Plants vs. Zombies, where your controlled heroes are housed on the left while defending against waves of enemies pouring in from the right. Heroes can only attack enemies within their given lane and must endure a cooldown period before striking again. However, upon attacking, the game will pause and allow you to rearrange the position of each hero.
Everyone on the screen, heroes and villains alike, have a health pool protected by blocks of stamina. Herein lies the complexity of combat.
Each hero delivers a set number of attacks, with the warrior striking once, the mage twice, and rogue three times. One attack depletes one block of stamina while chewing through all of the enemy’s stamina will deliver a stunning blow that stops them in their tracks. For example, if an enemy only has one stamina, you’re fine attacking with your warrior hero. However, if they have three, you’re going to want to follow-up with your mage hero (who, again, attacks twice) to remove the remaining two blocks. Stunning enemies is crucial. Otherwise, they’ll continue their advance until they reach your heroes where the same rules apply.
It’s a complicated system that’s made far more complex than it needs to be, thanks to its wild spikes in difficulty. With just a handful of enemies on the screen, the challenge is well balanced and becomes a tense display of hyper-focus as you strategically attack and rearrange your heroes against the oncoming horde. However, the randomness of the game will often send out an absurd amount of enemies to the point where “overwhelming” becomes an understatement.
Failing is a constant in Has-Been Heroes but rewards the player with new items and spells that can potentially show up in subsequent playthroughs. I use the term “reward” loosely, as you’re never actually told what a new spell does unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across it in-game. In what appears on-screen as an exciting new unlockable equates to an unenthusiastic high-five from a passing stranger. For being ruthless and unpredictable, to have each defeat feel unrewarding is most unfortunate.
In a surprising turn of events from the team that brought us the beautiful Trine trilogy, Has-Been Heroes has a very plain, almost generic aesthetic. I don’t mean this as a knock, but it looks like a mobile game. Characters only have a few animations, which aren’t very noteworthy, and you’ll mostly encounter the same model of skeleton ad nauseum. The backdrops just exist, with none of them being standouts. Even after 5 hours, I can’t seem to recall anything other than the most basic of descriptors, like “forest” or “castle.”
The same can be said about the composition and sound design. They’re just there. Nothing stands out in this department throughout the game’s entirety. Even the narrative is poorly translated, chock-full of grammatical errors and weird, pointless phrases. The text used is incredibly small on the TV side of things as well (but a non-issue in portable mode).
Where the game truly fumbles, however, is in its wildly unpredictable difficulty spikes and overly cheap boss
attack encounters. Everything in Has-Been Heroes is random, from the enemies you face to the probability of finding a vendor or even the items said vendor has up for sale. That’s fine. This is a roguelike, after all. But the game doesn’t hesitate to throw more at you than you can possibly handle.
If you don’t run into a vendor early on, you’re not going to live very long. If you do, but they don’t sell anything that allows you to strike or stun multiple targets, death will come in the very near future. Even if they do, you’re probably going to die soon. Boss fights are particularly bothersome, as they often place obstacles in each lane that need to be contended with, as well as endless swarms of increasingly difficult minions. The bosses I managed to topple felt more like luck than any sort of skill, and some of them bordered on the impossible.
But, again, it’s all random. And not in a fun way. Your first battle may throw out a challenging wave of enemies, but your next playthrough could see three times the baddies on-screen. These make for a good laugh the first few times but become commonplace more than I would have liked.
I rarely dislike a game because it feels unfair or unnecessarily complicated, but, sadly, that’s the case here.
Has-Been Heroes suffers from repetition, both regarding its gameplay and visuals, and the difficulty spikes absurdly high to the point of not being fun at times, but it’s still an okay experience if you’re looking for something to play in short bursts. However, when the game proceeds to drag my face along the asphalt with relentless waves of enemies and unlucky item drops, I’ve been trained to expect defeat instead of feeling like I have a fighting chance. It just does an awful job of dangling the carrot, so to speak.
With a few tweaks and balance changes, this could be a superb Switch title. In its current form, though, it’s tough to recommend.
So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a Nintendo Switch copy of Has-Been Heroes provided by the game’s PR company. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for a game is irrelevant.