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Telling an original tale of three heroes who wander into a dangerous dungeon could prove difficult in 2017, so Frozenbyte wastes no such effort when setting up its latest, Has-Been Heroes. The rouge-like action game borrows heavily from established genres but introduces enough original situations to stand on its own as an experience that rewards both the curious and the resilient.
After a slideshow introduction for our noble protagonists, the game opens on a cast of worn-out warriors whose new mission is to escort a pair of twin princesses to school. Has-Been Heroes features playful dialogue that pokes fun at tired fantasy storytelling by directly acknowledging the set-up for a repetitive, ridiculous mission structure. This self-effacing humor shines through nearly every element of both gameplay and presentation.
As you set out on your quest, you’re thrown into the strategy-heavy matchups that make up the most exciting aspects of this indie adventure. Your team of three heroes is presented with a branching map, full of undiscovered icons to explore or ignore. Each dot on the map represents a potential battle, trap, or treasure, but you’ll only find out which by moving forward. Clearing the entire map may seem like the best way to reap rare rewards, but you also run the risk of losing all your stamina or succumbing to darkness.
Rushing headfirst into the boss encounter at the end of the world isn’t a viable strategy either. Getting around an optional path yields new items and spells for your arsenal, making the tough battle needed to advance that much easier. However, you’ll never know if you’re prepared for the right fight, thanks to the procedurally generated maps and monsters.
This random element is responsible for both the highs and lows of Has-Been Heroes. Upon death, you’re sent back to square one with nothing but the default equipment and no true sense of progression. Most of the best rougelikes, Spelunky and Darkest Dungeon for example, reward failure with an increased sense of environmental awareness or preparedness. This take doesn’t give the player much of anything, even from the opening.
Has-Been Heroes includes several interchangeable systems, and while no single mechanic is overwhelming on its own, they become harder to keep track of as they stack. It doesn’t help that the game’s interface is hard to read and even harder to pull up. Learning what each spell does or the properties of a new item relies on reading a wall of text that might hover on screen for 10 seconds before being replaced by something else.
Controlling character actions is comparatively easier to adjust to, though not by much. Your heroes are arranged in lanes on the battlefield, and always running. Holding a trigger button will slow down time, as will commanding a soldier to attack using the face button that corresponds to their position. When one hero goes out, another can swap into their place for a follow-up attack, or cast a spell on a susceptible enemy. Learning to balance the movement of each character between lanes is the key to making any progress, as if even one hero runs out health, you’ll earn a game over.
Like many of its contemporaries in the genre, this experience is unforgiving at first. The best way to get good at Has-Been Heroes is to die a lot. It helps that you’ll never fall into rote memorization, but the diversity in enemies and locales is lacking. Most of the time, you’re fighting an army of skeletons marching toward you in a forest under some kind of harsh conditions. Story and set-up aren’t crucial tenants of the adventure, but each quest certainly could feel a bit less familiar than the last.
True variety only comes after you’ve played through to the “ending” several times, not including dozens of surefire failures. Once you start earning access to new squad members with unique spells, you can play with complicated strategies. Nearly every elemental effect in Has-Been Heroes can be stacked. Hitting a frozen enemy with a fire spell will deal double damage and melt away stamina, while wet enemies will freeze in their tracks when dealt an ice attack.
Despite some flawed execution, the core concept of Has-Been Heroes is strong enough to recommend the $20 downloadable title. It isn’t quite the endlessly re-playable adventure implied by constantly changing maps and a rotating cast of characters, but the bite-size dungeon crawling action is perfectly suited to a portable option like the Nintendo Switch.
Has-Been Heroes is available for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC on March 28.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided by the publisher.
AJ Moser is a Brooklyn-based reporter who focuses on video games, movies, and internet culture. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Game Informer, and Big Spaceship.