I’ll admit it: I’m not a person who generally enjoys this type of game. Sure, the occasional roguelike has wriggled its way into my heart—Crypt of the Necrodancer and the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series are notable favorites—but the genre as a whole wouldn’t make its way onto my list of preferences. Unfortunately, Has-Been Heroes takes everything I dislike about roguelikes and wraps it up into one less-than-mediocre package.
The premise, at least, is a cute one. A once-legendary band of heroes rose up time and time again to save their kingdom from peril. When every last evil was defeated and the land was finally at peace, the heroes retired. Now, the king has called those heroes (and one plucky fan who tagged along) out of retirement for one final mission: escort the two young princesses to school.
From the gameplay, you’d never know that these heroes are past their prime or that the kingdom is supposedly at peace. At the start, you have three characters: the Knight, who has the most stamina and deals a single stunning blow; the Monk, who hits twice with two weak attacks; and the Rogue, who leaps in to deal three attacks of moderate damage. Barring their way are legions upon legions of skeletons. Funnily, since age doesn’t affect combat ability, things play out exactly as if these heroes were in their prime and fighting off foes from a troubled kingdom. Waste of a good premise, but oh well.
Fights play out across three lanes, with the heroes running towards the right and skeletons advancing towards the left—a bit like Plants vs. Zombies. If the enemies catch you, they’ll attack and you’ll die, so you’ll have to defeat the skeletons before they get to you. Each enemy has a different amount of stamina that must be whittled down by individual hits before damage can be dealt, so the core of the gameplay consists of swapping your characters back and forth between the three lanes, using their individual multi-hit skills to stun enemies and land combos. Each melee attack takes time to recharge, and characters can only be swapped with each other mid-attack, so timing is crucial. Thankfully, combat can be paused at any time.
Also added to the mix are spells, which are obtained through Spell Gamblers or Spell Merchants that appear randomly throughout each map. These have longer cooldowns, but much more devastating effects, slowing enemies or killing an entire bunched-together group in one go. They can be combined in some interesting ways; use a water spell to soak your enemies before a lightning spell, for example, and you’ll deal much more electricity damage. The problem with this is that there’s no way to actually get a water-based and electricity-based spell in your inventory at the same time except by pure, dumb luck.
Has-Been Heroes is a true roguelike, and that means that death is quick, brutal, and permanent. Let a single skeleton through the ranks, and you’re set all the way back to square zero, with none of your progress carrying over. The only reward for your time, if it can be called that, is the chance to maybe find better spells on subsequent journeys (if you also found enough gold beforehand to purchase them twice, since the first time you purchase them, you won’t know what the spells do), and a few different heroes if you manage to make it that far (unlocking a new hero will also set you back to zero).
While there’s a huge strategy element to the game—you’ll die instantly to the skeletons’ bony fingers without some sort of plan—it’s outweighed by far by the dumb luck factor. The game regularly throws massive waves of skeletons at you that simply can’t be beaten back by the starting spells and melee attacks, so if you haven’t happened to pick up anything good by then, well, time to start over. You’ll see the first two levels again and again and again, and it’s like bashing your head against a wall in the hopes that one of these days, the wall will spit out a hammer to help finish the job.
Your best bet to get enough items and spells to make it to the end is to comb through each randomly-generated level for items and vendors, but frustratingly, Has-Been Heroes actually discourages exploration. At the start of each new run, you’ll have one or two candles. Every time you backtrack or loop around to an area you’ve already seen, you’ll have to burn a candle, and if you don’t, you’ll get lost in the darkness and instantly die. Ignoring the fact that this makes no sense—you’re fine as long as you’re going into unexplored, dangerous areas, but get lost and die in friendly territory you already know?—this infuriating mechanic means that you’ll often pass treasure chests and merchants, find the key or necessary gold further on in the level, and be unable to return to claim the loot. It’s entirely possible to “paint yourself into a corner” of explored territory and die. Sure, you can pick a straight path that goes to the boss without too much trouble, but you’ll miss out on a lot, and it’s still completely down to luck whether you’ll find the vendors and items that you need in order to defeat that boss.
Further compounding general frustration with the game are the controls. In combat, they sort of make sense: each hero is mapped onto a single directional button based on whether they’re in the top, middle, or bottom lanes, with “attack” on the fourth unused button. These odd controls persist throughout the game, though, and in weird ways. You can’t just select an item with the directional keys; you have to swap a character into the right position to claim it. You can’t move around the map naturally with the left joystick; instead, it’s a combination of the right joystick and, even weirder, the right shoulder button to confirm. Though I got used to it after over a dozen hours of play, it’s still extremely unintuitive and easy to flub up.
In fact, those control issues lead me to one of my biggest gripes: Has-Been Heroes feels like a mobile phone game.
The review copy I received was for the Nintendo Switch, and honestly, I spent almost all of my play time with the device in portable mode. It’s something that’s so clearly meant to be played for five minutes at a time—pick it up, play a bit, die. Put it down. Start over again later. The controls are incredibly awkward, but seem laid out for a touch-screen—dragging characters back and forth or tapping on spells.
The assets, too, just feel like a cheap app. The art and backdrops are nothing special, there’s barely any story, and the music is repetitive. Enemies are wave after wave of skeletons, with maybe a plant monster thrown into the mix, but very little variation in design otherwise. The item UI, meanwhile, is so tiny that it’s completely unreadable. The first time I unlocked a new hero, I had to sit through a comically long unlocking sequence as nearly a hundred new items unlocked one at a time, each one flashing up on the screen while the same sound effect played over and over.
So, as I said, I entered this review biased. Perhaps someone who enjoys brutally difficult roguelikes just for the punishment could have more fun with Has-Been Heroes, and more power to them. For me, though, the gameplay loop was too much stick and not enough carrot, compounded with a heavy dose of frustrating randomness and a constantly stressful gameplay loop. Instead of being sucked back in for “one more round,” I’m instead concluding my review relieved that I never have to press “New Game” ever again, and all too happy to send my has-been heroes back into retirement.
A heavy dose of randomness coupled with a lack of permanent progression makes Has-Been Heroes a chore to keep playing. Though there's a good strategy idea buried in its multi-lane gameplay, the high-risk, no-reward setup isn't satisfying enough to make up for its otherwise mediocre aspects. Coupled with repetitive enemies, forgettable assets, and bizarre controls, Has-Been Heroes is a game that can go right back into retirement.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|Has-Been Heroes is available on Xbox One, PS4, Switch, PC. Primary version played was for Switch. Code/hardware was provided by GameTrust for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Emma’s early gaming was mostly done in secret, as the only gamer in a family of normal people. She still retains skills from this dark period in her life, such as the ability to teleport instantly across the house away from the computer, and holds a gold medal in the Olympic sport of “Hide the Gameboy.” Sorry, Mom, now you know.