“Or Am I a Never-Was?” Has-Been Heroes Review
I know I’ve been one of the biggest proponents for the trend of budget physical releases. Half the games in my PS4 library were purchased brand new from Amazon for under $30 and the variety and intrigue of them are what makes me so proud of the collection I have for it right now. And while I’m well aware of the potential production costs for the Switch’s tiny, bitter-tasting cartridges, I seriously hope that Nintendo and their third-party publishers pick up on this trend for their new toy and allow it to become one of the console’s biggest strengths going forward. And yet, while browsing Amazon on a weekly basis for new titles, I’m also aware of the dangers that might affect the trend as more and more people start to direct their cash flow in this direction, potentially away from larger releases. There’s no reason to think that every one of these games is going to be a good investment just because there’s no existing expectation for them, but if more of them start to come out, the more of them might be cheap or lazy prints of underwhelming or undeserving games. Has-Been Heroes isn’t the game that truly fulfills this dangerous prophecy, but it does get uncomfortably close.
Has-Been Heroes was released last week for the wallet-friendly price of $19.99, with physical copies being available exclusively through GameStop. I can imagine that most people will tell you right there that that’s a pretty major red flag, but not only was their first self-released game, Insomniac’s Song of the Deep, a pretty admirable foray into the realm of publishing, but I commend them more than anything for being a part of this trend, even if they can’t always pick the biggest winners. The problem with Has-Been Heroes, right off the bat, however, is that it looks and feels a lot like an iPhone game. I don’t like to automatically knock mobile gaming just because I don’t take part in it -- I fully acknowledge that there are some damn good ones out there and they can justifiably command the prices of download titles you’d find on consoles -- but there’s definitely something negative for me when I say that Has-Been Heroes feels like a high-end mobile game, and as a rogue-like, party-based strategy title, one from a genre I was really hoping I’d be able to adjust to.
Unlike its most famous rogue-like compadre, The Binding of Isaac, Has-Been Heroes’ plot is a straightforward tongue-in-cheek joke that revolves around a young rogue who meets up with a pair of warriors who have supposedly outlived their usefulness, were it not for the fact that they must undertake one final quest of bringing the King’s two young princesses to school. And therein lies the basis for each of the player’s numerous runs with the game: safely escort the young ones along the randomly-generated paths and routes along the way to school, slaying monsters and encountering fantasy game institutions such as health-restoring camps and bizarrely understocked merchants. It’s an alright basis for a game built entirely on repeated and randomized attempts, but even the minimal background we’re given is a bit flaky: if the road ahead is so dangerous, why entrust the princesses’ safety to literal has-beens? And if they’re the only ones around, why are there still so many dangerous monsters and enemies plaguing the kingdom and no one to take care of them?
Whatever the reasoning behind this perilous mismatch, the obvious first step you’ll take is to dive into the prologue, which will teach give you an idea as to the mechanics of the lane-based battle system. As in, it will teach you the controls, which involve pressing each party member’s corresponding button to select them and the attack button to send them down the lane for their standard attack. The sparse other controls involve stopping and starting the flow of the battle so as to allow players to be certain of their next move, and selecting and casting spells with the left stick. That’s really it, and given the way you’re given the freedom to plan your next move for as long as you need before you execute it, it’s almost unnecessary for the tutorial to focus solely on a control scheme that works just fine, even though it doesn’t actually need to be all that perfect in this case. My only real remaining question on the controls is whether or not the idea is to develop a rhythm that gets me firing on all cylinders and breezing through a more typical fight, or whether I’m actually supposed to take a step back and reanalyze after every move. I’d say I’m settling quite nicely into the former, but still questioning it as I continue to struggle with actually winning and progressing further through the game.
And that inability to “progress” as much as Has-Been Heroes truly allows for progression is my other main issue with it. I think there’s a great sense of replayability that comes with any rogue-like that has the foresight to include the number of items, enemies, and branching pathways that Has-Been Heroes does as well as any similar title, but there’s an inherent difficulty curve to the game that isn’t incorporated properly to make you want to give it the amount of failure that it seems to require before you’re skilled enough to hit your first successful run, revel in that success, and head back in to find more of it and the spoils that come with it. First of all, the difficulty bar is simply too high at the beginning of the game, especially for the inexperienced strategy gamer. Obviously, as this is a rogue-like, bad luck is to be expected when starting a run every once in a while as the randomly generated fights might be too far to the end of the spectrum to get yourself started out strong. But when you’re six hours deep into the game and only had one successful boss fight, the limitations simply feel too high.
This wouldn’t even be so bad if you were allowed to start a new array of spells or items from your previous runs, but instead, the only improvements you’ll ever make to your characters comes via whichever randomly generated pit-stops the game allows you to acquire them at. Instead, the only change you’re allowed to make to your party is being able to change up the members as you unlock them through in-game success -- in other words, lots and lots of grinding and hard work and a little bit of luck. This is pretty par for the course in a rogue-like game, I know, but it makes the in-game compendium feel like window-shopping at a pawn shop where all your old stuff has been sold out from under you -- you’d love to have that spell that gives you a whole screen’s worth of breathing room or that item that speeds up how fast your attack recharges before you start your next run, but all you can do is hope that you pick one up early on or else you won’t have it.
Has-Been Heroes is certainly not a bad game. No game that keeps me wanting to try harder or keep looking for that right strategy or that right move or even just the right stroke of luck that will take me to the next level of success with it is going to be a truly bad game, let alone a game that I think has a great look, with crafty cartoonish visuals and an overall great sense of character and item design and a good sense of depth regarding its many treasures, even if they aren’t implemented into the gameplay as well as I’d like. And most importantly of all, I can’t ever deride a game simply for the fact that I think it’s too hard. Has-Been Heroes has a solid foundation of strategy and depth that is unfortunately hindered far too much by poor choices for a lot of people, myself included, to give it as much credit as the developers might have expected. With all the talk that gets thrown around nowadays about Dark Souls and The Binding of Isaac being praised for their sense of difficulty, I completely understand the desire to tighten your belt and keep the player from getting as much as they might think they deserve. Unfortunately for Has-Been Heroes, this choice isn’t likely to pay off for a lot of players without the follow-through of a more gradual difficulty curve or a better teaching method than “try again next time.”
At only $20 for a physical copy, I really appreciate Has-Been Heroes, and I think it’s a sound, low-risk investment for those who are interested in the genre or who really get into the idea of rogue-likes and their “try, try again” mentality. There are a lot of budget titles that I have praised in the past or that are on their way that have the same limited appeal that Has-Been Heroes has, and I think that a lot of games hitting on that trend have exactly that level of limited appeal as long as they aren’t massively successful indie games clamoring for a physical release, like Stardew Valley or Rocket League. Give Has-Been Heroes a try on whichever system you prefer, taking into account that a physical copy can be sold back later making for an even lower risk, or simply keep it on your shelf after about eight hours of frustration and make it another nice addition to your collection, but know that it has every chance to hit a sweet spot that perhaps Earth’s Dawn or Abzu may have missed.