Has-Been Heroes is a combination of roguelike and strategy action games that can tough to play for any period of time. Frozenbyte, the developer of games like Trine and Shadwen, puts a heavy emphasis on planning out different strategies for taking down groups of enemies that swarm you over the course of many procedurally generated environments. However, the inconsistent difficulty spikes of combat and punishing consequences for players can oftentimes get in the way of being fun to play through. Has-Been Heroes has some great ideas for a solid tactical game, but its steep learning curve muddies up an otherwise interesting foundation.
The story of Has-Been Heroes is very basic, focusing on a group of legendary heroes tasked with escorting the twin princesses of their kingdom to school. While not the most epic premise to a final mission, the party comically gets tangled in a rising evil scheme that threatens their kingdom. Much of the story is told as you complete maps in the game, but this happens at a very slow pace. Has-Been Heroes is designed as a roguelike, where failure and repetition is part of the overall experience. It’s difficult to play through the entire story in one long session, but instead should be seen over many restarted games and incremental progression. This can be a huge issue for players that like to have a steady amount of progression as they continue to play, especially if they’re trying to follow a story.
To say that Has-Been Heroes is tough would be an understatement. It feels like everything you come across while exploring areas in any of the procedurally generated maps is working against you in one extreme or another. You move between nodes on a given map that is generated at the start and progress to the end of the stage to face a boss enemy. Along the way you can fight in battles with enemies, discover spells and items, and recover in various rest points in different nodes. What makes this difficult is how the game punishes you for backtracking to different areas you’ve visited. It discourages this by limiting you to a number candle lights in your inventory, which are used to brighten areas you’ve visited.
Going into an area without a candle results in automatic death of the party, and you must restart the game from scratch. Many times I would obtain a number of great spells and items for my party from exploring, only to lose everything for accidentally moving into an area I’ve visited without a candle. This forces you to come up with a set path towards the end of the stage, even if you never visit some nodes, and cause you to sometimes reach boss encounters unprepared. It’s a very punishing aspect of the game that makes it almost mandatory to sprint towards the end despite being ill-equipped to fight in tough battles.
Combat itself is very strategic. Your heroes are constantly moving forward while enemies and objects appear in front for a set period of time. Before each action, the game pauses and allows you to plan out your moves for everything on screen. There is no time limit to how long you take for each move as you attack enemies and casts spells with various effects. However, the punishing aspects of combat appear when you find yourself under-powered in battles with many fast and tough enemies. You can take all the time you need to figure out how to best utilize the clever position shifts and attacks you can do, but none of that means much when your enemies are just too overwhelming in random points of the game. Sometimes you’ll end up getting pulled into encounters that you simply can’t win. This makes grinding through early portions of the game a grueling endurance test in both patience and strategy.
For each time you’re defeated however, you unlock new spells and heroes to use in a new game. The real bummer however is that you don’t get to keep anything from when you die and must find all of the loot you gathered once again when you start anew. Since the game has procedurally generated stages and layouts, Has-Been Heroes would be a lot easier overall if this wasn’t the case. While it’s counter-productive for a game with roguelike qualities, retaining your spells and items after death would make repeating earlier areas more bearable and have less “no-win” scenarios occur throughout the experience. It makes marking off the items and spells you find in the game’s menu almost meaningless, especially since you can’t equip them in the beginning of a game.
Has-Been Heroes is definitely for those who like a strong challenge in their games, but a lot of improvement is needed to make the overall experience fun. The story and characters are goofy and fun to see despite the very basic story, but a lot of this will get overshadowed by the brutal nature of the gameplay. The punishing aspects of exploring the stages and random difficulty spikes of the combat make Has-Been Heroes very hard to enjoy playing through. Most people will find the experience very frustrating from the start and won’t have enough reason to keep on going.
This review was based on a digital review code for Has-Been Heroes for the PlayStation 4, provided by Frozenbyte.