So a warrior, a monk, and a rogue walk onto a battlefield and then… they die. A lot. And then they have to start all over. That’s been the punchline of so many of my attempts with Has Been Heroes, and while I may have laughed a couple of times in my first few hours and enjoyed some of the good ideas put forth, my goodwill has become a has-been itself. It’s bruised my admiration of the otherwise-appealing premise of this roguelike lane-brawler to the point that right now I’m content to let these heroes remain the has-beens the title says they are.
We get to hear relatively little about that. Story is hardly a strong point in Has Been Heroes, and it’s chiefly limited to a handful of cutscenes with cartoony illustrations in which we hear about how the titular heroes used to be great warriors who slew dragons and giant spiders and performed other feats of derring do. Now, though, decades after their prime, the best they can hope for is escorting two princesses to school.
It’s not a bad premise, and in the right hands it could even have been funny.
It’s not a bad premise, and in the right hands it could even have been funny. For the most part, though, Has Been Heroes leaves that potential limited to a smattering of lame one-liners you read in text boxes as the little band works its way across the maps. The maps themselves aren’t that impressive, either. Sure, it’s nice that they alternate from snowy fields to dark swamps, but I never found any visual touches that made me stop in awe like I did with developer Frozenbyte’s previous impressive visual design in Trine. If anything, it kind of looks like what you’d expect from a standard mobile game.
There’s still a ghost of Trine’s design floating about here, though, since the gameplay essentially relies on playing all three heroes at once. Each runs toward the right in their own lane, while the enemies trudge their way left like zombies marching toward plants. As in Trine, your crew is motley bunch, with the warrior dealing out massive damage in one hit, the monk knocking out two fairly weak hits, and a rogue dishing out three medium attacks.
In theory, at least, this makes for a fun setup that holds up well in the first couple of hours. Almost all the enemies marching leftward have stamina bars that must be whittled down before the heroes can knock down their health bars, and the characters usually need to change who occupies which lane in order to take turns whittling them down. You can only switch out while one character is attacking, though, and this is so crucial that Has Been Heroes rightfully pauses the action after each attack. You then switch another hero into the lane to (hopefully) finish them off. In practice, this means I might knock a few stamina points off with the monk, send in the rogue to knock the stamina bar all the way down, and then, once the health bar is exposed, send the warrior rushing in to knock off the majority of the enemy’s health.
After an hour or so I became familiar enough with this little dance to sometimes ignore the oh-so-helpful option to pause before making a move. There is a bit of a learning curve, though, and the spartan tutorial does little to explain moderately helpful strategies like switching a hero currently in play to a lane with enemies that are “behind” him or her while he’s attacking so as to hit them on the way back to the left. Figuring that out for myself took a while, and some simple instruction would’ve made my opening hours much more fun.
It doesn’t help that the controls never really became second nature. On an Xbox controller you use the X,Y, and A buttons to select and swap the lanes, B to attack, the left bumper to pause, and the right to cast spells. Even hours in, I still found myself taking annoying amounts of time to get the heroes in the proper lanes I wanted them in.
But here’s the main bummer of Has Been Heroes: gosh, it’s hard. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate a good challenge, and I often opt to play games on hard mode for the first time. But there are limits: I spent a couple of hours trying to get past the first boss of Has Been Heroes, and honestly, I’ve yet to beat the giant skeleton with a bandana on his skull. The only times I’ve been able to get past that boss encounter have been the times when the random level generation has given me a mage-type boss instead. He’s no pushover either – he randomly switches lanes and spawns shadows who can kill you in one hit (although luckily they die in one hit as well). When it’s the big skeleton guy and his horde of other skeletons, I get easily overwhelmed. And then I die. And then it’s back to the beginning.
That’s especially time-consuming because taking the most direct route through a level is the wrong way to play Has Been Heroes – or most other roguelikes, for that matter. Instead, you should explore the various nodes on the randomized maps, buying spells from vendors that appear or opening chests, thereby having an arsenal of potentially devastating spells and items when you arrive at the boss, such as one that shoots out lightning when a hero lands a melee hit. Do that, and you might have a chance. The problem is that, despite my best efforts and best collections, I still often found myself on maps where there were just too many enemies with massive stamina pools to handle properly. And then I had to start over.
Maybe that wouldn’t be such a problem is almost all of the enemies in the early hours weren’t just skeletons of some form or another. Some can heal, some have tougher armor, some will throw up shields that can thwart your precious timing while you wait for melee attacks to recharge. Sometimes you’ll get barriers or big man-eating plants, but most of the time you’re just up against a pile of skellies. Has Been Heroes’ strategic strengths manages to sustain the fun for several hours, but in time, this makes for a mind-numbingly dull and repetitive experience. Next to something like Darkest Dungeon, which has several different styles of enemies you can fight in the early hours, it becomes monotonous too quickly. There’s just too much stick and not enough carrot to make this roguelike as addictive as the best of the genre. Needless to say, I never saw the end of it after more than a dozen hours.
Making things worse is the fact that Has Been Heroes doesn’t even give you information about the items that drop while using a controller – the only way I could find out how to decide which character should pick up an item was by using a mouse while playing on PC. Hardly ideal.
I want to like Has Been Heroes. It brings some good ideas to both roguelikes and lane-based games. I even had fun for several hours before the appeal wore off. But after suffering through failure after failure even with my best efforts, I’m fine with these heroes hanging up their swords for good.