Robot May Cry
Over the years, I’ve backed very few Kickstarter projects. I’m cognizant of the risks involved, and for that reason, I’d rather not take a chance on anything from studios without a proven track record.
But I have made a few exceptions — Shovel Knight (which turned out great), Hover: Revolt of Gamers by Midgar Studio (which isn’t out yet, but is playable and progressing), Yooka-Laylee (which has had a fantastic campaign thus far), and Heart & Slash, which released earlier this week.
The latter is probably the least well-known of the bunch, but it shouldn’t be.
Heart & Slash (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Publisher: BadLand Indie
Released: June 24, 2016 (Xbox One), June 28, 2016 (PS4), TBA (PC, Early Access)
MSRP: $19.99 (Consoles), $24.99 (PC)
Yadda yadda roguelike yadda yadda. Yep, it’s one of those. But it’s a good one!
The developer essentially pitched Heart & Slash as a dungeon crawling Devil May Cry with robots, and it’s delivered on that promise.
Set to the tune of a very loose, The Matrix-like robot revolution (literally called the “Robotlution”) that has wiped out humanity, our hero Heart wakes up in dark times, and must tango with QuAsSy, a figure reminiscent of Portal‘s GLaDOS, and his nemesis Slash in a series of dungeons capped up with a major caveat — permadeath. While that may sound somewhat generic, I assure you, the experience exceeds its premise (especially when the game opens up, map-wise). Heart & Slash‘s tight combat system, amazing upbeat soundtrack, and sheer commitment to providing gear that’s fun to use sucked me in straight away. The permadeath conceit also lends itself well to the robot theme, as being “rebuilt” is a good enough excuse to start all over.
As Heart, players can double-jump, dodge, and utilize a two-button Dynasty Warriors-esque combo system, complete with launchers and other advanced maneuvers. Three weapons can be equipped at once, as well as four pieces of armor. It’s well-executed and fun to play, but the multiple weapon system is really where Heart & Slash gets interesting. If you hold either trigger, you’ll queue up your second or third weapon slot immediately — allowing one to weave combos that wouldn’t seem out of place in Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. It’s that simple concept that, while not nearly as deep as either of the aforementioned influences, allows Heart & Slash to soar over much of its indie competition.
You can really get into some wild territory here. With 75 weapons to find, there are hundreds of combos to figure out, from whacking people across the room with a baseball bat, following them with quick dash boots, and then busting out a polearm to juggle them into oblivion. The team at developer aheartfulofgames really knows what made a lot of the PlayStation 2’s golden-era action games so special, so hats off to them.
Heart is formidable, yes, but so is your competition. If the roguelike genre-drop didn’t tip you off, it’s tough! It can be especially brutal with bad starting equipment (sometimes you can get one mediocre weapon, while other sessions will grant you three amazing ones from the RNG gods), especially if you happen to meet up with Slash (who has a real Vergil feel to your Heart’s Dante) or any other boss, and haven’t picked up anything worthwhile. In that sense the grating, grindy feeling of the genre will hit you at times, then you’ll pull off some sweet combo and get back to business.
Like most action games, you get more out of the experience by putting more into it and learning its systems. I love that you can choose what to upgrade every game by using bolts, which are acquired from enemies. It presents an interesting situation where you have to decide how much combat you want to engage in to unlock more bonuses, but you’ll also have to be wary of the fact that you might be expending too much life to do so, creating an economy of combat of sorts. I also adore that you can utilize an additional risk-reward system to trash gear to earn back life points. For a few runs I trashed all my gear to stay alive, save for one sword that I pumped all my upgrades into.
Some elements of Heart & Slash might be a little too tough for the general public — most notably the camera. Remember those old school mascot platformers where you needed to constantly keep your thumb on the right analog stick to manipulate the camera? This is one of those games. It’s especially annoying when the frame rate (on Xbox One at least, which was the only version tested) drops in areas with lots of enemies. It’s never unforgivable, but it grinds my gears all the same and in an experience this precise, it can make or break some encounters.
Heart & Slash is a hardcore game built on top of a niche genre, but I think a lot of people will appreciate it. Even then, those same folks won’t dig the frame rate and camera issues, but the juice is still worth the squeeze.
[Disclosure: The reviewer backed the game’s Kickstarter campaign. This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]