I can be your hero, baby
Roll7 has received much adulation distilling skateboarding into pixel-based 2D fun with OlliOlli so it’s not surprising that the team has been able to do the same with cover-based shooting. But OlliOlli‘s pixels belie the polygonal Tony Hawk Pro Skater feel it most familiarly evokes.
With Not a Hero, the pixel aesthetic is a lower detail match to classic side-scrolling shooters, down to the very, very kill-able player character.
Not a Hero (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, PS Vita)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: May 14, 2015
BunnyLord, a rabbit from the future, is running for mayor to prevent humanity from some sort of possibly bee-related extinction on a campaign of hunting down and murdering various crime bosses. His mayoral bid starts with his campaign manager, Steve, and gunman join the cause with rising poll numbers.
The health bar shared by Not a Hero‘s nine playable characters is only a few ticks. It regenerates rather quickly when you’re not being shot, but you’re often being shot, and one bad volley of enemy fire can kill you immediately. This frailty, which feels more “retro” than the pixel art in and of itself, is mitigated with a cover system, the crutch of the contemporary third-person shooter. Movement here is just as key as shooting, so there is a slide button that you can contextually release before pieces of cover to snap to safety. Shooting while in cover automatically exposes you and enemies can still come head-on and give you a thwack lest you think you can reload in absolute peace.
You can play sheepishly — and cover is helpful when you’re down to the last tick of the health bar — but are not encouraged to. Shots at close range do critical damage while sliding into enemies will knock them out and allow you to perform executions. The result is a cover-supported game rather than a cover-based game. It’s there to be used when you’re not slide tackling and brutally stabbing folks to death room to room. Your tactics are as brazen as the boss’ campaign, which includes perpetuating the war on drugs, rescuing pandas, giving bees to the children, and shooting a not-insignificant amount of police officers.
Established trends voters are for.
There are power ups and limited secondary weapon pickups to go along with the nine characters, all of which except the last two feel distinct from one another. There were some power ups I tended to avoid, especially after unlocking an assassin with a devastating, but slow to reload, double barrel shotgun. Coupled with the quick reload power up, the only one not limited to one magazine worth of ammo, it’s hard to beat.
That same character is quick with a rapid slide which did end in some undue-feeling fall deaths. When I had to jet down a descending series of rooftops, it felt about as precarious as playing a 3D platformer. You can change direction midair which is great for busting out of a window and then busting into one on the floor below, but occasionally I found myself careening forwards to death despite feeling like I’d moved the stick the other way.
Having multiple buildings to flit between and different points of entry keeps every multi-floored stage from feeling like a Donkey Kong zigzag to the top, but running or sliding in between any open spaces that weren’t perfectly in line with each other just feels a bit off. Additionally, there’s just the three visually distinct areas — the first two of which are even more similar outside of the color swap — that fall in line with Not a Hero‘s general flattened action tropes and references.
First, it’s the Eastern European shipping underbelly. Then it’s off to the “urban” (read: dark skinned enemies) area, in an apparent reversal of the first two seasons of The Wire. One of the player characters is Spanish, named Jesus. He wears bright pink, is in a permanent hip thrust animation, and sounds more like Al Pacino doing a Cuban accent in Scarface. Meanwhile the black guy pulls extra magazines out of his afro. On the other hand, the rest of the cast are regional UK in-jokes.
The most visually distinct area is the Yakuza-boss-run, an Asian-themed one (much of it related to a sushi restaurant run by bossman Unagi) that also introduces one-hit-kill samurai and ninja, as well as triad folks doing combat barks sometimes not in English, sometimes with thick accents. It also introduces timed door locks which are antithetical to momentum and are often situated at hall ends, meaning you’ve already done all the murdering on the way there and are waiting for nothing to move on to the next level.
And while BunnyLord makes for a unique employer, the extreme irreverence is sometimes amusing and sometimes feels like a forced @dril imitation. There’s a bit too much, “Look, it’s so random!” at times, like a deadpan presentation of Borderlands 2. More importantly, BunnyLord gives post-mission and pre-mission monologues back to back and to keep the comedic timing you can’t just read the text boxes more quickly. It’s either wait for the slow text crawl hoping for payoff or just skip it entirely and go shooting. I often went with the latter.
Each stage has three optional objectives, too, that go towards determining BunnyLord’s political station. Apparently mayor doesn’t cut it. But while I completed most everything in the first two areas on my way up from mayor to prime minister to King of England to Global Megalord, I’m stuck as mayor overall.
The third act ratchets up the difficulty a lot. I almost spent as much time in the last and third from last stages as I have everywhere else. And I still haven’t been able to complete any of the side-goals in the last level, which is basically a boss fight followed by a level, with no checkpoint. It’s a bit of a pain, but given how quickly I breezed through a majority of the game, perhaps those more challenging, borderline frustrating bits add to the longevity of what is a pretty lean little game.
Translating cover shooters into 2D makes for a good mix of contemporary and classic sensibilities. It’s nice to play a shooter where avoiding enemy bullets is a bit more necessary and I like the tools Not a Hero provides with its slick cover system, mechanically varied cast, and constant chain of slide kicks and executions.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]