Has-Been Heroes Seamlessly Blends Action And Strategic Gameplay | PAX East Preview

Credit: Frozenbyte
Credit: Frozenbyte /

Our demo of Has-Been Heroes at PAX East 2017 was one of our favorites of the expo. This hybrid action and strategy game checks all the right boxes.

When I first saw Has-Been Heroes on the “Nindies” Nintendo Direct presentation, I was immediately intrigued by its cartoonish art style and colorful animations. The game has a unique charm about it that suckered me in. I found myself interested in how Frozenbyte made the leap from their prominent puzzle platforming series Trine to this strategic roguelite. It’s a genre leap that not too many smaller studios tend to make.

While for some studios this kind of switch might be a questionable move, from what I’ve seen, Frozenbyte seems to have pulled it off. This became clear to me during our meeting at PAX East 2017 for a half-hour demo of Has-Been Heroes. And let me tell you: that was a jam-packed thirty minutes. As the name suggests, the game’s protagonists are a group of once-great but now washed-up heroes tasked with the oh-so-exciting task of escorting two princesses to school. This isn’t your average neighborhood stroll though: the procedurally-generated route is filled with a menagerie of creatures who want nothing more than to eat you for lunch.

Despite the game’s comical storyline, the core gameplay is actually quite challenging. I knew the game was going to be strategic, but I wasn’t expecting it to have has much depth as it does. It’s easy to be fooled by the game’s cartoony graphics and fun animations; I quickly learned that this game is serious business. It had a much steeper learning curve than I expected. But once you got the hang of how the battle interactions work, it was quite an enjoyable experience.

The demo started with a short tutorial on the basics of the game. You have three different heroes, each assigned to a lane. The PAX East demo was set up with the Monk, the Rogue, and the Warrior. I was told that we can expect twelve total classes in the final version of the game for a total of 1,320 different group combinations (yay math). Each hero has different perks and abilities along with empty spell slots to learn new skills along the way. The game combines turn-based battles with real-time strategy: it’s like a mash-up between Plants vs. Zombies and FTL.

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Enemies saunter down each of the three lanes towards your rag-tag group of heroes. Yes, they really do saunter. The lanes are so short, though, and they tend to travel in groups: they will creep up on you before you know it. As one might expect, the primary goal of each level is to kill all of these monsters before they can get to the princesses hanging out at the end of the lane. While your mission is essentially a glorified escort quest, the princesses at least have enough common sense to hide behind your heroes all game. Other RPG escort missions: take notes!

You can send a hero to attack a monster in its lane, or use various equipped spells on nearby enemies. What really adds a unique twist to the combat is that you can alternate your heroes between lanes, ganging up on enemies as necessary. After each attack, the game pauses itself, allowing you to set up combos between all your heroes. You can actually pause the game manually at any point as well. During the demo, I learned early that this mechanic is your friend: I used it incessantly to give me time to think and plan out my next move.

Has-Been Heroes
Credit: Frozenbyte /

Ultimately, the strategy of Has-Been Heroes revolves around resource management. Both enemies and heroes can only attack when they have sufficient stamina, which regenerates when they are out of combat. It quickly became apparent that your success will revolve around two things: your ability to strategically time your attacks based on stamina and spell cooldowns, and the use of combos.

First, the strategy. The enemy’s stamina bar acts like a shield. The number of strikes a hero makes per basic attack differs per class, but each of those hits depletes the target enemy’s stamina bar. When the enemy runs out of stamina they are stunned, and any additional attacks against them deal damage. Hitting them for more strikes than they have stamina will throw the enemy farther down the lane. And of course, a hero’s own stamina is used when they attack. This is where Has-Been Heroes‘ strategic timing gameplay shines. You want to time your attacks to match the enemy stamina bar and swap heroes to defeat them, all while balancing your own team’s stamina.

Has-Been Heroes
Credit: Frozenbyte /

Second, it’s all about the combinations. There are an insane amount of fun, badass attack and spell combinations you can set up in Has-Been Heroes. Each hero has spells unique to their class. However, there are also randomly generated spells that you learn along your play through. All of these spells can synergize with other spells, some combinations of which even the staff at the booth admitted they had never seen before.

During one of my playthroughs, I picked up a unique water spell. At a quick glance of the spell’s description, it seemed like a typical, straightforward spell that you apply to enemies, dealing water damage to them for ten seconds. But I was urged by the staff to apply the spell to my own hero instead. What resulted was all three of my heroes gaining a buff that spits out water pellets machine gun style at nearby enemies for ten seconds. This ended up being absolutely devastating!

Has-Been Heroes
Credit: Frozenbyte /

This type of exploration and experimentation is a huge aspect of the game. The game teaches you the absolute basics of how to play. But ultimately, Has-Been Heroes expect you to figure out the more intricate details of the game by yourself. Some of these details are more intuitive than others, such as combinations of Water and Electricity for extra damage or setting an enemy on Fire and spreading it to others with a Wind spell.

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Then there are abilities such as the aforementioned water barrage spell that require some trial and error to fully figure out. Or the fact that when heroes switch lanes, they attack all enemies that they pass through on their way to the new target. This type of discovery works great for rougelite games, which thrive on replayability. And new spells you unlock each play through carry over to subsequent runs.

This is what excites me the most about Has-Been Heroes. Yes, Frozenbyte absolutely nails the cartoon style graphics and animations and humorous overtone. But what truly sets Has-Been Heroes apart is its unique, lane-based gameplay mechanics that are easy to learn but hard to master. This game is challenging, and with each play through you learn new ways to play and uncover little tricks here and there. This balance of discoverability and trial-and-error is what will hook players in. In hooked me in at least, and in only thirty minutes.

Has-Been Heroes is set to release on March 28th on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows, and Xbox One.