Has-Been Heroes Review: Early Retirement

Has-Been Heroes attempts a new twist on strategy and roguelikes, but its aged heroes struggle to carry the weight of the complex gameplay.

Developer: Frozenbyte

Publisher: GameTrust

Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Version Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Release Date: March 28th, 2017

It’s a rare sight to see a game attempt something truly new, even within the confines of established genres. The flexibility of smaller teams allows for such risks to be taken, and while it will launch on other platforms as well, the Nintendo Switch launch window has been especially kind to Frozenbyte’s endeavors. Has-Been Heroes blends the roguelike format with a complex, fresh attempt at strategy combat that’s not quite like anything we’ve seen before. But new isn’t always better, and attempts at the unfamiliar must guide their audiences to learn their intricacies effectively. Has-Been Heroes does not do this, and after countless battles and bosses beaten, I’m still struggling to figure out the optimal way to play this game.

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Has-Been Heroes follows a group of washed up old fogeys, former heroes of a kingdom who have been reduced to the mundane-sounding task of escorting two young princesses to school, along with a young rogue who idolizes them. The journey isn’t a walk in the castle park, though, as the world is overrun by skeletons for some reason, and the heroes must battle their way through hordes of them to eventually reach the school…we hope.

Has-Been Heroes

Credit: Frozenbyte

The heroes travel in parties of three, with one hero in each lane, and can move about a randomized map to encounter shops, chests, camps, and battles. Battles take place in those three lanes, with skeleton hordes slowly plodding their way toward the heroes. Each enemy has a stamina bar and a health bar, and their stamina bar is broken into segments that must be depleted with melee attacks before their health can be whittled down.

Each hero has a different amount of melee attacks, and overshooting the enemy’s stamina bar knocks them back and resets their stamina. This necessitates beating down the enemy’s stamina with one hero, then using the momentary pause to swap the lanes of the heroes and hit their health with another. So, I might use the rogue on an enemy with three blocks of stamina, then swap to the warrior to take a huge chunk of health off and knock him back, before moving on to deal with the next skeleton.

There’s quite a bit more to it: there are spells, which can be cast on enemies and allies alike to different effect or combined in different ways. Items obtained from merchants can give buffs to attack, stamina, or health. Enemies will cast spells on themselves or you to make it more difficult for you to move or hit them. Some enemies have tons of stamina, high health, or different movement speeds. All this means you’ll need to be adept at strategizing to pick the best spell combos and attack swaps to stop their advance before they reach your party, at which point they’ll knock your stamina down (permanently, unless you visit a camp) and then hit your health, which will deplete quickly.

Has-Been Heroes

Credit: Frozenbyte

Except, wait, it’s impossible to strategize, at least for the most part. The spells, items and buffs you get on each run are, true to roguelikes, entirely random. But so are the enemies you encounter. You might have a reasonable horde to attack, or there might be so many skeletons you get overrun before you can blink. You can attempt to counter enemies in useful ways, but given that they’re all same-looking skeletons with slightly different hats to indicate their abilities, it’s nearly impossible to tell.

I was drowning in monotonous, hat-wearing bone armies.

You can skip the battles, sure, but doing so deprives you of needed gold to purchase the chance at better spells from vendors along the way, which you’ll need to beat the bosses at the end of each map and advance. Initially, you’ll have two maps and two bosses to clear, after which you’ll receive a new hero and a crap-ton of “new items,” represented by a sudden flurry of vague images indicating you’ve unlocked stuff that you won’t actually see until you randomly encounter it in the game. You’ll then have to clear three maps and three bosses for the next unlock, only now the enemies are even harder, and you may or may not randomly receive the tools you need to dispatch them.

If I haven’t made it clear yet: Has-Been Heroes is hard. Ridiculously so. And it’s not the kind of enjoyable challenge where you feel you’re constantly improving and learning from your deaths. The tutorial does a poor job of explaining many of the game’s core concepts, such as what the different spell effects do or how the candle mechanic works. The control scheme is absolutely asinine, making liberal use of L and R and abandoning the tried-and-true convention of A to confirm, B to back up.

Every new run is a crapshoot as to whether or not I’ll have the tools and luck to get even past the first boss, let alone all of them. You’ll very quickly grow sick of the same old skeletons, the same old bosses (that still manage to kick your ass run after run through sheer luck, numbers, and spawning obstacles you have to break to even get to them), and the same old map backgrounds you’ve seen ten, twenty, thirty times.

Has-Been Heroes

Credit: Frostbyte

All this is a damn shame because I love the idea of the game’s combat. When lady luck sent me reasonable quantities of enemies with counterable abilities, the battles felt smooth and enjoyable, and I loved the challenge of predicting my lane swaps and planning my spell cooldowns to deal with the skeleton flood. It’s just that these moments were so rare. More often, I was drowning in monotonous, hat-wearing bone armies.

Some of this might be forgivable if the story and dialogue were worth a damn, but it’s not. You’d think that with the premise of a bunch of goofy old dudes escorting two princesses to school, you’d get some witty banter and maybe a mildly interesting subplot. Well, the dialogue is about as boring as it gets, all dull remarks about the non-descript landscape or the hope that all this running counts for PE class.

As for the story itself, I’ve spent so much time spinning my wheels trying to even get to the bosses that I haven’t encountered anything resembling a decent plot. There are monsters in the kingdom, I guess. Do the princesses eventually get to school? I have no idea. But we keep escorting them and dying and restarting, or escorting them, beating the bosses, dying anyway, and restarting again. So, who knows! But after about fifteen hours of play, I’m done trying to find out.

Has-Been Heroes

Frozenbyte

4.5

Has-Been Heroes is a brilliant idea that overreached itself in difficulty. A mix of incredibly complex strategy, RNG, weak tutorials, poor UI explanations, and a limp story drag a strong concept into the mud. If you’re patient, skilled, and attentive, you might be able to master the core concepts of Has-Been Heroes and relish the goodness hidden beneath the bad design choices. But had I not been reviewing the game, I would have been done after just a few hours. I just don’t like skeletons that much.

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.