Has-Been Heroes had the potential for fun gameplay but was dragged down by a number of poor design decisions. The player has to repeatedly lose the game to unlock items and spells that are needed to progress. Meanwhile, the visuals are frequently too crowded, and the difficulty is inconsistent.
The heroes who have saved the kingdom time and again from ruin at the hands of evil forces are… old. They’re has-beens but still dedicated to their roles as heroes — the two that are left, anyway. When the king calls upon them for a task to which he feels they’re perfectly suited, they set out for the castle, adding a young rogue to their party along the way. Their grand quest from the king is to escort the royal princesses to school, which turns out to be more dangerous than it sounds, thanks to an evil ghoul (who bears a striking resemblance to the Ghost Pirate LeChuck) that is stealing souls and setting loose legions of undead skeletal warriors upon the land.
Has-Been Heroes is a procedurally-generated roguelike that focuses on strategy. Players navigate through randomly drawn maps on which each junction point could be a battle, a merchant, one or more chests that may be locked, a camp to restore your characters’ stamina, or just empty. Each map has a boss, and the evil ghoul lies at the end of the third map when you first start out. The path you choose through a map is very important, as it’s possible to end up at the boss without picking up items and spells or fighting in any battles. That’s usually a recipe for disaster, as the items and spells are essential to survival, and you need the gold earned from battles to buy them. You have to spend a specific item (a candle) to backtrack over paths you’ve already traveled, and since you only start with a couple of them and don’t often find more, you can’t count on being able to circle around the map to explore every junction point.
Your team includes one hero from each of three classes, arranged in ‘lanes’ on the left side of the screen. Agility-focused heroes will hit an enemy three times per attack, and have moderate strength. Wisdom-based heroes will hit enemies twice per attack, and although they’re the weakest, they have better spells at their disposal. Strength-centric heroes hit the hardest, but only once per attack. Heroes continuously move to the right, while enemies appear opposite moving left, and an attacking hero will rush out to strike a target before falling back to their original position. You can swap heroes between lanes immediately after they’ve landed their blows, but only if the attacking hero had enough room to leave the left side of the screen. Both enemies and heroes have varying numbers of stamina bars, which must be depleted before physical damage can be directly dealt. Landing direct damage will knock a creature back but reset its stamina, so you’ll want to maximize the amount of direct damage you’re causing by swapping heroes around to wear down a creature’s stamina and then bring in the heavier damage-dealing classes to land blows. Each individual hero has a unique starting spell, and while there are additional spells any hero can use, you have to acquire them from merchants that are randomly found on the maps. There’s no item usage during battles; instead, items you get from merchants provide instant and ongoing buffs or health regeneration.
Has-Been Heroes‘s major flaw is that its progression feels like it’s based on failure. As soon as your party leaves the castle from the prologue, they’re killed. They arrive at what appears to be the gates to the afterlife, and a character called The Gatekeeper tells you about the evil ghoul and tasks you with bringing him down. He gives you soul orbs in which to collect the souls of enemies you defeat, which your party will return to The Gatekeeper in order to unlock more items and spells. You only bank these when your game is over, so your first couple of runs are inevitably going to end the same way: you get overwhelmed by monsters, return to The Gatekeeper to bank some souls (hopefully enough to unlock some random items and spells), and then you’re booted unceremoniously back to the title screen to start all over. It is possible, but very difficult, to complete successful runs from the outset. Defeating the ghoul will unlock a new hero character before sending you back to the title screen, and successful runs will eventually unlock new areas and expand your outings beyond three maps.
This gave me the impression that the player’s main goal in Has-Been Heroes is to unlock items/spells/characters, and that’s frustrating given the game’s unforgiving difficulty level and the system for unlocking things being based on getting a game over (most often from losing). I found out after finally managing a successful run that the overall goal is to destroy crystals being guarded by the ghoul, but the game doesn’t tell you that. I only knew that having more items and spells to potentially pick up on a map enabled me to have easier runs, which left me to conclude that I was really just playing the game to play the game, and that isn’t particularly fulfilling. That
That said if the game depends so much on unlocking items and spells, allowing you to do so without having to all-out win or lose would be more enjoyable. You really need those buffs and spells, or you will eventually get overwhelmed by enemies. Also, when you do find items and spells you’ve unlocked on the map, the game won’t tell you what they are until you buy them from a merchant. When you find new unlocks in the wild, they’ll simply have a “?” description, which is annoying for spells in particular as you have to pick them up with the specific hero who should keep them. The random generation of everything makes experiences inconsistent. Placement of merchants on the maps and what items and spells they offer are all random, so even if you unlock something, you’re not guaranteed to find it in your next playthrough. You can suspend games in progress, but there’s no saving; once you lose, you bank your souls and start all over.
Has-Been Heroes features a well-done cartoony 2D art style that’s full of personality. The game uses a fair amount of camera zooming for effect, and some of the assets (at least in the Switch version) look low-res and aliased when blown up. Unfortunately, its visuals lend to the game’s frustration level by being incredibly cluttered and noisy during combat.
The main things I focused on during encounters were the attack recharge indicators on my heroes and enemy stamina bars, and these are frequently obscured. Creatures overlap and walk very close together, making it difficult to tell which stamina and health bars belong to which enemy. Heroes passing through lanes to attack will cover up the lanes behind them. Text describing combos and how much damage has been dealt to an enemy layer over each other and over the enemies and heroes. As you send enemies flying backward from attacks, they’ll cover and be covered by other creatures. There are also foreground environmental elements like dead trees that cover everything they pass over. In large battles, it gets very messy, and I had a lot of trouble trying to see specific things I needed to look at in order to plan my next attack.
The music and sound are nice, for the most part. There isn’t a lot of variety, however, and the battle themes get a bit repetitive. Some odd instruments that have strange twangy qualities were used, but they grew on me the more I heard them. Voice acting during the cutscenes is decent, but the rest of the game features inflection-nuanced jibberish and mumbling accompanying character dialogue balloons.
*Has-Been Heroes was provided to us by Frozenbyte for review purposes. For more information on how we review video games and other media/technology, please go review our Review Guideline/Scoring Policy for more info.
A potentially fun concept buried under frustration and noisy visuals
Has-Been Heroes isn’t a bad game, but I wasn’t excited to start over after my first loss. After coming to understand the mechanics and strategy better, I am enjoying it to some degree, but I don’t feel any less frustrated every time I lose. The only thing driving me to play more is my inner completionist, but if you’re looking for a game with a compelling story and more to it than just unlocking more in-game items and spells, then this might not be the title for you.