Has-Been Heroes is a strategy roguelike in which players navigate tactically demanding dungeons while mastering tough-as-nails combat. Players choose between one of many rogues, mages, and soldiers to escort two princesses through a range of maze-like levels. To survive, the player must maximize every decision, carefully considering which path(s)to follow and what gear to spend their hard-earned gold on in hopes of besting puzzle-like boss battles. Successfully completing the game unlocks new (and more powerful) heros. After getting some fresh legs on the team, it’s pretty easy to have consistently successful runs, till faced with a new vexing boss closing the gameplay loop.
While the combat is a refreshingly fun mashup of Plants vs. Zombies and Darkest Dungeon, the character and item unlocking loop lends familiar roguelike touches. Spells, items, and character enhancements are among the welcome plethora of unlockables here. Frustratingly all of these collectables are based on unwavering chance. There are mechanics that increase the player’s odds of finding more powerful spells and items but never the quantity or frequency of loot. This becomes a real problem when lady luck isn’t on your side
It’s this staunch refusal to allow the player to manipulate the (often unforgiving) luck of the game that is a baffling and self-defeating design choice. No tangible luck stat means progressing through Has-Been Heroes constantly demands resources from the player with which to acquire items, spells, and enhancements. On the one hand, this stinginess is clearly intended to encourage strategy. On the other, it can frustrate the experience. Not even after boss battles is the player handed a free spell or item for their trouble. Instead FrozenByte chose to reward the player with resources, leaving them to hope that the next random spell, buff, or chest they spend these resources on provides a life preserver. Without the ability to boost luck or find free items each time I pick up Has-Been Heros my runs are wildly unpredictable in their challenge and fun which is indicative of strong design ideas. Yet however, successful the variance of fun and challenge is it must feel rewarding to keep the player engaged.
This lack of consistency what makes Frozen-Bytes design its own worst enemy. Other roguelikes at least indicate of what players can expect from a room. Binding of Isaac does this spectacularly by painting the doorways of rooms: gold for treasure or black for challenge rooms. Choices like bequeathing an item after every successful boss fight give players predictable life rafts to cling to. These examples may yield mixed results, but they give the player enough motivation to keep pushing forward even when fate is against them and resources have run dry. Now imagine if the treasure rooms in Isaac were replaced with more shop rooms. Isaac would still be a fun twin stick shooter with a great aesthetic, item synergy, but it would make a difficult game inherently more frustrating and less inviting.
The pitfalls of Has-Been Heros design philosophy extend to the player’s ability to navigate the map. In what I assume is an effort to make moving through dungeons more strategic, the player is prevented from doubling back (unless they expend precious resources). This is understandable for areas that are clearly intended to be approached this way (for example, a room that only has one entrance and one exit). An example of the challenges this restricting movement can be is how Has Been Heroes handles chests. On their journey players can find locked loot chests that can only be opened with keys purchased from a locksmith on different randomized areas of the map. However if a player finds a locked chest at a dungeon entrance but the locksmith (who allows players to purchase keys) isn’t till the end of the level it’s nearly impossible to make it all the way back to that original chest. This choice not only makes navigating even more challenging, but also breaks the pacing of the game as whole, disengaging the player from the one truly captivating portion of Has-Been Heroes: the combat.
Three heroes are pitted against a horde of monsters who march from the right of the screen towards the protagonists on the left.Vanquishing the scourge before they get to the princesses requires engaging with the game’s stamina system. Each enemy has a certain number of stamina (usually 1, 2, or 3) that depletes each time it’s attacked. When a hero attacks an enemy with depleted stamina it reduces its HP, and when an enemy’s HP is depleted the enemy is gone. The focus then is to chaining attacks together whilst simultaneously managing enemy flow, stamina, and HP by reducing an enemy’s stamina with a weaker hero then move in a stronger one to deal some damage; . At first even the smallest waves are overwhelming, but when the timing is right and the puzzle solved combat becomes exhilarating yet thoughtful. Throw some elemental spells into the mix and combinations like drenching an enemy with water then zapping them with electricity to great effect demonstrate an example of the best combat design this title has to offer.
The shame is that getting to the combat can feel like a hassle and the metagame of traversing the map can leave a player unfairly ill-prepared, making the otherwise wonderful combat grueling. However, if FrozenByte revisits their approach to chance (as other roguelikes have) and supports Has-Been Heroes with consistent updates and fresh content packs, I think the game could be wildly better in a matter of months. That’s not to say it’s a bad game now; there’s a lot of fun there with good ideas behind the mechanics but the overall gameplay gets lost behind cumbersome navigation and muddled by what can sometimes feel like ruthless randomization. Things are looking brighter; at the time of writing Frozenbyte has already made some tweaks in a day one patch directly addressing some early reviewers’ concerns. If they continue this trend, this old dog might well learn some new tricks.