Man, it seems like lately all I’m playing is procedurally generated rogue-likes. I swear, this has been unintentional, though I can’t say I’m too mad at it, either. Heart&Slash has been on my docket for a while now, and after putting the time in, I finally feel ready to review it properly. Bring on the Robolution!!
Heart&Slash began as a project that ended up being funded through Kickstarter, and lucky for us console players, the success there and beyond allowed it to be brought to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A decision that I’m really glad was made, because even though I initially hated the game when I first started, I grew to love it. I know, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start (continue?) somewhere normal.
The story of the game goes like this: Playing the tutorial level you meet a scientist and his assistant testing out robots in a HeartTech facility. Some funny dialogue ensues, coffee humor is in full force, and you finally get into the testing itself as HRT-1 (Heart). Dr. Sympathic (Dr. S) gives you directions and the usual tutorial mumbo jumbo, all leading to a showdown with SLSH-1065 (Slash). During the fight, QuAsSy (HeartTech’s Quality Assurance System) decides it’s had enough of humans and their constant “misuse” of robots, and reprograms the company’s robotic subjects into its minions, thus starting the Robolution and putting an end to humanity. Starting the game proper has you “waking up” to an unfamiliar world 100 years later, where you have to fight your way to the truth, to confront QuAsSy once and for all, all while looking for the answers to the questions you have. Who are you? Where are you? What happened? Will you find love?
When I started Heart&Slash, it felt to me like a mix between Mega Man and Minecraft if they were a 3D brawler-roguelike. I don’t know, I’m sure that sounds weird, but this is what I was imagining. Whatever the game actually is a mix between, brawler and roguelike are definitely accurate descriptions. Brawling absolutely happens and perma-death is a main component of the experience. So is the randomization of levels when you play. Henceforth it shall be known as a 3D brawler-roguelike. I’m willing to work out the trademark rights with developer aheartfulofgames, because I clearly came up with the phrase. It never existed before from any other people or companies. I assure you, so don’t even bother looking it up…
When traveling through the first area, you will always come across the same 2 rooms first, the one you get cloned in, and the one that houses your first 3 inventory items and a talking computer. A talking computer with the personality of Dr. S himself. You’ll find these littered throughout the Factory, and when activated will enable specific actions in the room. All of the 3 levels features ever-changing rooms with each play through, and it’s your job to make it to the boss of each section to move on. Once out of the Factory, you venture out to the disheveled City, and a 3rd area I won’t ruin on where it takes place.
Throughout the levels you’ll find rooms that house equipment upgrades for you. They could be more weapons, defensive shields, or body parts to change the look of your character (while giving some special abilities to you). Each piece has the ability to be upgraded further by using the bolts dropped by the robots you destroy. You’re allowed up to 3 weapons/shields and 1 of each body part (head, torso, arms, and legs). The drops are all random, so that’s part of the fun and challenge of the game. And make no mistake, the game is certainly a challenge.
The weapons/shields are varied in all spectrums, from guns, to electric blades, to wooden planks. The body pieces also come from the same varied mold. Rubber duck, hipster, and even boss body parts are all available to you to unlock and eventually find randomly throughout your travels. There’s over 100 pieces to equip yourself with, and each has their own abilities to use, master, and upgrade. It’s definitely a highlight of the game, for sure. You’ll constantly be searching out hidden item rooms, not only to better yourself, but also to see what potentially wacky and/or cool thing you get this time. Of course, you’ll eventually find favorites and hope to get those as much as possible.
On the flip side, you’ll find ones you hate, too, but you don’t really have to worry so much about that, because one of the interesting mechanics in the game has you scrapping items, and you’ll need to in order to stay alive. Sick and tired of getting the rubber shield? Find the baseball bat worthless? Think that new boss head is really creepy? Scrap it and regain some lost health!! By creating this system of health regeneration, it accomplishes something twofold. One, never discovering an item and having to leave one behind, and two, strategize which parts are best to scrap in order to regain the most health when you’re in dire straits. You can dump the bat you never use for 1 heart, but the legs you love and have upgraded fully will give you 5 hearts, though you’ll lose the abilities they provide you. These tough decisions can be the difference between beating a boss and dying before you even make it to him. I grew to love it, while hating it at the same time.
Equipment isn’t the only unlockable things in the game, either. You have hundreds of things including enemy designs, quests, and even characters to play as. And just because you have “unlocked” them doesn’t mean you have them unlocked. I’ll explain. Say we have 75 weapons, and we’ve unlocked 40 of them to be able to be used, but we’ve only found 20 of them in-game due to the random drops. Do we technically have 40 unlocked, or 20? Hmmm…
The enemies you face in the game are all robots. Which, of course they are. They’ve been the only thing around for 100 years. There are a bunch of different variations of robot minions to scuffle with, and each variation has a few versions of that model. Spider bots scurry around, one may explode on you, while one may electrocute you. Flying bots can have giant drills or rockets they shoot at you. That’s just a bit of what you can expect when busting up blocky metal adversaries. One thing I love about the enemies, or rather the combat system in place with the enemies, is that they can all hurt each other. If one of the big guys like above has a belly flop move, and you dodge it while also enabling him to hit a nearby rival ‘bot, that dude takes damage. It can really help you out guiding attacks aimed at you to someone else, but be careful. If they get defeated by someone other than you, you lose out on the experience. Sometimes, it’s a trade-off you’ll gladly take. Trust me.
So while on the topic of combat, let’s put out there what you have in your arsenal. At first, not much. A double jump and a dodge. That’s all. OK, OK, I kind of oversold it. After the first room, you could have a myriad of abilities, and at the very least, one weapon. However, the jump and dodge will be very important to master, because in this game, where every hit counts doubly due to the perma-death rule, you don’t want to take anything more than necessary. Your inventory has 4 slots for the body, as I said, and 3 for the weapons/shields. The middle slot for W/S is your main weapon and is what you use by default. The left is used by holding the LT, and the right using the RT. It can be kind of awkward sometimes to get used to, but, eventually you’ll find the sweet spot of load order and you’ll likely be fine.
While destroying robots you’ll be racking up bolts to upgrade your parts and you should do it as soon as you’re able. For every 10 you kill, you’ll be granted a point for upgrades. Some items need more than 1 point, so you’ll need to be on top of the math with that. It’s super easy, so I doubt you’ll have an issue with it. You’re more likely to have trouble deciding which to upgrade than 1st grade math. On top of the 3 and 4 item sections to boost, you have an overall character section you can upgrade, too. Better recycling, faster run speed, better dodging, and higher jumps are all available to be upgraded no matter what you have equipped. Decisions, decisions, decisions…
The gameplay loop here is pretty fun once you get into it. As I said earlier, I initially hated the game. I started out and didn’t really understand the reasoning behind some choices made for the game, and it put me off. After thinking on it, and telling myself I was stupid for doing that, I dove back in a few days later and allowed myself to become a blank slate in order to really see what the game has to offer. It has a lot, actually. The intricacies of the inventory system may not seem that way in writing, but I assure you in practice it is. Learning each weapon and how to best use body parts also plays into the enjoyment of the game. It’s not just taking a sword and slashing. It’s taking that sword and knowing how it slashes and understanding how it moves, because not every weapon is the same. And I think you’d be mad if boxing gloves were the same as a flaming sword, let’s be real here.
Combat is the main attraction, and it’s fun all the way through. The story I went over only covers the initial points, too. Since the game changes each time you play, but also keeps your progression intact, you essentially play out a story line with Slash over multiple runs, because it would be almost impossible to see a conclusion otherwise. I don’t really want to spoil that part of the narrative, so I’ll just say that when you see a green exclamation point on your map, seek it out. That’s how you further that story. A story that may not even appear on this current play through. Remember the keyword… RANDOM!!
Yes, it’s evident that I really enjoy this game. That said, I do have various disappointments with it. I always hate pointing out the bad parts of games I love, but, it comes with the territory. Here we go. I didn’t dig the music very much. At first it was really cute and upbeat, but over time, the way it constantly repeats itself in the stages, well, it just grated on me. I think in short bursts it’s fine, and I only end up muting it after listening for a bit, but overall, musically, I wasn’t satisfied. I don’t know how to explain it any better. I can’t think of the right words. The sound design otherwise works well, though. No complaints there. I think the inventory system is kind of awkward. I can only half get used to it, even playing as much as I have I still feel like it’s not great. It can feel cumbersome in the heat of the fight and I just felt like it could have been handled better. I thought enemy designs were kind of bland. I don’t think they’re awful, but I don’t think the general ‘bots you consistently fight are all that interesting. It never made me want to stop playing, but it is something I fixated on. The levels are kind of bland, too. While randomly generated in certain aspects, the overall look to many rooms just feels too generic and blah, especially in the Factory. Once again, it didn’t really make me want to stop, but it was always on my mind. There are times when you get stuck on corners or geometry in a level, especially while jumping, and you just hang there for a bit, waiting to be pummeled and you can’t do anything but wait. Same thing can happen with falling through the world. Luckily, the only times I fell through were when I was on an upper floor, so I just landed and made my way back up. I would have hated to see what would have happened if I was on the bottom and fell through the floor to nothingness…
The biggest issue I had with the game was its speed and camera system. As of a few days ago, the camera problem has been largely fixed, and I’m glad I waited for that to finish my review. When you first got in initially, there were no camera options, which meant that the speed of the swivel and movement all around was crazy fast, and you had to deal with it. It was tough going. I was constantly fighting with it. Heart moves really fast as it is, so getting used to that is a challenge in and of itself. Adding in the speed of the camera, well, it was a mess for me. Thankfully, as I said, late last week that was patched and you now have a few speeds you can clock it at. I thought I’d have an issue reducing it because I played so much with the default that I may have gotten too used to the “bad” camera. Nope, after dropping it down I was having an even better time with the game. I didn’t actually know a patch was coming for it, but I heard rumors and of course hoped it would be true. I’m grateful it happened. Trust me, even if you don’t know the former, you are too.
When it boils down to Achievement/Trophy hunting, like many rogue-ish games, you’ll need to plow through this many times. There are 20 Achievements to be had here, and trust me, they won’t be a cakewalk. One of them requires something very specific, and if anyone has it right now, well, unfortunately, they cheated to get it. I don’t want to spoil that for you, either, but you can easily find the list if you really want to know. Even though these won’t be a home run, they still could be fun to unlock, especially if you love the grind this game offers.
I said it a couple of times already, but I’ll say it again, I didn’t like this game when I first tried it out. No save, tough controls/systems to get used to, weird graphics (that I really ended up loving). All this dumped on me right from the start. Not only that, but the game is hard. HARD, like the olden days decades ago where you get dumped in and need to figure things out just to survive, and even then it isn’t a guarantee. I don’t usually mind that stuff, at all, but for some reason, here, I did. At first. I don’t know why, really. I think maybe it’s because I wanted this game to be something other than what it is. In the end, with as much fun as I had playing it, and as much fun as I expect to keep having with it on my way to 100%, I’m glad it wasn’t the unicorn I unreasonably wanted. This horse that was born is just fine on its own.
Heart&Slash is available now on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One for $19.99 and on Steam for $24.99, with a lower price after it leaves Early Access (likely to match the console price). A physical version is available on PS4 in some regions outside the US. A code was provided by BadLand Games for the purpose of this review.