I love robots, swords, and post-apocalyptic plots so when I heard just the bare minimum facts about Heart&Slash by AHEARTFULOFGAMES, I was very interested. While this game had already been on KickStarter and was released in Early Access on Steam back in like 2014, I hadn’t actually heard about it until recently when they announced it was soon coming to PS4. I was given the privilege to play an advance digital copy of the PS4 version. When you start the tutorial for this game, you are misled into believing that this will be an indie attempt at an epic story focused hack-n-slash game with a mostly linear storyline and pretty straightforward gameplay. Honestly that’s what I wanted and I was excited to play it even more once I had finished the tutorial. But sadly that’s not really what this game is. It’s better classified as a roguelike, dungeon crawler with some semblance of a plot that you will most likely never get to fully experience.
Visually speaking, I really liked Heart&Slash. It’s indie, but high quality, money was spent indie. Not “we wanted to recreate the Mario Bros. experience” indie where they just didn’t have the budget and didn’t want to admit that outright. The graphics are pixel based and on many levels pretty simple, but the game as a whole looks really cool. If anything it’s like fighting in a world of HD Legos but with real time, fast paced movement. The color palette is extremely vibrant with a wash of added comic book style effects to further distance the player from what is basically moving blocks of metal butchering each other. When you hit an enemy or block an attack you get little onomatopoeias flying out from the focal point. There are slow motion effects and giant smoke clouds used at certain times. This game is clearly inspired by a number of nerdy pop-culture forms of entertainment and it uses these visual elements very well. There is a ton of equipment in this game, which changes instantly when equipped and it’s not just the same thing in different colors. The dialog is all done through text boxes, which look pretty good. But they run on automatic timers so you have to read fast. Graphics wise, the gameplay does not disappoint.
The HUD elements are not as impressive, but they aren’t that bad either. You have a mini-map in the bottom left corner which is updating continuously but it’s only useful for keeping track of rooms you have and haven’t entered. It doesn’t provide much context for what’s in the rooms except for indicating stairs and certain important objects like plot points. The weapons HUD in the top left doesn’t look bad, but I feel like it doesn’t necessarily match with the rest of the game’s visual style. It shows your current primary and two secondary weapons. It looks like it was done by a completely different artist. Again, it doesn’t look bad though. The pause menus are actually a lot more pixelated than the gameplay. These are done in a very simple 2D style that mixes the text style of the weapons HUD and the bit appearance of the mini-map. From the pause menu you can handle your upgrades. My biggest issue with the pause menu is that it cuts off just slightly on the right side of the screen. This is because it’s intentionally coming out of the right side instead of centered. The game runs very smoothly. From the weapon, changes to the attack spamming, and how enemies respond to you, it all plays like butter. I was very impressed by Heart & Slash on an overall visual level.
The gameplay is a combination of solid design decisions and mostly great mechanics ultimately destroyed by two or three major flaws in design choice. As I stated at the beginning of this review, the tutorial makes it seem like this will be a story driven hack-n-slash. It has all the bells and whistles on a control level to give you a solid hack-n-slash experience. You have a primary weapon, which can’t be a shield but can be any type of weapon. During the tutorial you are given two additional swords with elemental attributes as your secondary weapons. Your life bar is simple hearts. You can roll, double jump, sprint, and do either horizontal or vertical attacks with different buttons. And even without sprinting you can move really quickly. Basically it feels like you’re walking into a pixel based God of War style game set in a world of robots. Also known as gaming heaven. But once you start the actual game you realize none of this is the case save for the still excellent, but not customizable, controls. This is actually a random drop, permadeath dungeon crawler with no carry over stats. Your goal is to get to the end. There are a lot of dead ends to make this extremely difficult to accomplish even without the combat aspect. It is possible to get the end where you will then have to fight a boss which you must fight with whatever health you have remaining. Bosses thrash your health with even just one hit. Every time you die, you restart the game and have lost all your gear, money, and progress including mini-boss fights. The rooms and enemies are randomly generated and you are able to run past most of them if you want to but ultimately it’s just the same thing over and over again with a minute amount of progress some of the time. You get six hearts with the ability to upgrade for more, but the problem is that this game is so stingy about health regen. The most common way to get hearts is by recycling equipment. When you recycle an item you get one heart back. The problem is that if you don’t have an item currently available to replace that item then you will be playing under equipped which may or may not be acceptable in your current situation. Items don’t appear nearly as frequently as they probably should. You can upgrade the recycler to give you back more hearts but it’s an expensive upgrade for only a half a heart increase in return. Occasionally certain labeled enemies will drop a heart when killed. Personally I think every enemy should be dropping at least one heart considering it’s half a heart lost for each hit at a minimum. You can also sometimes get hearts from the scientist when you complete his plot based challenges.
You can find random gear scattered throughout the game. It’s always in the same general locations, but it changes each time. You can get many different types of weapons such as swords, “brass” knuckles, staffs, shields, guns, and so on. You can also find clothing. What sucks is that you can’t move these items around once they’re assigned. That means that the first weapon you find will always be your primary unless you throw it away and find a new weapon to take its place. Your secondary can never be moved. The only time a weapon will move over is when you recycle a weapon, thus leaving a spot available and then place a new item you find on a currently occupied spot. In that situation the current item will move to the other available spot. The upgrade system is ok, but not amazing. Each kill nets one or more bolts. Ten bolts nets one part. Upgrades, at least for the gear I’ve seen, costs one to two parts. You can also upgrade your core stats. Some upgrades are pointless. By which I mean the game will actually tell you “this upgrade is pointless.” Enemies are constantly respawning and because of the lack of health regen it makes more sense to skip most of them. But there are certain rooms that lock down until you complete the fight. Not all of these rooms contain bosses. Enemies can commit friendly fire, but it doesn’t seem to do that much overall.
Basically the core mechanics are mostly great but the permadeath and lack of health regen ruin the experience. It’s like playing Rogue Legacy but not being able to buy permanent upgrades and not having story elements continue on between runs. That is to say it gets super boring really quickly because you have to keep doing the same areas over and over in hopes of eventually reaching the next plot point. And since this game isn’t as simple as something like Overture, you will get really irritated by all your lost progress every time. It’s like if you lost all your already spent souls, gear, and levels every time you died in Dark Souls. Ultimately the entire experience of what is a solid game at core level was ruined for me by the permadeath feature. That should have been optional with checkpoints located at each plot point. And note that the gameplay isn’t easy. This isn’t a god mode scenario where you can just run through enemies with one hit kills. Even the smaller enemies still require a pummeling and can deal a solid amount of damage very quickly.
The sound is very nice in Heart&Slash. There’s only one continuously looping song, but it’s really catchy and cleanly loops with multiple parts so you aren’t constantly hearing the same five notes. The effects are quite good too. AHEARTFULOFGAMES did it right by putting in quality effects and mixing them well but not oversaturating the game by using the maximum amount of justifiable effects. There’s no sound for changing weapons or running for instance. Basically just attacking, taking damage and certain key types of occurrences such as explosions. You can control the music and effects levels independently in the options menu. The sound is generally well done in my opinion.
The writing is the most depressing part of this game for me. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s actually pretty decent. The problem is the permadeath and overall difficulty make it so you never really get to move forward in the story. I made it to maybe the third portion of the plot and was never able to get past that point. The plot is told through a sequence of text based interactions with the scientist who created you. When the game starts, he is just activating you and teaching you how to fight for a test. Then suddenly an AI goes rogue and destroys humanity. The game then fast forwards 100 years and places you in a random room with no memory of the past. The scientist now exists digitally and communicates with you through damaged computer stations that you find every so often. Each of these continues the plot. There are also other robots that you end up talking to. These are boss fights. Every plot based interaction is very short, but coherent and relevant no matter how minuscule. But because you never make it to the end, you never really get to find out the whole story. You can skip computers you’ve already seen in order to save time, but ultimately the inability to continue inhibits the overall plot experience. The dialog is actually not bad. It’s a little choppy and sometimes tries a bit too hard, like during the tutorial, but ultimately I was interested in the little bit of story I actually got to experience. As an added bonus, the game can be played in seven different languages.
As this is a permadeath game that you will probably never beat, there is an unlimted amount of replay value. But there are also some actual reasons to keep playing the game past just trying to get to the end. There are a total of 49 trophies including a platinum. These trophies are varied in what they require and the types of challenges they entail. There are 71 in game quests independent of the trophy list but there is some overlap. You can find 135 different pieces of equipment. There’s a bestiary of 93 different types of enemies. There are also five additional characters that can be unlocked, though I never figured out how to actually unlock any of them. Now when you consider how much of that requires you to get much farther than you may, it’s not as much value as it should be. But there is a lot to accomplish in this game. It’s hard to judge the total length because of the progress limitations so I can’t say if it’s actually worth $25. I can say that if it had of ended up being the game I thought it was going to be then I probably would have endorsed such a high price tag on an indie game. But for a permadeath runner with solid brawling mechanics I’d say $20 is the most you should pay for it.
As a person who doesn’t particularly enjoy permadeath and reliving the same plot moments over and over without being able to make much progress to the next plot point, I didn’t personally love this game. But I think a big part of that comes from what I expected the game to be going in. If I had known that it was dungeon crawler with a focus on trial and error, random item drops, and the inability to carry progress over between deaths, I would have approached it much differently. I’ll admit that I didn’t do much research going into the game as is true for all games I review. I make it a point of getting as innocent an experience as I can when I review a title so I can give an honest account of how the game affected me without external factors modifying my opinion. If you like games that make use of permadeath, dungeon crawling elements then this is definitely a game worth trying. But if that’s not your thing, this is not even worth spending an hour on because you will ultimately end up £16/$25 poorer and worlds angrier.
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