When it was first unveiled, roguelike Has-Been Heroes had unique expectations to meet–here was another game from Frozenbyte, developers of the Trine series, in which you control three heroes at once. But while their previous trios worked together well, this game’s eponymous heroes fall short. At the beginning of the game, the bland triumvirate–made up of two veterans pulled out of retirement and a newcomer, not that it matters–sets out on an uninspired quest to deliver two princesses to school on orders of the king. The plot aims for amusing whimsy, but it doesn’t land, so from the first cutscene on, Has-Been Heroes has a motivation problem. Progress is measured in inches across hours of playtime, with your victories coming more from luck than any discernible decision you made.
You’re given control of three heroes–a mage, a rogue, and a warrior–and sent on a series of brief journeys likely to result in death more often than not. Gameplay boils down to a mix of combat and pathfinding: You progress along a map in the bottom right of the screen, choosing between different forks in the road to determine which nodes along the way you will or won’t access. You try to guess the best path forward, one in which, in between battles, you’ll encounter spell and item vendors who’ll boost your stats or abilities in exchange for the gold you’ve collected from fallen enemies. Odds are, though, that you’ll find yourself growing increasingly frustrated that none of the chests or vendors you encounter are giving you useful spells or equipment.
The unique battle system places your three heroes along lanes, with enemies coming at you from the right of the screen. The goal is to chip away at the stamina of whichever enemy is leading the charge in the lane by trying to match it with the number of attacks your heroes have. The rogue, for instance, hits three times, so if you smack an enemy with three stamina points, it’ll be stunned and vulnerable. After an attack, your heroes can switch lanes–put the warrior in the same lane and have him attack next, and you can inflict massive damage.
When you get into a good pattern, and fortune favors you, switching lanes and throwing down your most punishing spells can be exciting. But once you reach each area’s boss, tactical forethought won’t be enough. Getting ahead in these battles eventually requires a good loadout, but whether you’re well equipped by the end of a zone is dependent entirely on luck. You can’t tell what a node is going to contain until you’re adjacent to it. Acquiring items and spells is a gamble–if you haven’t encountered your prize previously in the game, you can’t tell what it does until you have one of your heroes pick it up (and if it’s a bad fit for them, you can’t transfer it to someone else), while many of the vendors ask for coins and then award your chosen character a power without letting you know what it is first. Worse still, often you need to play what’s essentially three-card Monte with treasure chests, knowing that only one of them contains a prize.
This means that when you die, it’s hard to pinpoint anything you personally did wrong, beyond making a bad choice that you couldn’t have possibly known was bad before you made it. Has-Been Heroes can be exceptionally hard, with an uneven difficulty curve that ramps up too dramatically during boss fights, and if you don’t have the tools capable of holding off their attacks, all you can do is chip away until your inevitable death. When that happens, you’ll have to start again, battling screen after screen of identical skeleton foes that weren’t particularly exciting the first time around, let alone the 30th.
If you manage to reach the end, you’ll unlock a new hero in one of the three classes. For the first hero, you only need to beat two bosses, but that takes at least four hours. To get the next hero, you need to defeat three bosses, and so on. Unlocking heroes is the only goal to work toward in the game, but the fact that it becomes more and more of a hassle after each victory–and that your reward is an even harder game–sours the experience. This is a shame, because the core combat mechanics of Has-Been Heroes can be quite engaging. Getting to a point where I could consistently defeat the first boss felt good, but never so much so that it made up for the intense grind the game subjected me to.
Has-Been Heroes is, at least, a great fit for the Switch. It’s the sort of game you can play while half-watching a sitcom in the background, rather than one to which you’ll want to give your full attention. By the same token, playing the game with intense focus starts to feel like a waste of time after the first few hours. It’s a demanding game that gives very little back for the time and effort it eats up. The game’s name does not lie–it’s best to let these has-beens be.