he Nintendo Switch, in its month of release, has proven to be a surprise success. Even as someone who owns a beefy PC and all the major platforms, I’ve found myself sinking more time into Binding of Isaac runs, exploring Blaster Master Zero and completing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild than anything else. This is due, in large part, to how easy it is to fire up the Switch and jump into a game—not to mention the ability to seamlessly jump between playing on the TV and on the go. It’s novel and unlike anything else on the market. Frozenbyte, developer of the cult hit Trine franchise, has found a great way to capitalize on this novelty with Has-Been Heroes, a multi-platform title that ultimately feels best suited for Nintendo’s fledgling system.
A group of heroes is gathered by the king to complete a very important task: take his two tween daughters to school. See, these heroes have seen better days, and are now best suited to carrying out menial tasks like this. But the world has other plans for them. A great evil ends up sweeping the land and unceremoniously murdering the quintet on the spot. Luckily, a benevolent deity sees fit to help them out by reviving them and sending them on a quest to vanquish the new foe. It’s a good thing he’s in their corner, too, because that death ends up being the first of many.
Surely, it must be traumatizing for our heroes to watch two children die repeatedly, but I’m not sure players are supposed to think about that too hard.
If that central narrative beat didn’t give it away, Has-Been Heroes is another entry in that most overexposed of modern genres, roguelikes. But Frozenbytes has managed to breathe some new life into the formula with gameplay that’s some of the weirdest I’ve seen come along in a while. In simple terms, it’s a genre-hybrid. In more accurate ones, it’s a blend of Chrono Trigger’s ATB system, a tower-defense title in the vein of Plants vs. Zombies, a procedurally-generated dungeon crawler, and a roguelike.
Yet that only scratches the surface. Has-Been Heroes is all of those things, which is an odd amalgamation already, but also sees fit to introduce a downright wacky control scheme on top of it all. The playable heroes can swap lanes in battle using the face buttons, but only after another hero has attacked. Roaming around dungeons isn’t roaming so much as it is using the right analogue stick and a trigger to go to specific points on a map. Then there’s the time-stopping mechanic, which freezes time and allows players to pick a lane, stack hits, etc. There are a lot of mechanics at work in Has-Been Heroes, and even after several hours with the game, I still feel like I’m learning things.
Driving that home is the fact that I can still get easily overwhelmed by the right combination of easy enemies. Has-Been Heroes is one of those games that throws players into the deep end and tells them to master the butterfly stroke. Which, in non-swimming terms, means that it’s unapologetically difficult and ruthless in its attempts at killing players. It’s very easy to pick up to play, as the mechanics are pretty simple to grasp, yet getting good requires long-term mastery. Even then, though, RNG will sometimes wreck even the best players.
The thing is, this is a game explicitly tailored towards fast deaths and instant restarts. Even winning runs are short affairs, over in 10-20 minutes at a time. Despite the ability to pick this up on a traditional home console, this is a game that seems built around portability. Playing it for extended two to three-hour chunks can admittedly be a bit draining and repetitious. But doing a few runs on the bus, in a waiting room, or God forbid, in the bathroom is the best way to play Has-Been Heroes.
With novel gameplay that has plenty to sink your teeth into, a cute art style oozing with personality, and an overwhelming amount of unlockable content, including new characters and several endings, it’s hard to argue with Has-Been Heroes for the price. It’s an affordable roguelike that gives casual players something fun to play in short bursts, and more dedicated ones plenty to learn along the way.