The Little Robot That Could
Innovation is a word that you hear all the time in the world of video games. Whether in the form of a new battle system, advanced physics, or an unseen gameplay mechanic, innovation drives the art form and keeps gaming fresh. But innovation never comes easy. To try something new is to be the first person to step out onto the frontier. There’s been nobody before you to scout the danger or to pave a safe path. Heart&Slash is a game that innovates with several unique systems and an ambitious rogue-like design. But does it boldly go where no man has gone before, or does it bust its ankle along the way?
Heart&Slash puts you in the circuits of a little robot named Heart as he tries to escape the grip of an evil quality assurance robot named QuasSy. Players will hack and slash their way through a variety of robot enemies, picking up dozens of different weapons including swords, hammers, shields, and various types of firearms. Some weapons have elemental properties and unique special maneuvers, lending a great deal of personality and variability to the game’s many pickups.
Each time you play through the game, the pickups, enemies, and level layouts change. Death is permanent, but there are plenty of upgrades and items to unlock, and these persist between games. Certain story events will also remain finished, even when you die. These features take the edge off of perma-death, and make the game a little more approachable for a wider audience.
Gameplay is fast, and movement is tight and quick. Players can jump, double-jump and dodge, and have access to both light and heavy attacks in addition to special moves and combos. Players also have full control of the camera but can’t lock onto enemies. This usually isn’t a problem, but it makes it easy to whiff against flying opponents.
Enemies exhibit unique builds and behaviors, providing great variety between encounters. Worms swim underground and attack you from below, turrets snipe you from distance, and shielded enemies hinder any attempts at a frontal assault. Some enemies require you to knock their armor off piece-by-piece before you can damage them; doing so is weirdly satisfying, like stepping on a nice, crunchy leaf.
Players explore a total of three worlds, with the second being divided into two distinct sections. Each world plays differently and provides its own array of enemies and bosses. The second world combines an underground sewer with a street level cityscape, complete with rooftop hopping and a boss fight atop a skyscraper.
Heart&Slash has a handful of great boss fights that test the player’s skills in different ways. Early encounters are timing based, requiring skillful jumping and circle strafing. Later bosses are more reminiscent of the Zelda franchise, featuring unique mechanics and creative enemy weaknesses. To discuss it in depth would be to spoil the fight, but the sewer boss stands out as a highlight of inventive gameplay.
When the player defeats bosses and other enemies, additional items are unlocked, such as new weapons and exchangeable body parts. These items can be found scattered throughout the levels and can be picked up to replace anything that Heart already has. Picking up a head will replace Heart’s default model while also providing various boosts. New body parts may increase speed, provide better resistances, or in one case, add more information to your map. All items can be upgraded by spending screws, which are accumulated by defeating enemies. These tactical decisions allow players to mold the experience to their own style, giving the game a bit of a role-playing flavor.
Also like role-playing games, Heart can seek out quests which enhance the story and build upon his relationship with Slash, the other titular robot. These quests must be done in a specific order, and appear in a linear fashion throughout the game. Oddly, the game staggers the quests so that you can’t complete them all in one playthrough. You may successfully complete the first and second quests, but the third won’t appear until you restart the game, and maybe not even then. This feature is presumably included to enhance replay value and allow the story to unfold slowly. In practice, it’s frustrating to be hamstrung in the middle of a run and either have to start all the way over, or finish the game without the satisfaction of completing the story.
Though the gameplay is fun and the enemies are varied, Heart&Slash has way too many technical and design problems. The camera is twitchy and erratic, particularly when you venture near corners. It will zoom too far in and can even clip through the back of the room, giving you a view of the wall. During a particular boss fight, my camera controls became completely disabled at one point, making the fight virtually impossible until they randomly started working again a few minutes later.
Rooms are frequently subject to odd design, with little cracks and crevices that you can fall into or behind. There’s an unfinished section of wall in one level that lets you travel behind the geometry of the game world. Walk-through walls and fall-through floors are just part of the experience in Heart&Slash, as are a number of AI glitches that lead to enemies behaving incorrectly. The most frequent issue involves your ability to get caught in a falling animation; this can happen anytime you jump towards an edge and don’t completely clear the front of a platform. It’s easy to get unstuck, but this kind of sloppy implementation breaks immersion. The developer is active and has released patches to fix some issues. Hopefully the remaining problems will vanish as well.
The visuals for Heart&Slash are bright and pleasant, though blocky and pixelated by design. Halls and arenas lack variety, with some areas feeling a little too barren and lifeless. This can result in a world that feels redundant and even maze-like, with room types that repeat themselves more often than is ideal. Fortunately the character art is distinct and stylish, granting a lot of personality to the game.
But perhaps Heart&Slash’s personality can best be found in its fantastic soundtrack. The music is filled with outstanding tracks that tangibly enhance the entire game. Each song has a distinct personality, from the cute cheerfulness of the menu music to the upbeat energy of the first level, to the edgier, pulse-pounding track that accompanies your encounters with Slash. It’s the best video game soundtrack since Shovel Knight.
Heart&Slash is a good game with great style that is unfortunately hampered by obvious problems. Regardless, the gameplay remains solid throughout due to great weapons, varied enemies, and creative bosses. Hack and slash fans will find much to love as they guide this little robot towards freedom.