Usually we’re cautious about Kickstarter games, since few have ever built on the crowd-funded hype – and plenty more fall by the wayside before ever getting a release. And we’re even more cautious about modern games that ape the 8- and 16-bit era of gaming. You know – the sort of game that trades on its pseudo-retro pixel block graphics and simple gameplay. Either they’re absolute gems, like Braid, or they’re lazy versions of Megaman or Mario that are content to be merely adequate, to not surpass their influences. Heart & Slash falls firmly in the first camp, with its furious brawler mechanics and clean controls. Oh, and it’s fun. The game is frustratingly frantic fun.
Set 100 years after the Robolution (the game’s version of Skynet’s Judgement Day, where the AI machines wipe out mankind), you play as Heart, a robot trying to escape from the death-shackles of QuAsSy – the overseer who ensures every robot is identical in thought and action. Yep, you’re fighting conformity – it’s a noble war. The only real issue we had with the story was the amount of expository text you’ll have to sit through before you can take control of Heart. Hitting A doesn’t just speed it up, it practically removes it before you even get a chance to read it. But that’s a minor gripe, given that narrative isn’t the main thrust here.
The player must run around a labyrinthine map, striking burnt out computer decks in order to talk to Heart’s creator, who guides him through each level. Occasionally, hitting your mark results in the word ‘Warning’ cramming the screen in bold, red, pixelated font. Cue the boss(es) battle, where you’re asked to defeat three or four larger, tougher robots, along with a few smaller ones, such as drones, soldiers and robot spiders that look like deadly Roombas. That’s not the easiest thing in the world, given that this usually occurs in confined rooms with little floor space in which to manoeuvre.
Heart & Slash is not a game for the faint of heart (or slash, for that matter). This is one of the most intentionally difficult games you’re likely to play. It’s been purposely designed that way, where every death is permanent. If you die – and you will, again and again and again and… – you’ll restart a level that’s completely different to the last.
This procedurally generated gameplay is a double-edged sword, or a double-edged Ice Blade if we’re the use the game’s weaponry to make the point. While it helps overcome the frustration of having to continue, it makes it a tricky game to master thoroughly at the beginning, since you’ll never know the layout of the map or what enemies you’ll have to beat in order to progress.
Each level features a few unique enemies, but mostly players will face off against the traditional combatants: the tank, the drone, the infantry. The enemies do have different attacks, from performing chainsaw dashes to shooting homing missiles to leaping in the air and crushing Heart, which means you’ll have to learn the precise attack movements, and how best to counter each. Thankfully, attacks are sign-posted with three exclamation marks above the enemy’s head – that doesn’t always make it any easier to dodge or double-jump out of the way, but after some practice, players can become almost balletic in performance, chipping away at an enemy’s health before rolling to safety. Rinse, repeat. That might not sound like much, but striking those blows and destroying an enemy is made only more satisfying due to the difficulty. In fact, it feels so good, as you feel every strike you make, it’s worth repeating: killing robots in Heart & Slash is one of the most satisfying gaming experiences we’ve ever had.
Each of the enemies are susceptible to certain types of weapons an attacks, which is depicted on their robot faces; standard fare here, blue for electricity, red for fire, and so on. Those are the basics, but there are dozens of weapons to pick up, from blades on sticks to shotguns with enough kick to knock even sizeable enemies to the ground. These weapons – as well as the armour you’ll find – can be upgraded by collecting nuts and bolts; once you have a boxful you can hit the menu button and upgrade at will. This allows you to create a loadout that best suits your play style, whether it’s agility or defence or attack damage you’re after. In the early stages, we found it best to up our defence as best we could, given the limited amount of hits Heart could take and the amount of damage some enemies can deal.
It’s not only the difficulty of your opponents that makes your life, and Heart’s, as tough as nails (or nuts and bolts). It’s the speed of the whole thing.
When we first started playing the game, we likened it to a 3D Sonic the Hedgehog in the Mario64 snow world, but with melee weapons. It’s that sort of quick. Heart moves incredibly swiftly, the camera spins quickly, and that can make it a struggle to strike at the right time or even in the right direction. There’s a sprint, too, activated by holding both triggers – but given the speed you already move at, we didn’t find it particularly useful for most of the game.
Speed wasn’t the only issue we found with the camera. If it hits a wall, it zooms in close to Heart. Sure, this happens in tons of games, but we found it especially noticeable here, given how small the rooms are. If there are any enemies in the room at the time, even shifting position, or hitting the R-stick to centre the camera behind Heart, won’t save you from taking at least one hit.
But hey, that’s all part of the fun with Heart & Slash. You’re never going to make it through a level without getting hit – and extra life hearts are hard to come by. It’s as if absolutely everything in this game, both good and bad, is designed as an intentional challenge the developers are throwing at you. This is another one of those games that demands to be mastered.
The controls are tight and functional, the art style is charming, and the music will get stuck in your head for days. Prepare yourself for a high level of difficulty right from the off, and really test your reflexes, because Heart & Slash deserves a lot of love.
Heart & Slash is available now from the Xbox Store, priced £15.99
A frantic dungeon-crawling brawler that’s as charming as it is challenging.
Pros: An immensely enjoyable and viciously difficult experience, with plenty of variation in pick-ups and randomised level design. Satisfying combat and a stylish art design round out the game’s highlights.
Cons: The game’s tough from beginning to end, which may frustrate the more casual gamer. The randomisation makes mastering the game slightly trickier than most others in the genre. And the speed of the camera makes it occasionally imprecise, not to mention deadly.