Run, Jump, Dodge, Roll, Attack… Die, Try again! – You’d be forgiven for thinking the game I’m talking about is the latest entry in the Dark Souls series but this isn’t the case. The game causing me to put down the controller in order for some calm time this week is the latest Indie title to join the ever growing line-up available on the Xbox store, Heart&Slash.
Heart&Slash is a rogue-like, 3D action brawler with a very unique offering when compared to the many other indie titles available on the Xbox One. Developed by aheartfulofgames (yes really all one word), Heart&Slash offers a brutal experience comparable to that of the aforementioned Dark Souls games – but with the added complication of popular rogue-like features including permadeath and random level generation. With that said anyone looking for an enjoyable story driven adventure should note that this is definitely not the game for you!
Heart&Slash offers the player the opportunity to learn the ropes before chucking them head first into the thick of it with an optional tutorial. Like every other tutorial ever created, this offers a chance to get a feel of the controls and how to manoeuvre within the game. It also works as a bite-sized prequel to the games overall storyline, with players able to see what causes the start of the Robolution seen in the main chunk of the game.
There is one thing different about this tutorial and that is that never before in any game have I found myself unable to finish it! It was from here that I realised I had a real challenge on my hands. The tutorial is simple enough, some brief dialogue telling you who you are, and showing you how to move and attack… lovely, nothing hard about that right? Terribly wrong! Within just a few seconds of starting to learn the combat I was reduced to nothing more than a crumpled mess on the floor at the hands of my adversary Slash, with the tutorial battle restarting over again with the second, third and countless other attempts ending in the same unexpected demise! I couldn’t believe it – I had struggled with a basic boss.
Having been an avid gamer for many years now, I’d like to think I’m not too bad at games, after all, I think nothing of racing through a campaign on the hardest difficulty setting just to beat the challenge offered. Throughout my many years I have only ever experienced three games that have stopped my progression. These games are Dark Souls, Ninja Gaiden and The Binding of Isaac; all great games but all possessing that one thing I could never best. Now the time has come to add to that number with Heart&Slash but unfortunately this time the journey wasn’t quite so enjoyable.
After realising I wasn’t going to complete the tutorial in a hurry, I decided to go back to the menu and crack on with the main game, after all I knew the controls right, what more did I need?
Throughout my abysmal attempts at the tutorial, it wasn’t just the lesson of death I received but also some valuable insight into the story that could be very obviously missed. In the game the player controls a small loveable robot called Heart who is fighting for his identity and his life against the many minions of the all-seeing, all conquering, QuAsSy (Quality Assurance Systems). The game is set one hundred years after the Robolution, an event much like that of the Terminator movies in which robots are all that remains in the world. It follows Heart’s attempts to escape the restrictive grip of the robotic norm and instead find love with QuAsSy throwing everything possible at the innocent Heart in order to convert him to the standard mechanical way of life!
As for the main chunk of the game, players start each run presented with three random items to smash and bash their way through. These items can be any of the one hundred and thirty-five equipment options found within the game; from shields and swords to boxing gloves and even different body parts such as a rubber duck which can replace your trusty mechanical limbs! Each of these items can be upgraded to give various different strengths and abilities that change it from a simple base item. However, one thing that quickly struck me (other than the enemies) is that it rarely seemed to matter which upgrades I applied to my items, as most of the larger enemies would simply take no effect from my hits unless I had an item that they were specifically weak against. With a random set of items every time you start a new run, it boiled down to luck choosing my fate over the upgrades I applied or how I used my weapons. With the game already proving to be one of the most difficult titles I have ever played, this truly didn’t help things along. But it wasn’t just my inability to put together a strong enough combo to beat my foes that was causing the issue, one of my biggest hassles comes direct from the games initial design.
The issue I’m talking about is the movement, with there being no option whatsoever to simply walk to a different location. With each step a sprint, I felt like I was practicing to take on Usain Bolt instead of simply traversing to a different area, and although for many a feature like this could offer some escape from the onslaught of machines, in this instance it only brings death to the player much quicker as the slightest push of the thumbsticks sends Heart hurtling into an enemies attacks. With weapons as effective as a loaf of Hovis, things quickly start to become frustrating.
Another flaw that quickly shone through was the way in which the story is presented. Many players will go on to attempt the rigorous challenge that is Heart&Slash without ever being aware that the game possesses any story beyond the tutorial whatsoever. Instead of giving the story to the player in a linear fashion as most games, you are sent on a silent wild goose chase to look for broken computers containing the rest of the games story. With nothing in place to tell you what to look out for or even anything suggesting that any of these items are indeed interactive, it seems like a vast part of the story could be very easily missed. If only aheartfulofgames had managed to squeeze in a more inclusive storyline then things could well have been beneficial. But without this it really takes away any possibility of an immersive experience.
With features that have been key to success in many other readily available titles, it comes as a huge disappointment that Heart&Slash has some of the simpler ideas missing. As if the previously mentioned flaws weren’t enough there is one other thing that for me really takes the fun out of this game and turns what could have been a fun experience into that of a chore. It is the lack of a difficulty option. Admittedly this may be the thing that keeps many players coming back for more, but for me it really stopped any enjoyment. With only three levels included in the entire game, I felt sure I had every chance to see them all, but with enemies proving much, much more difficult than I expected and no option to lower the brutal difficulty I found myself indeed haltered after several gruelling hours of being unable to even beat the first boss character. With no way of choosing my own weapons to ensure I held aloft some form of hope and some of the worst upgrades to ever grace a video game, I decided to throw in the towel and accept that many of the games’ vast ninety three enemies would not be challenged simply due to a difficulty spike more severe than anything I have experienced before. Something which proved to be the ultimate disappointment in an initially promising game.
Heart&Slash may come with a blocky art style akin to Minecraft, but it disappoints on so many levels. Due to a lack of features which fail to keep the game open and accessible whilst still offering that challenge that many gamers would be up for, and with an altogether hard to access story and strong repetitive feeling given throughout, this is certainly not a game I would choose to splash the cash on. Especially given the plethora of titles available on the Xbox store which have already succeeded where Heart&Slash fails.