Next Up Hero is a strange beast.
Coming from developers Digital Continue, it is described as a Gauntlet style dungeon crawler, but there is more to it than just that. See, in addition to roaming around the arena style levels murdering lots of baddies, the game will also allow you to create your own fiendish dungeon, and then the community can be challenged to beat what you have made. Having prepared myself for action, I dived into the melee.
The story revolves around a song and the two main characters in the game; Quinn, a Royal with something to prove (haven’t they all?) and Ovalia, a working class girl who wants to show she is just as good as royalty. They live in a spoken world and are at an Academy that will teach them how to sing the world into harmony. And yes, it only gets weirder from here on out, so hold tight!
The world is at peace due to the efforts of these singers, but just lately a malign influence has joined the song. Known only as the Ceaseless Dirge, this song is spawning monsters into the world and our two singers either decide to do something about it, or are sent to do something about it. It’s not entirely clear which route is taken. When they reach the location that the Ceaseless Dirge is coming from, they perform a special song to allow them to summon heroes to do battle on their behalf, and this is where the game truly begins.
Once the singing starts, Quinn and Ovalia fade into the background somewhat, only appearing in static cutscenes where they discuss what’s happening. These conversations are earned each time you level up, so in addition to rewards of in-game currency, levelling up advances the story and provides some explanation as to what’s going on.
So, having heard the song begin, we now need to choose which of the avatars we wish to play as. The main choice is between a melee or a ranged character, with the usual restrictions each class places on us. You know, ranged characters are squishy but fast and able to fight from a distance, while melee characters are tougher but slower, a tankier style of play if you will. Being a firm believer in pain happening at arm’s distance, I initially chose a pink haired, bazooka toting lady called Morta. She has two main attacks; a straight rocket shot mapped to the RT and a mortar style attack actioned via the LT. This is the same pattern for all the heroes as their main attack and special attacks utilise the same buttons. Each character also has a prestige attack, which you have to unlock by upgrading the characters to their prestige model. This is done with the currency dropped by defeated monsters, so as you can imagine the grind is being set up from first principles. The prestige attacks come in to play thanks to clicking the left stick, which makes it somewhat awkward to use when you are frantically kiting around an enemy. For instance, Morta’s prestige attack is a rocket jump, which allows her to damage enemies and leap out of danger. That comes in very handy when you’re being swarmed.
From there you will need to choose yourself a level of difficulty and there are the usual options of easy or normal available from the get-go, with hard and insane difficulties locked away. There are also the featured levels, which are arenas that have been selected by the developers from the dungeons that have been created by the userbase.
Each dungeon has a varying amount of levels, and in an interesting move when you reach the end and face off against the boss, upon beating it, you are offered a choice: kill the boss and bring the dungeon to an end, or show mercy and extend the dungeon, facing off against them again at a later date for a chance of better loot. En route to the boss, the various levels all come with different themes, ranging from the simple, where you just have to kill a set number of enemies to unlock the exit, to the ridiculous and those of “Don’t Be Greedy” which if you pick up prestige coins, they deal damage. Other level types include Darkness, Alter-Echo – where you fight a shadow version of yourself – and Mayhem which sees both you and all the enemies running with just one HP.
Next Up Hero plays like a twin stick shooter, complicated by the need to press one of the triggers to actually shoot. But there is another twist to the gameplay as well, and this comes in the form of Echoes.
Listening to the two singers speak, Echoes are something they’ve never experienced before, and basically they are the dead bodies of players who’ve attempted the levels before. If you wander up to the sad, crumpled little corpses, a swift press of the Y button will see them resurrected to fight at your side. Awesome, right? Your own army of minions to do your bidding? Well, it gets even better because as you summon more and more Echoes, there comes the chance to summon Ancients – powerful beings that can turn the tide of battle in your favour. Each ancient costs a number of Echoes to summon, with the best powers requiring a sacrifice of more minions than the weaker ones. With powers ranging from a shield that reflects damage, all the way up to 100% extra health and damage (very useful in the later stages of a run, believe me!), Ancients can make the difference between victory and defeat; the tactical implications of which to summon, and when, add to the gameplay.
But you won’t be left to run through Next Up Hero alone as it also comes with co-op included – either of the couch variety or online. This works very well, allowing the chance for friends to heal and help. If you choose to help them, you appear in their game, taking the fight to the bad guys, but the co-op only seems to last for the level that you are on, with each new stage seeing you left along again. There is also no lobby system, so if you want to play with someone, it’s a case of searching for a particular set of levels and hoping you get paired up. This sees the online co-op coming across as a bit of a faff, if I’m honest.
Thankfully the dungeon designing is fairly straightforward, although a tutorial may well help. Basically, you choose a level, where it is and of what type, before then rinsing and repeating. Some stages cost Grand Tokens to add, which you get for killing bosses, and you can also choose to invest Prestige Coins to allow rarer monsters to appear, or to power up a certain type of monster. Once you have the number of levels you want, and added in the boss you wish players to face, you can then release it to the world. Well, at least, that’s the theory because every level I have built has seemingly disappeared into the ether. Whether I’d done something wrong, or they were hidden away somewhere I don’t know, but theoretically the first person to attempt your dungeon should be you.
Graphically and Next Up Hero is very good, with a pleasing hand drawn style that sees the heroes and monsters catch your eye. The arena-like levels vary in size from fairly small, to sprawling mammoths where finding all the monsters and killing them is almost accidental. The arenas themselves have different themes, such as Forest or Tundra, and do the job sufficiently well. The bosses are all quite different as well, and show touches of imagination that is appreciated. The sound effects are again serviceable, with weapon effects and monster cries both present and correct, but oddly in a game that’s based on a song, the music makes no impression at all. Whether it’s because the levels are so frantic that concentration is required, or whether it’s just not very good, I can’t say.
That should see Next up Hero coming across as alright then eh? The gameplay is solid, the design is good and the game is fun, but not everything in the garden is rosy. There just seems to be a lack of polish to the finished product, with slowdown appearing when the levels get busy, and especially during the co-op action. This is no more true than when your co-op partner would leave first, seeing the display corrupting and the stage needing to be reset. It’s not like the game would crash as such, as I could still move and shoot and hear that I was doing it, but with the display messed up it’s impossible to find the exit. Add to this various crashes, completely black screens upon level loading and more, and the game just feels like it needs a little more love in the testing phase.
If you can get hold of Next Up Hero as part of Xbox Game Pass, then playing it is a no-brainer. It’s fast, fun, challenging and with the chance to build your own dungeons and test the world, it’s an enticing proposition. If you need to pay for the game with real actual money, then things get a bit trickier. There is a lot of fun to had, but there are also quite a lot of issues that need working out, and the online co-op can be a bit hit and miss if you want to play with friends.
All in all though, Next Up Hero is a good game – it just could be better and more polished.