Report Card: Loop Hero (Review)

The world is dying. In fact, the world is very nearly dead. All that remains is your campfire and a desolate, circular path. All you can do is walk that path out into the void until it leads back to the warm familiarity of your camp. Suddenly, you remember something. Wasn’t there a meadow over there, and a mountain next to it? Shouldn’t there be a graveyard at the next bend, with a village just beyond? As if on cue, the places you recall materialize in their rightful places. That’s it! As long as you can walk this path and focus on trying to remember the way the world used to be, maybe, just maybe you can bring it all back. But whenever you stop to rest, whatever evil force is destroying the world undoes your work. So you wake up and start over, hoping this will be your last trip around the loop.

That’s the premise of Loop Hero, the new game from developer Four Quarters Team and published by Devolver Digital. The world is on the brink of disappearing, and the only way to save it is to rebuild creation piece by piece. Pieces are earned through combat, and their placement has dramatic effects. Along the way players will collect resources which can be used for camp upgrades, but don’t get too greedy. Each trip around the loop will be harder than the last, and if you fall in battle most of your rewards will dissolve alongside the world you’ve built. Survive and rebuild long enough, and you’re bound to find out who’s destroying your world.

Fitting its dire setting, Loop Hero sports dark pixelated graphics and a moody chiptune soundtrack. Walking the loop is animated with very simple sprites, while battles and conversations feature more detailed artwork. The colors aren’t vibrant, consisting mostly of greys, blacks, and browns, but they succeed in building a grim, oppressive atmosphere that never crosses the line into horror territory. The music is an excellent cherry on top of Loop Hero‘s sinister atmosphere sundae, featuring some truly exceptional boss themes.

Loop Hero isn’t your typical gaming experience, it almost plays itself. The hero walks around the loop automatically and combat is automated. Players can only influence combat indirectly through equipment management. Each piece of equipment has a numerical rank, the higher the better, and a color indicating rarity. Rarer items boost more stats than common items, but which stats any item has are random. Equipment drops fairly frequently from combat encounters, which makes for plenty of decision making opportunities. Is boosting a stat worth a sacrifice to raw damage? Is it worth it to let some quality gear pass you by to focus on one particular stat? It feels great when you get a good loadout going, but can be frustrating when the enemies improve faster than you do. 

The other rewards for successful combat encounters are cards. Cards let you rebuild the world around the loop, and each type of landmark has a different effect on the game. Mountains increase the hero’s maximum health, meadows restore health each day, forests grant wood but spawn enemies, and so on. It may sound like a straightforward system, but it’s really quite brilliant thanks to the interactions between cards. Place meadows next to other structures, the meadow will bloom and restore even more health per day, line a Storm Temple up with a forest to start a forest fire that grants a different boost than the forest did alone. Those are just two examples, rest assured there are many, many more to find. Card interaction allows for high-level strategic decision making, and the effects of a good pairing can really help you progress.

Both equipment and cards are random rewards from combat, but not everything is left to chance. Huddled around the hero’s campfire, a small group of survivors try to eke out a living in the void. Resources gained from the hero’s expeditions into what remains of the world can be used to build structures at camp for the survivors to use. Every building brings some manner of benefit to the hero, ranging from new hero classes to permanent boosts and more. Perhaps the most impactful benefit a building can have is the addition of new cards to place on the hero’s expeditions. Building up a healthy base camp is one of the few direct ways for players to enhance their hero and give them a fighting chance at saving the world.

The main objective of Loop Hero is, as I mentioned earlier, to rebuild the world. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will the world be restored in one outing. After all, every time the hero returns to camp, the outside world fades away. No permanent progress can be made until you draw out the force responsible for the world’s destruction. Fortunately, confronting your foe is as simple as rebuilding the world! If you can place enough cards around the map, a gauge will fill and a boss will spawn back at your camp. Successfully complete the loop in progress, and the showdown begins! Since combat isn’t something players have direct control over, it’s very important to fill the boss gauge as quickly as possible. The longer you take to fill the gauge, the more loops the hero will complete, and the stronger enemies become.

As I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, the gameplay of Loop Hero involves a lot of randomness. The natural outcome of leaning on randomness is some runs going just right, most runs going just ok, and a few runs going down in flames almost immediately. The problem comes from just how long runs can take. An ok run, one that earned a lot of resources but wasn’t good enough to kill a boss, almost never took me less than 30 minutes. At least half of that 30 minutes was spent with the game paused while managing equipment or deciding where to place cards. I don’t think spending that much time with the game paused would feel noteworthy if Loop Hero wasn’t so content to just play itself without any input from me. The start/stop nature of the game as I played it didn’t stop me from enjoying Loop Hero by any means, but it was just enough to bother me on longer expeditions.

I think Loop Hero succeeds in being an interesting roguelike RPG. The writing is entertaining,  the gameplay is compelling, and the length of the game is just about right. The card placement and strategy involved is brilliant, easily Loop Hero’s best feature. Managing equipment and cards can become a very involved and slightly tedious process in lengthy expeditions, but it feels great when everything comes together to make a successful run. If you’re into novel gameplay mechanics and aren’t afraid of starting over, Loop Hero is well worth your time.

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