Heart&Slash is a frantic, procedurally generated, hack-and-slash with a crazy pace and memorably boppy tunes. A tough game with rogue-like elements, it’s an impressive first entry from indie developers aheartfulofgames. There is much to love about the challenging combat and colourful ‘80s feel of Heart&Slash, and it is a great addition to the hack-and-slash genre. However, the game does have a few issues typical of a developer’s first release, which detracted a little from my experience.
Awaking as the robot ‘Heart’ (“The Cheerful Robot”), you must navigate the now-abandoned factory where you were automatically built, 100 years after the ‘Robolution’. Most of the factory’s robots are set on their pre-programmed goal of protecting the facility by destroying all intruders, but Heart is different. Heart has spunk and determination (and benevolence, if you choose it) and is on a quest to discover why it awoke. Gameplay consists of fighting your way through the facility and other environments, defeating a heap of enemies and encountering various bosses and NPCs who advance the game’s metaplot. Enemies drop bolts, which can be used to upgrade equipment, weapons, and your robot body. Heart&Slash isn’t quite a rogue-like, but has distinctively rogue-like features. The game is tough and unforgiving – there are no checkpoints or saves. Every time you die, that’s it for your current run and equipment set. However, if you choose to start another run immediately after dying, you will be granted an experience boost, which will help you progress through the beginning of the game more quickly during your new run.
My first impression of Heart&Slash’s combat was of hyperactive chaos. The tutorial is strange and very old fashioned, with a lot of dialogue to tap through before you are able to test out the controls. Once you are allowed to move, it takes a few minutes to acclimatise to the extremely fast movement speed and camera. The tutorial is also strangely lacking in sound effects – it’s oddly disconcerting to hit things in a hack-and-slash and for no sound to issue. Luckily, this quirk was only present in the tutorial, and once I began my first real run, the soundtrack kicked in, I became more comfortable with the game’s controls, and found myself really enjoying the combat.
Combat is the shiny soul of Heart&Slash – it’s where the core gameplay takes place, and it is excellent fun. The combat system is subtle, allowing for a lot of variation in expression – more simply put, there are just so, so many different ways to destroy your enemies. As Heart, you are very nimble and able to jump to amazing heights. You have a normal and special attack (square and triangle respectively on PS4), which you can combine into epic aerial combos, as well as having the dexterity to change quickly between weapons during an attack. Heart can wield three weapons at a time. One is your main, and the other two can be accessed by holding down the left or right shoulder button and attacking at the same time, allowing for very quick changes between light and heavy weapon types. These elements, combined with the way that your nimbleness allows you to play enemies off against one another, herd them, and trick them in order to defeat them, makes for very satisfying combat.
Heart&Slash features a slew of different weapons, which are unlocked as you achieve goals throughout the game. One of the most exciting moments of the game is entering the starting chamber in a fresh run and discovering which 3 randomly spawned weapons and/or pieces of equipment you’ll be playing with during your run. The game is procedurally generated, apart from the opening two rooms, which always have the same layout. Once you leave that space there’s a lot of variety in terms of rooms, platforming obstacles, and enemy types. The randomness of the environments and enemies makes for great fun. The tedium of starting a fresh run is offset by the excitement of discovering what new places and equipment you might discover. I don’t really like ‘hard death’ games – probably because I’m a very story-driven gamer – however, the levels in Heart&Slash are distinct enough, and the range of weapons interesting enough that I greatly enjoyed the core gameplay in spite of my usual distaste for hard death games.
Narrative progression in Heart&Slash is strange. During every run you must interact with the same narrative checkpoints in order to progress; however, choices that you make during one run will shape what happens later in the game’s metaplot. For example, during one run I decided to spare a certain character, which led to a later encounter (in a different run) in which that same character tried to protect, rather than destroy me (out of gratitude for my benevolence). I believe the idea behind this is that after each unsuccessful run your memory is wiped, rather than your robot body being entirely destroyed. However, this is at odds with the way you are shown an animation of a ‘new’ Heart being assembled at the beginning of each run. Even if only Heart’s memory was being reset – rather than its entire body destroyed and built from scratch – it doesn’t particularly make sense for Heart to remember what it did during previous runs. Playing Heart&Slash over and over feels mostly like playing through a slew of alternate timelines – the metaplot progression between runs is at odds with this ‘alternate timelines’ feeling.
The aesthetic and awesome soundtrack of Heart&Slash are what makes it stand out. They provide the polish the game needs to succeed amongst its competitors in the hack-and-slash genre. The fonts, UI design and palette are strongly reminiscent of the 80s, with a number of the environments feeling similar to 1982’s Tron. This is complimented by the nostalgia of returning to straightforward, hack-and-slash gameplay.
Although I enjoyed Heart&Slash overall, my first session playing it was largely negative, thanks to the game’s frustratingly old-fashioned tutorial. Players like to learn by doing, and feeling as though they are figuring out the game’s features for themselves. The classroom instruction, ‘now do as I say’ style of tutorial is tedious, and Heart&Slash sadly utilises this style. If it weren’t for the fact that the game’s narrative background is also established during the tutorial, I would advise skipping it entirely and just figuring out the controls for yourself – if you’ve ever played another hack-and-slash game, it won’t be hard.
Adding to my frustrations during my first session of Heart&Slash was the poor signalling of the environments. You are initially told to ‘follow the signs’ in order to progress, but there are so many signs built into the environment – for example, bright, flashing ‘Warning’ signs hanging on many walls – that I struggled to understand which signs the game was talking about. After I figured out which signs to follow, I dismissed the rest as decoration. This too, was a mistake – in one instance, I rushed into a room full of electrocuting lasers because I failed to heed the ‘Danger’ warning, assuming it was simply part of the environment.
While the UI of Heart&Slash is nicely stylised, it isn’t very intuitive. The map is a particular qualm. The map is very useful – once you find it and figure out how to use it. Although it appears 2D while viewed from the HUD, it’s actually three dimensional. This is not a problem once you’ve figured it out, but until you do, you may find yourself frustrated by the (seeming) lack of logic of not being able to access a room that looks to be right beside you, but is actually beneath you. Upgrading equipment is a little hidden too. I figured out fairly quickly that the bolts you collect from defeating enemies had to be spent on upgrades in order to progress. It took me much longer to realise that I could upgrade my robot body as well as my equipment – knowledge that would have really helped, had I known earlier in the game.
All this brings us back to the tutorial, which is very explicit about certain things and yet totally omits other pieces of information that would have been really useful early on. For example, how to recover health – you may scrap your weapons and equipment in exchange for a small HP fix. I only discovered this through exploring the menus, which I don’t really mind doing; however, if a designer goes to the trouble of creating a really explicit tutorial, then it’s probably a good idea to include that kind of information.
Heart&Slash is good fun, but is plagued with a few flaws that are to be expected of an indie company’s first release. All up, it’s a great contribution to the genre, possessing the heart and soul (pun totally intended) of a hack-and-slash, a slew of interesting items, challengingly fun combat, and a long list of achievements to keep you running.