It must be quite the daunting task for a studio best known for one of the most well known game franchises of all time to brave the ire of its considerable audience, branch out into pastures new and release a new IP. Especially when you happen to be Game Freak and that ‘well known game franchise’ just so happens to be the pop culture colossus that is Pokémon. Still, despite working on the world of pocket monsters for over two decades, the Tokyo-based developer has intermittently cleansed its own palette with the likes of Drill Dozer, Pocket Card Jockey and Tembo the Badass Elephant, each one offering a notably different experience to the last.

So with Little Town Hero it’s no great surprise to see director Masao Taya and the small team at his disposal actively attempt to produce something that’s distinct enough from the Pokémon series to stand in its own right (even if it is releasing a month before the launch of Pokémon Sword and Shield, for better or for worse). Turn-based and cutesy it may be, but Taya-san and co have opted for something that feels both new and instantly familiar, eschewing the grand scale of a traditional RPG for a deeper and more nuanced approach to strategy and combat phases. The result is a game that mixes lighthearted exploration with a series of boss battles that require you to master its mechanics rather than invest 45 hours leveling up your avatar.

Little Town Hero is technically an RPG, but not in the contemporary ways we’ve come to expect from this increasingly muddied genre. There’s no giant map to explore. There are no smaller enemies to defeat and use for XP grinding. There’s no XP of any kind. No weapons to loot or craft. No major branching storylines with dialogue options that completely rewrite the plot. In fact, Little Town Hero has more in common with modern digital CCGs (collectible card games) such as Hearthstone, Lightseekers and Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution than it does with, say, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Even your titular hero and the home in which he resides rails against RPG tradition. You can change Axe’s name if you wish, but you can’t change his hair colour or swap out his clothes. Or, indeed, his gender. He’s just a lad living in a village where the only real rule is ‘Don’t leave the village’. Legends say there are monsters roaming outside, so everyone from the workers who mine underground to the king himself remain within the confines of the village. In practice, that means you spend your time with Little Town Hero only roaming these same streets, fields and tunnels, from the grounds of the palace to the neighbourhood where Axe and his mother reside.

Being confined to one location sounds restrictive, but Axe’s home is full of interesting places to explore, from the mines in which he applies his trade all the way to the palace itself. The further you push into the story, the more places you’ll unlock, and after a while you begin to appreciate the little details of having one core location rather than running around a generic overworld for 50 hours. Much like its overall length, Axe’s home is a bite-size alternative to the genre norm that simplifies everything so its battle system can take centre stage.

Because combat really is Little Town Hero’s calling card (pun intended), and it’s where the game shines brightest. Rather than taking weapons or gear into a battle, Axe instead relies upon an arsenal… of ideas. With the power of a mysterious red gem found in the mines beneath his home, the redhead hero can actively conjure moves and actions into life with the power of his imagination. These ideas are known as ‘izzits’ and appear on a radial wheel you can spin to engage each idea individually. At this stage, an izzit is just a possibility. In order to use it, you need to give it Power. This transforms it into a ‘dazzit’, complete with its own Attack and Defence stats and a buff unique to that dazzit. Think of dazzits like cards in a deck or units in a tactics RPG that you need to spend traditional AP on to activate them.

When a dazzit’s defence is depleted it will ‘break’, removing it from the battle. Dazzits come in three different variations - yellow dazzits serve as shields and can be used multiple times in one turn; red dazzits serve as offensive attacks, but can only be used once per turn; blue dazzits cost power to use but offer unique special effects such as applying one damage to all enemy dazzits or increasing your own offensive stats. So effectively you have gear to protect you, weapons with which to attack your opponent and ‘spells’ to help improve your chances of success mid-battle. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is, but it’s there’s a lot of depth to unearth once you learn the intricacies of juggling dazzits, 'gimicks', supports and more.

Should you defeat all of your opponent’s dazzits, you’ll enter an All Break. If you have no red dazzits left, you’ll be awarded one BP (Break Point) and increase your Power meter, but only if both you and your opponent have run out of active dazzits. The more this meter fills, the more power you’ll have at your disposal. Much like traditional CCGs, fights can often last for more than 20 turns, but playing the long game means you’ll have more power and ability to play far stronger dazzits as a result. Everything comes down to tactics, and how well you use your power to bring certain dazzits into play. Which izzits are best suited to breaking all of your opponents dazzits? Should you try and go for a Chance Turn and damage your opponent or go for a clean All Break and earn a BP that could help revive an incredibly useful izzit?

By removing the need to grind for XP, Little Town Hero is far fairer experience that gives players all the tools they need to win a battle. The challenge comes in knowing exactly how to read a situation and how best to utilise your izzits and the environment around you. There’s a skill tree system of sorts that uses Eureka Points to level up your dazzits, so even if you die, you’re still awarded extra points so you can restart the battle with a slightly increased advantage. And, rather than keeping the battle to one static location, each main monster battle also takes place on a grid, where a counter randomly picks the number of spaces you need to move once a turn has been played out. Each location in the village has its own grid, each with their paths that reconnect to one another. Depending on where you are in the story, some points on the grid will contain support characters and gimicks that can be used in battle.

Gimicks are tools that require a specific dazzit in order to work, such as a powerful cannon or a surprisingly deadly chicken. Support characters provide a powerful additional attack that vary in effect (such as Matock’s direct strikes to the guts or hearts or Pasmina’s ability to restore your guts and revive ideas). Support characters can be used as soon as you land on a given point on the grid, while gimicks often need further planning in order to utilise their specific power at the right time with the right dazzit. You can even learn powerful new ideas by landing on spots with an exclamation mark, such as the Bomb Combo. Better yet, utilise the right dazzit and you can gain Free Mobility - a mechanic that enables you to manually choose your next location.

Still with us after all that izzit-dazzit-dizzit talk? In practice, the system is easy enough to pick up. There’s certainly plenty of choice when it comes to tactics - even taking a hit and losing a heart comes with its benefits if used at the right time - but like any game that borrows from CCGs, there’s a randomised element to every battle that’s a little too wild to control. The strength and severity of your opponents dazzits are often far too unpredictable, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed with a flurry of offensive buffs that strip all the bite out of your own. As much you plan, there’s always a random element to your opponent’s arsenal that can sometimes make combat either severely unfair or downright easy.

Little Town Hero is still aiming for more of a casual RPG feel overall, serving up a story that’s simple enough for even the youngest of players to soak in and enjoy, and a visual style that fits into the living cartoon aesthetic the Pokémon series has been rolling with for years now. Even Toby Fox’s upbeat soundtrack has a tonal simplicity to it, although it does lack the stylistic diversity found in his outstanding soundtrack for Undertale. His music invokes the early days of The Legend of Zelda, but it lacks that memorable quality. Battles themselves tend to last a lot longer than those found in other turn-based RPGs, but these encounters are the meat & potatoes of Little Town Hero’s adventure and long fights ultimately produce more diverse and more powerful izzits that systematically empower you in later battles.

As a Switch-only experience, Little Town Hero runs relatively well, although we did occasionally encounter some noticeable slowdown when exiting an interior location. Eschewing all side-quests - of which there are many scattered across the settlement - you’re looking at around 10-12 hours to finish up the main story, but you could add another five or more if you want to complete every quest and really fill out your directory of izzits and dazzits. That is substantially less than most RPGs, but Little Town Hero isn’t trying to be another Final Fantasy or Tales entry. This is an RPG tailored for the pick-up-and-play bursts that Nintendo Switch was created for, and while it’s noticeably slighter than Pokémon (a casual RPG in its own right), Little Town Hero has been priced accordingly, making it far more palatable as a short-term tactical experience.

Conclusion

In an era where every RPG - and every genre that’s assimilated roleplay mechanics into their DNA - have used grinding and oversized maps to extend their playtimes into figures only a select few can truly undertake, Little Town Hero has confidently opted for a shorter experience that’s more akin to the pace, style and sedate pace of Animal Crossing than a traditional RPG or JRPG. However, with a battle system that trades XP levelling for a purer sense of tactical planning and experimentation (albeit with an unpredictable spike difficulty), Game Freak proves that a ‘casual’ game can still have plenty of imagination, even on a smaller scale. It's far from essential, but if you love CCG-style combat and can't stomach another 100-hour RPG, there's much to like in Little Town Hero.