After working on the Trine trilogy of physics-based adventure games, it's safe to say that Frozenbyte knows its way around the fantasy genre. Continuing in the grand tradition of sending three adventurers off on a harrowing quest, Nintendo Switch has now been graced with Has-Been Heroes, an RPG that blends elements of the roguelike and tower defense genres in an attempt to bring a unique experience to Nintendo's newest platform. While it's safe to say that Has-Been Heroes is indeed unique, it may stray a little too far off of the familiar path.
Your adventure begins when the King summons you to embark on a highly important quest: escorting the kingdom's Princesses to school. Right from the beginning we're introduced to the game's running gag that, while once highly respected and idolized, your characters' time has come and gone and they have been reduced to little more than glorified Crossing Guards. While the world and characters are deeply embedded in fantasy tropes, it's all presented in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, making light of the idea of infallible heroes and casting the characters in a more vulnerable light.
Your characters and the combat are introduced early on in a tutorial that does well to welcome new players to the world of Has-Been Heroes, then it's right onto the meat of the game. Stages are all set up the same, placing your heroes in three horizontal rows that span the length of the screen. Enemies gradually enter from the right, also maintaining an orderly march in the designated rows. In true turn-based fashion, you are able to attack or cast a spell whenever one of your heroes' meters fills up, so timing your attacks is critical. Though commands can only be given when it's the appropriate character's turn, the whole thing plays out more along the lines of a tower defense game or, more bluntly, a Plants Vs. Zombies clone.
While the concept is simple, the controls are, in a word, baffling. Rather than sticking with the tried and true method of pressing A to select a character and pressing it again to attack or cast a spell, the controls are instead assigned to the three rows that your characters occupy. The X, Y, and B buttons are each mapped to separate rows, and pressing them will essentially activate the character that is positioned there, allowing you to then command their action. Melee attacks are executed by pressing A, then you can have your characters swap rows after an attack action has been completed.
If you elect to cast a spell rather than perform a melee attack, the left stick or D-Pad can be used to navigate a small menu that is always present at the bottom left of the screen. Spells are then selected with the R trigger and cast with a second tap of R. The same commands are used are used to navigate the over world map, except the right stick is used to move from one location to another on a map menu on the bottom right of the screen, again with the R trigger making selections.
Normally it's not worth exploring a game's control mapping in depth in a review, but the inputs here are so cumbersome that they actually make the game more difficult to play. You can eventually get a good rhythm and flow once you've figured it all out, but it's easy to lose your place when the battles grow more hectic. In what can at times be a fast-paced game, the controls should not be your greatest enemy. It's also worth noting that there are no options to remap the inputs. Rather than sticking with the classic RPG trope of flooding the screen with pop-up menus, Frozenbyte took a gamble with a unique control scheme that doesn't pay off.
The roguelike elements come in both on and off of the battlefield. Each time you start a new game a whole new map will be available to explore, and you never know how many enemies might show up with each battle that you encounter. The roguelike nature of the adventures keeps things interesting, but this can also either make or break the game. Rather than just running into battles on the map, you can also find treasure chests, merchants, and a spell vendor that resembles a sort of fantasy gashapon. The maps are always different, so where you go, who you battle, and what you collect is determined entirely at random.
The randomization of the maps and encounters is a great way to keep a repetitive game feeling fresh and draw its players in, but it also leaves too much up to chance. There is such a huge swing between a successful run and one that ends early that it's difficult to determine whether or not this game is genuinely difficult, or if it's just unfair. Even if you're a great strategist and you can get into the rhythm of battles, there's no accounting for sheer bad luck. It often feels like the game's biggest joke is that it's actively working against you, but it's happening in a way that bullies its players more than welcomes them to laugh along with it.
Has-Been Heroes is a game that is full of great ideas but gets dragged down by poor execution. The way it combines RPG and roguelike elements with basic tower defense gameplay has so much potential that it unfortunately can't live up to in the face of imbalanced difficulty curves and unwieldy controls. It feels much more like a proof of concept that, with time and updates, could some day lead to a great adventure.