When you get right down to it, almost every game consists of a very simple loop. For example, every Mario 2D platformer ultimately is nothing more than having the famed plumber jump over obstacles and run to the right. We’re rarely focused on the repetition, however, because it’s the new things that happen on each new trip ‘around the loop’ that makes it so interesting. Loop Hero is the ultimate example of this; Devolver Digital’s latest release is an RPG that’s focused on… walking in circles. And yet it’s impossible to put down.
Loop Hero puts you in the role of a nameless hero who’s charged with bringing the world back after it was destabilized and eradicated by a mysterious lich. The world is now a formless void filled with bits and pieces of what used to be, and even the hero’s memories of it have been eaten away, too. Luckily, your hero has the unique ability to cause things to stop fading, so you set out on a quest to slay the cosmic foes that ruined everything and hopefully find some way to bring it all back again.
Admittedly, it feels like the story is simply here to provide justification for the endless looping design of the gameplay, but we rather enjoyed the subtle humor that permeates through all the dialogue and descriptions. There’s just enough dry humor here to keep things from getting too serious, though you likely won’t be spending too much of your time focusing on the story.
In case you haven’t inferred it from the title, Loop Hero is all about repetition. Each time you set out on a new Expedition, your hero will spawn on a short, freshly generated path that takes only a couple minutes to fully traverse. The key thing here, however, is that you don’t manually control your hero at all. Rather, you flip the game between paused and active states, while making little changes along the way in a sort of 'inverted' take on the tower defense genre. Your hero simply walks forward on the loop and automatically fights anything that gets in his way, so it’s up to you to put things in his way that will make him stronger. You can make it easy on him if you want to, but then he’ll get bodied by the boss at the end of the expedition. If you make it too hard, however, he’ll never even make it that far.
The types and amounts of enemies you fight on the loop, then, is entirely dependent upon your strategy, and this lends Loop Hero an interesting depth given that where you put the enemies is just as important as which ones you spawn. For instance, if you put too many spiders’ nests in a row and aren’t properly geared for that gauntlet, the hero will likely become seriously wounded or be killed. You must put down the spider nests somewhere, however, because each new element you add to the loop fills up the boss gauge a little bit more, and once that’s full, you’re given a chance to take your shot at the current chapter’s boss. More importantly, it’s in your best interests to get the hero through as many battles as you reasonably can, because each fight offers up critical resources for success.
Not only do foes often drop crafting ingredients (more on that later), but they also drop important spawn cards and loot for you to kit out the hero with. The loot is especially important, as this is the primary element that controls your hero’s stats. Loop Hero positively showers you with new weapons and armor as you fight through the hordes, and like all great loot systems, there are always compromises you have to weigh when putting on new gear. Every now and then you’ll get that perfect drop that’s a clear upgrade from your current equipment, but more often it’s more nuanced than that. That new sword may bolster that lifesteal stat you want to increase, but it’ll also drop your defense lower than you'd like. Your current shield might not be cutting it for the enemies you’re facing, but do you really want to give it up and lose that big damage boost it gives you? Every loop is packed with tough and meaningful decisions, which helps greatly in warding off the staleness that sets in from literally walking in circles.
Loot is only half the equation here, however, as spawn cards are just as important. As mentioned above, these are your only way of progressing to the boss, and there are quite a few ways they can affect your adventure. Each card will let you build on one cell on the map, and some cards can be placed on the loop itself while others have to be placed in certain areas outside of it. All of them are beneficial to you, though some of them are much more directly useful. Meadows and mountains, for example, will positively raise your max health and regen capabilities, while villages will slightly heal your character when he passes through and give him a ‘quest’ that grants him some nice new loot if he can kill the monster in question.
Things are given more nuance, however, in that these cards represent where the deckbuilding element of Loop Hero comes in. Before each expedition, you first put together a hand of cards that will comprise the pool that the enemy kills draw from for that expedition. Though cards can spawn from enemy kills endlessly once you’re in an expedition, there are only so many types of cards you can have in your hand prior to leaving for it. So, if you want to add that new wheat field card—which bolsters the healing you get in villages—into the rotation, you’re going to have to remove another one to make room for it. If you drop an enemy spawning card, you’ll be missing out on the resources they offer on death and lower the chances of randomly drawing an enemy card, which inevitably leads to your character being weaker. If you drop a more directly helpful card, it’ll be that much harder to overcome the enemies you spawn. Balancing your hand takes time and experimentation, then, and this is made all the more interesting as you slowly unlock more advanced cards and have to pick between them.
We wouldn’t say that Loop Hero feels like a deckbuilder in the same way that Slay the Spire or One Step From Eden do, but this card system nonetheless adds some fun strategy elements both during and outside of runs. It’s always equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking when you unlock a new card, as each one meaningfully changes the way you approach each expedition. Meanwhile, each loop of your expeditions remains dynamic because you never know which cards may drop from the next enemy encounter.
As you advance on an expedition, you’re sure to amass a large collection of resources and goodies that you can take back with you to your base of operations to tip the odds in your favor. Here, you can build out new facilities like a smithy or a farm that will unlock more spawn cards and open up new gameplay elements like the ability to drink healing potions on an expedition or new class types. Most importantly, your investments at your base carry over between runs, and the permanence of these upgrades makes them some of the most meaningful boosts you can get in Loop Hero. No matter how poor you are at managing your hero’s stats and journey on an expedition, you can eventually overcome the difficulty by making upgrades back at the base that’ll give you more of a headstart for your next try.
This base building aspect gives Loop Hero a nice sense of forward progress that will appeal more to those who aren’t as wooed by the punishing nature of roguelikes. Sure, your carefully constructed, perfect loop may be annihilated when you die or retreat back to the camp, but knowing that you didn’t lose all your progress aids greatly in keeping you invested. It’s quite easy to get back to camp and either make an upgrade or see that you’re just shy of being able to get one, which then spurs you to get back out there and try ‘one more time’ for the fifth time that night.
The downside to this part of the gameplay, however, is that it can also lead to Loop Hero’s progression feeling too gated and slowed-down. Facility upgrades are costly and the resources you gather on an expedition often feel like they’re being trickled to you a little slower than you’d like. As you get beyond the first few hours, this upgrade system then begins to turn into a full on grind as the requirements become notably higher and take that much longer to achieve. This has the effect of dulling some of the magic of Loop Hero’s gameplay, and may make it feel too repetitive. Fortunately, the core gameplay of constantly managing your hero’s journey as he loops around proves to be dynamic and varied enough that these shortcomings with the upgrade economy aren’t too egregious.
As you’ve probably inferred from reading thus far, Loop Hero is less about playing the game itself and more about balancing the consequences of making a million decisions at once. It’s almost like a management sim in how you’re more focused on numbers and menus than you are on moving a character around and exploring a world. It may sound a little too busy, but there’s something distinctly satisfying about how compact and distilled everything is in Loop Hero. This isn’t a game where you’re wasting time running across long, empty fields to turn in a quest or mashing through lengthy dialogue sequences or cutscenes so you can move on to what’s next; it’s taking all the parts that are directly fun about a traditional RPG and stripping out virtually everything else.
From a presentation perspective, Loop Hero manages to satisfy with its charming and simple visuals. The semi-frequent instances of dialogue feature some nicely detailed sprite work, while the expedition segments are basic but very easy to read considering how much can be going on at once. Loop Hero isn’t a very colorful game—it leans really heavily on murky, dark colors—but it feels fitting for the tone and has a memorable aesthetic that feels distinct from being ‘just’ another pixel art indie title.
Similarly, the usage of deliberately low-quality soundbites for things like a crow cawing or a harpy clawing adds to the retro appeal without feeling like the developers phoned it in. Oh, and the music is utterly fantastic – especially the tunes that play during the final dash to one of the boss characters.
Loop Hero proves to be a fascinating and creative take on an RPG, distilling the genre down to its most important gameplay elements and throwing in some fresh ideas. Though some may be put off by the obviously repetitive nature of the core gameplay, Loop Hero is a consistently rewarding and engaging game that’ll easily get its hooks in you. The light deckbuilding elements, anti-tower defense gameplay, and solidly paced loot system make Loop Hero easy to love and we’d give this one a high recommendation to anyone interested in trying something a little different.