No one likes kicking the bucket in a game. Whether you’re licking your wounds in a beat-’em-up or lamenting a mistimed jump in a platformer, death is the constant that keeps us coming back for more with respawns, ‘Game Over’ screens and more. But what if popping your proverbial clogs could be used as a gaming mechanic that actually helps you? Not an ominous bloodstain on the floor or a warning-like corpse, but an army of ghosts ready to help fight the fight they couldn’t finish?
That’s the premise behind Next Up Hero, and it makes for a Diablo-lite dungeon crawler that’s both immensely fun and utterly frustrating in equal measure. With a bright, hand-drawn art style somewhere between a Pop Cap mobile game and Skylanders, Digital Continue’s latest project has bags of charm right from the off. Its procedurally generated levels come in all manner of sizes, offering a vast selection of randomised setups that refresh every few days. You can even create your own and share these monster-filled levels with others.
Known as the Ceaseless Dirge in the game’s story, these enemies aren’t just there to provide a challenge. They also happen to drop items that can help shape your loadout. Once you’ve picked your chosen Hero (including a dual-wielding DJ called Mixtape and a bongo drum-toting warrior by the name of Symposer), you can unlock new abilities and buffs by collecting enough enemy-specific tokens. There are also Prestige Tokens, which are used to unlock new Heroes, upgrade existing ones and - in a neat twist - increase the chances of encountering rare enemies (and, thus, rarer loot) in a level.
As a top-down dungeon crawler, you’ll likely know what to expect when it comes to the familiar grind of killing every enemy in the vicinity and collecting stuff to spend later. However, don’t be lulled into a false sense of sword-swinging superiority. Next Up Hero is mercilessly difficult, even on its easiest difficulty setting. Health can’t be restored once lost and it won’t be replenished after completing each level, so you’ll need to rely on the support of those ghost-like Echoes and the Ancients they unlock.
Ah yes, those ‘ghosts’ we were talking about. Everytime a player dies, they leave behind a spectral version of themselves. You’ll find a handful of these beings lying on the floor of each colourful dungeon, and you’ll need to hold ‘X’ to revive them. Once restored, you can recruit up to eight of them at once and they’ll automatically follow you and attack any nearby enemy without the need to command them. A couple of Echoes won’t make much difference to an enemy’s health pool, but get a horde of them going and they’re a welcome way to distract more powerful foes.
Echoes can also perish, and there’s only a pre-determined number on each level, so there’s a satisfying reward to using them sparingly, especially on the harder difficulties. Ancients use Echoes like a sacrificial currency, enabling you to unlock additional powers (such as Ely’s temporary health boost or Numbskull’s melee assistance). You can customise which Ancients you want to use in the pre-game loadout, and you’ll need to decide whether sacrificing your Echoes to unlock a certain power is worth the risk of going it alone.
These are all really rewarding systems that show Digital Continue is a developer with real talent and vision, but there are real problems with the game that hold it back from gelling as a cohesive procedural whole. Enemy AI is far too aggressive, and their individual damage outlays are far too high. Add in the fact that the game’s dash mechanic is mapped to a press of the right analog stick (which never feels natural), and that it has a cooldown timer, and you realise the only viable option is to choose a ranged character and pepper every enemy from afar.
You can play the game in online co-op, which does alleviate some of the steep difficulty (you can drop into another player’s game mid-battle, or have another Hero join your quest while you’re doing the same), but it’s a balance issue that should have been addressed by now. It should be noted that this is an online-only experience as every level is stored and shared on a server. If you’re playing away from a Wi-Fi connection, or you have poor connection issues, you simply won’t be able to enjoy it.
There’s also the many serious technical issues Next Up Hero brings with it to Switch. Slowdown is a real problem for this game, especially when there are lots of characters on screen at once. Considering the game is all about having lots of Echoes fighting in your corner, and a wave of enemy types trying to rush you, you’ll start encountering serious drops in frames a handful of times per level.
Then there’s the fact that it continually crashes, freezing the game and locking the HD Rumble into a perpetual state of angry vibration. There’s no way to save the game in this state, so a hard reset of the software is the only way to solve it; all those foes you just ground through, all those Prestige Tokens you collected and all that time you spent carefully finding Echoes is gone. Our review copy froze in this way three times in our first couple of hours alone and the problem persisted throughout our playthrough.
There’s plenty to like about Next Up Hero. Turning death into an applicable AI co-op mechanic is a neat spin on a game with a high death turnover, and its cartoon art style complements an impressively large menagerie of monsters to kill. Unfortunately, there are inherent problems with balancing and some disastrous technical problems. Its grinding takes too long, melee characters are all but pointless due to the high damage output of enemies, and those technical issues make committing time and effort a constant risk.