This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Loop Hero and Everhood.
Well, it's March, so let's "march" on down to Indie Game Square, crowded as ever with the permanent farmer's market of Steam, where the barks of stallholders mingle with the squeals of poorly-drawn anime girls getting violated, and no one has glimpsed the sun since 2014. And what an appropriate month this is for our first game, Loop Hero, a game about march-ing: marching around and around in a circle, or rather, watching someone else march around and around in a circle while we occasionally fling them a new pair of trousers and dream silly, silly dreams about what it would be like to be the one playing the video game.
The premise is, you are a lone hero in a world that has been destroyed; like, really, really thoroughly. Everything has been reduced to a void; it's like watching network television at ten in the morning. All that remains is a single looping path, and all you can do is follow it and, bit by bit, remember the world as it used to be. Although I guess your memory isn't the best, because you can only remember it in a rather muddy 16-bit art style with slightly hard-to-read text, reminiscent of one of those depressing Amiga games from the 90's designed by sad British people who live in places like Hull.
The actual gameplay of Loop Hero consists of the lone wanderer walking around the loop, fighting randomly-spawned apple-flavored Jelly Tots to receive terrain cards that you then place on and around the loop to liven up the scenery and provide more different things to fight and more opportunities to collect loot. I say "fight"; you aren't involved in that, either. The hero and the monsters just automatically take turns smacking each other like a roomful of sexually inexperienced people trying to figure out what the big deal is with S&M, and all you can do is change their equipment; you don't even get to choose when to drink potions. But lest the phrase "idle game" rise unbidden into your thoughts like the image of a stern primary school teacher during sex, there is some challenge here, and the challenge is simply deciding when to stop; again, like we're thinking about primary school teachers during sex.
When you get back around to the start of the loop, you have to decide if you get to go around again to keep collecting better and better loot but risk dying and losing most of it, or head back to camp and bank all the loot you've got now, which will mean having to start from scratch. Essentially, it's a fantasy 16-bit version of Deal or No Deal; if you get too cocky, you end up going home with the $200 box to an awkward conversation with the missus, as it were. See, you use the loot to build upgrades for your home base to add more variety to your encounter deck. Oh, I forgot to mention; Loop Hero is also not a deck-building game on top of not being a roguelike or an idle game. If it were a deck-builder, it'd be a very inefficient one that would require infinite cards.
There is something very absorbing about Loop Hero that gives me the same "Ooh, just one more go-around" feeling that a waterslide offers; a very slow waterslide full of gravel instead of water, but some of the gravel is M&Ms, so it's somewhat rewarding. At the same time, I don't really like how Loop Hero ricochets from "involving" to "uninvolving". Like, for a lot of it, I can stick a podcast on and doze off, which is fine; some games be like that, and sometimes, it's nice just to fidget with something while I daydream about primary school teachers on waterslides. But then, suddenly, you get a few unlucky rolls and find yourself with two health and your kneecaps hanging off, and if you're not awake and quick on the "Pause" button, your dude just breezes straight on into Fuckedland. So that's Loop Hero; it's like taking a somewhat interesting book and systematically removing all the pages with a very slow angle grinder.
So let's move on to the other game I played, which not only falls under the same category of "retro-style game taking place primarily in black void", but by extraordinary coincidence, is also an anagram of "Loop Hero” if you change some of the letters and don't know what an anagram is: Everhood. Everhood is also an excellent argument for creating a new Steam tag along the lines of "games that really aren't subtle about wanting to be Undertale". It's got all the trappings: the top-down console RPG movement; the minimalist amateur-looking art; the quirky monster characters being silly giving way to rather intense existentialism and a fourth wall with all the lastability of a Pringle in a college dormitory; the Banjo-Kazooie talk noises where the budget only stretched to one squawk per character.
Where it differs is that Everhood leans more into the abstract; the setting feels more like Loop Hero's cluster of disconnected memories than Undertale's cohesive world, and there's generally a more dreamlike feel. If I were lazy game journalist scum working for some desperately irrelevant gaming news source, I'd probably describe Everhood as "Undertale on LSD", meaning that it has no consistent color scheme besides "eye-gougingly vibrant", and they're really proud of some Unity plugins they found that make the screen go all wibbly-wobbly.
The premise is, you are a taciturn wooden doll that incidentally bears a haunting similarity to the wooden doll character from Super Mario RPG, but that was more than ten years ago, and therefore, in the cognition of most mainstream video game publishers, didn't really exist. You must journey through a strange world of monsters - well, strange world of empty black screen, mainly, but some of it's monsters - to find your arm that was stolen by an evil king, engaging throughout with a combat system that takes Undertale's system of moving a symbol around to dodge symbols symbolically and turning it overtly into a rhythm game, which is a perfectly logical step, because Undertale's soundtrack was one of its strengths. Actually, most aspects of Undertale were strengths; it was a giant clump of beefy arms with one noodly twig on the bottom with "graphics" written down the side.
So in Everhood combat, you're basically trying to survive on a giant Guitar Hero fretboard, dodging button prompts like someone trying to edit a David Cage design document. The story takes a turn when you get your wanking hand back, spoiler alert, and acquire the ability to fight back as well as dodge, and that's when the existential stuff creeps in, because now we have the option to go back through the game and murder everything in it. I say "option", but the game flat-out tells you to do it, and if this is trying to ape the Undertale genocide playthrough - It is! It totally is! I figured it out, Mum! - then it misses the whole point that the player actively choosing to commit genocide was what gave it its impact.
I felt genuinely bad about killing characters in Undertale because they were funny and well-written, and you had some real context for their lives, but I mowed through Everhood's cast with the same emotion as when I'm closing all my browser tabs after a successful wank. I guess it just doesn't have that emotional heart Undertale had under all its beefy arms; feels more like a showcase of admittedly quite good music, so maybe you'll find it emotionally engaging if you're the kind of person who really identified with the struggle of the pencil-drawing dude from the Take On Me video.
- Someday will be a real boy: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- No Google I did not mean "Neverhood" who the fuck has thought about Neverhood at any point in the last twenty years
- Is Deal or No Deal still a thing? I couldn't be arsed to look it up