Loop Hero Indie Snippet
Every now and then, a game comes along that refuses to fit into any particular box. Loop Hero, developed by Four Quarters and published by Devolver Digital, is one such game. Featured in Goomba Stomp’s own Indie Spotlight earlier this year as a part of the Steam Game Festival, Loop Hero emerged as a serious contender. An addictive anti-RPG that makes hours melt away, Loop Hero is for patient gamers eager for a compelling mystery.
Lich-ing for a Good Time
Instantly engrossing from its opening moments, Loop Hero feels like an expert Dungeon Master teaching a course on how to subvert expectations derived from reading the classic Monster Manual. The game opens on an incredibly evocative concept: stars are disappearing from the night sky, one by one. A powerful Lich has obliterated, well, everything, in the most literal sense of the word. No one can remember a thing, including the Hero of the story. The player is along for the ride too, and piecing together what happened to the world is at the heart of the retro-styled but forward-thinking Loop Hero.
An amnesiac in a fantasy setting may not sound like the most original idea, but Loop Hero is bursting with innovation. Within the first thirty seconds of starting the game, it is clear that this will be unlike anything the player has ever experienced. The tutorial, tongue-in-cheek and to-the-point, gives players the basic setup for how gameplay and basic progression work. One might assume that the player controls the knight in the cover art, slaying monsters in their quest to confront the Lich and restore their memory, and the memory of the rest of the kingdom. One would be only partially correct.
Because in Loop Hero, the player doesn’t directly control the Hero at all. The game is broken up into two main segments: expeditions and building. In expeditions, the Hero moves around the titular loop, auto-battling any and all monsters they stumble across. The loop is essentially a big circle, broken up into tiles and surrounded by emptiness. Tiles can spawn monsters, and as the Hero moves around the loop, time passes. The player must use cards, chosen from a deck before any given expedition and earned by defeating monsters, to fill the map with assets. Players can not only build directly onto the loop, but also in the margins of the map. They may add groves that provide valuable wood fragments to the player whenever the Hero passes through them, or villages that restore the Hero’s hit points when they trek across it. Filling a corner of the map’s tiles with rock and mountain cards ensures the Hero will have plenty of hit points. But too many mountains means that vicious harpies will spawn, and too many groves will result in a loop full of Ratwolves. A balance must be struck between creating a lucrative loop that is also survivable.
The intro says it best: “traveling, fighting, and most other actions are done automatically.” There’s cognitive dissonance at play, as the player grapples with trying to outfit the Hero with the best equipment possible even though they know they can’t directly affect the outcomes of any given battle. All they can do is build.
Going toe-to-bony-toe with the Lich is a goal, but getting there can be an unexpectedly complicated journey. Between expeditions, players must use resources gathered from their time circling the loop to build out a home base. Constructing buildings in the home base is invaluable; doing so proves the Hero with more and more useful skills to take back to the loop for the next run. But construction is costly, and only grinding in the loop can provide players with the raw material they need to rebuild the world.
There is tension at play constantly. The first few times the Hero goes around a loop, they’ll likely find a few pieces of armor or a useful sword. But after a while, making it back around to the campfire without getting the Hero killed requires more than a little strategy. While the player cannot directly influence how the Hero acts in battle, they can set the Hero up to do better in the long run. Playing certain cards on empty tiles lets the Hero stumble across valuable treasure chests, prolonging their longevity by giving them access to better equipment. Better equipment leads to more defeated monsters, which leads to more resources found, which leads to more construction after the expedition is all over. Losing a battle on the loop has severe consequences; players can forfeit up to seventy percent of what they’ve found up to that point if they aren’t careful. Knowing when to retreat and when to stay in the loop to maximize the plunder found is crucial.
“I believe you, of course, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Every expedition is different. And though the universe is not exactly crying out for more pixelated roguelikes, Loop Hero has its own distinct identity. The goals are largely the same, run to run: provide the Hero with enough opportunities to scrounge powerful weapons and survive enough loops to trigger a boss fight the next time they loop around back to the campfire. A boss fight is no easy feat, and players must consider whether it’s worth it to have their Hero fight a battle they have a good chance of losing. But victory against the Lich is the only way to discover what happened to the world, and to unravel the mystery of how the land came to be shrouded in darkness. Loop Hero effortlessly carries off its narrative, teasing players with snatches of story every time they encounter a new enemy or build a new structure at their home base. It’s a dark fantasy world viewed through a snarky modern lens, and the looming mystery of “what the hell happened here” contrasts wonderfully with the witty and well-written dialogue from the villagers who appear with every newly-constructed building on the home base.
While every loop is a new beginning, the player improves their odds of earning the resources they need with the greatest weapon of all: knowledge. But at every turn, Loop Hero layers in more complexity to the proceedings. This game is more than a pseudo-RPG; the deckbuilding element completely changes the nature of any given expedition. Before sending their Hero off to roam the loop, players can influence the pool of cards available to them during expeditions, determining the types of enemies that appear and myriad other factors. Loop Hero features an incredibly unique blend of gameplay mechanics and the result is exquisite. The complexity may not be for everyone, but in practice, it’s SimCity meets autobattlers with a dash of Dungeons & Dragons tropes. Not being able to directly control the Hero might seem to be limiting at first, but in practice, it leads to a unique gameplay system unlike anything else out there. The story subverts and contorts fantasy tropes in an engaging way. Getting to the heart of the Big Bad’s so-called “crusade against the universe” is an incredibly inventive mystery that feels exciting and fresh.
Loop Hero is well worth the time it takes to grok its interlocking systems. The novelty of a blank void begging to be filled at the start of every expedition meshes beautifully with the more strategic planning of the home base. It isn’t easy, and it won’t be for everyone, but Loop Hero deserves never to be forgotten.