Loop Hero is a roguelike, a deck builder and an RPG with the cadence and look of a tower defense game, wrapped in a grim but simplistic ‘90s PC game aesthetic. It’s a mashup that feels like it shouldn’t work, because that sentence I just wrote sounds preposterous. Instead, Loop Hero is absolutely magnificent.
It basically plays itself, sending your character down a path that auto populates with enemies after an in-game day. Fighting, which the game also does on its own, and defeating them rewards you cards and equipment. These cards are a stand-in for units you would buy in a tower defense game, and you place them down in the world not for units but to fill in the blanks.
“Blanks” isn’t a euphemism, either. The world has ended in Loop Hero, and everything but your path is part of a dark void. It’s up to your amnesiac character, who has somehow survived an apocalypse that seems to have rippled across dimensions (go you!), to “remember” the world around you. You accomplish this by placing down cards like meadows and mountains or vampire mansions and swamps. Some of these, like mountains, buff you and some, like vampire mansions, spawn strong enemies with really good loot.
The joy behind these cards winds up being the fun ways in which they can interact with one another, which are sometimes obvious and other times not. Rocks and mountains enjoy a decent buff if they’re adjacent to each other and naturally boost your HP, for example, but also if you put a meadow next to either of them it becomes a blooming meadow, which will restore more health when you complete a loop. As you place a lot of these down, your character seems to knock loose a memory here and there, which may spawn a goblin camp as a counter to your buffs. These are the simplest examples of interactions between cards and how they ripple into the world and they only grow more complicated. I’ve still not even unlocked all of them or beaten the game because I’m lost in figuring it all out, and having a blast doing so.
My favorite explicit example of these interactions is the blood grove. You can only place one adjacent to a grove card, which turns a tile into a forest and spawns ravenous dog-like monsters that might be faster than you and can attack in numbers. In order to place yourself at an advantage against them, you can place a blood grove nearby, which then makes the vines in the grove come to life and claim the life of anything whose HP drops below a certain threshold. This helps speed up fights where you might be overwhelmed but also presents a clear and present danger to yourself if you’re ill equipped.
Your equipment plays up the RPG aspects of the game, and you can swap it on the fly, even pausing in the middle of fights to switch to a stronger weapon or give yourself boots with a high evasion stat. They come in rarities and have all kinds of stats like vampirism (life drain) or things that are more class-specific, like critical damage chance for the rogue and raising the number of skeletons you can summon as a necromancer.
Yes, there are classes and they are so fun to play with because they fundamentally feel different and literally interact with the world differently. They have mostly different stats and mostly different equipment slots to further complement their diversity. The rogue, for example, who’s the most fun to me, does not collect loot from battles, but gathers “trophies” from fallen foes. When you complete a loop, they will trade them in and get drowned in loot to pick from. Then you gear up and get ready to make the next loop. They feel a bit like a glass cannon in that they can do a lot of damage thanks to having two weapons and high crit chances, but also have a static loot pool for the next minute or so, marking a radical shift in how I played with equipment after hours of being the warrior class.
Once you do a full loop (which is separate from the passage of time), enemies level up. After you’ve filled in the world enough, a boss character appears. You would think that because you can’t do the fight manually, it may be simplistic. You’d be half right in that assumption. What it really serves as is a check, testing your preparedness like all good RPGs do even if it is slightly hampered by other parts of the game’s DNA. The first time I beat the first boss, I was down to a sliver of my health, and I had incredible loot too, which made the fight thrilling to watch even if it felt slanted in the enemy’s favor. However, I’ve taken them on several times since then, and despite the fact that I’ve built up my survivor camp, which nets you upgrades and unlocks features like experience gain and skills, the roguelike aspects of the game (randomly generated loot drops, for example) seem to undo the progress you’re making at the worst possible times. While there are certainly ways around it, like simply spawning more high-level enemies or placing tiles that give loot, it feels like the game asking you to turn up the heat on yourself.
Loop Hero can be difficult, sometimes unfairly so, and you’re expected to die. Learning when to call it quits is part of the learning curve. On your expeditions, you’ll be collecting resources to bring back to your camp of survivors and use them to build structures which not only unlock classes, but also have features like experience gain, which paves the way to leveling up and unlocking skills. However, if you die before you can beat the boss or retreat, you retain very little of it. You keep 30% of it to be exact. If you get caught in the loop of dying prematurely, you’ll have a very rough go of the game.
Despite these slight difficulty hiccups, Loop Hero is incredibly enjoyable to play though. While it may seem unengaging because it effectively plays itself, it really is just prompting the player to look at gameplay from another angle, namely a more systems-driven one. For a person like me, who doesn’t really craft “builds” in RPGs, it’s made me realize why that is actually a rewarding aspect of those games. Now I spend half my time in Loop Hero making numbers go up and making optimizations I never would have, before embarking on another loop.
Loop Hero was developed by Four Quarters and published by Devolver Digital. It’s available for PC, Mac and Linux.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.