Heart&Slash Review – Roguelite Robot Brawling Action
PS4 copy was provided by the developer for this review
Heart&Slash is the first game by indie developer AHEARTFULOFGAMES, and yet another entry in the loosely-defined “roguelite” genre. This roguelite brawler was Kickstarted back in 2014, and is now available on current gen consoles and PC. It’s certainly a bloated genre to make a new game for, but luckily Heart&Slash is a solid game with a lot to offer to action roguelite fans.
The game is set around 100 years after a robot uprising lead by a sentient machine called QuAsSy, the Quality Assurance System. You play as Heart, a rather adorable humanoid robot created by a scientist shortly before everything went wrong. Heart has recently reawakened in a decrepit old lab to find a war-torn world seemingly devoid of humans, but absolutely crawling with malfunctioning murderbots. The story unfolds in cutscenes with a mysterious robot named Slash, though your interactions with Slash and how much of the story you unlock largely depend on how you handle your first encounter.
Of course the main reason you are here is for the combat, and I’m happy to say that Heart&Slash does a good job standing out in the genre in this regard. Each weapon has a light and heavy attack that can be chained together into different combos like in a brawler or character action game, and you can quickly swap between weapons at will. Enemy attacks are telegraphed in a way similar to the Arkham games, giving you time to dodge roll out of the way or parry with a shield if you’ve found one. You also have a very generous double jump that can be used both to avoid enemies or to navigate the occasional platforming puzzle.
Another cool addition to the combat is that you can trick enemies into hitting each other. Homing missiles in particular can be kitted and guided into enemies, though a perfectly timed counter can send them flying back at your attackers as well. Elemental attacks and weaknesses play a role too, as well as location damage against some enemies like fuel packs on flamethrower bots. Quite a few enemies are encased within armor that must be torn off before damaging them, with specific types of weapons being better or worse at destroying armor.
You can carry up to three weapons and four pieces of gear, each of which are upgradeable using scrap you get from destroying enemies. Most items have two or three upgrades, and like many games in the genre the descriptions are a bit vague so you’ll need to figure out what things do through experimentation. You can recycle items to restore some health and make room in your inventory for more loot. You’ll occasionally find health drops, but recycling items is the most reliable way to regain health, and items will be worth more health depending on how far you have upgraded it.
The weapon and item variety is a great strength of the game. There’s well over 100 items in the game that you’ll unlock as you play. Swords, hammers, maces, spears, daggers, wrist blades, and more are all represented and come in many different functions and elemental flavors. There are some ranged weapons too, but the combat is primarily up close and personal. The larger hammers in particular have a wonderful feeling of weight and impact when you smack an enemy with them.
Heart&Slash does a great job of making the weapons all feel unique despite the sheer number of them, even when it comes to elemental versions of the same weapon. The big thunder hammer, for example, has a heavy attack that causes an electrical explosion around you, while the rocket hammer has a chargeable dash attack instead and swings faster than other hammers. The gear can get just as unique, and varies from granting passive buffs or elemental resistances to allowing you to view enemy health and weaknesses. Others feature cooldown-based special attacks like powerful laser cannons, and I’ve found some sets of gear that bestow drastic changes counterbalanced by negative effects.
While the weapon variety is excellent, the real strength of Heart&Slash is that the combat ultimately places more emphasis on skill than item composition. Sure, getting a really strong weapon drop is great and goes a long way to helping you on your run, but you can do just fine with the more basic and weaker weapons if you’re good enough. I never ran into miserable runs where I felt I was doomed from the start because the RNG loot charts just weren’t in my favor. Another genre convention that Heart&Slash avoids is the lack of early game combat variety because the starting room includes three random item drops.
Heart&Slash isn’t without its fair share of flaws, however. The game is set across three rather expansive levels that may look pretty nice (as does the game in general), but there isn’t enough environmental variety. While the level layout is randomized each time, the room designs themselves are premade, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of them per level. The beginning factory level in particular seems to have a fairly small number of room designs, and you’ll see the same ones repeatedly in a single run. The levels also tend to drag on a bit, especially if you want to explore every room. The city map is especially long, with enormous multi-tier “rooms” that can take a while to navigate.
The camera can be hit or miss too. It’s not uncommon to have the camera get pulled in way too close or get caught in horrible angles in the more enclosed rooms. Aiming ranged weapons can be particularly frustrating due to the game’s camera angles combined with an overly aggressive aim assist system. In my experience it’s best to just ignore ranged weapons in general, with the exception of shotguns. Most of the ranged weapons I’ve encountered don’t feel as useful or as polished as the various melee armaments, though they would likely work much better if the aiming and camera issues were resolved. On the subject of camera issues, some platforming rooms are a bit more difficult than they otherwise should be due to how the camera sometimes acts in enclosed spaces.
Finally, the game is still pretty buggy. I’ve gotten caught on terrain and corners many times, and in a few instances it was so bad that I had no other choice than to abandon my current run and start fresh. Clipping can be another issue, with the giant robot snake/worm boss being a big offender. This boss’s attack patterns are all about burrowing through the ground and walls, and after a while it’ll stop so you can crawl inside to destroy a series of consoles. On multiple occasions the boss has stopped halfway into a wall, meaning I couldn’t actually crawl into it to attack the consoles. I encountered another bizarre glitch the other day where I was slammed to the ground by an enemy attack, but when I got up my character began sliding backwards around the room, and nothing I did could restore control outside of exiting the game and losing my progress.
The clipping and terrain issues seem to have gotten better following a recent patch, but they still happen from time to time. I do want to stress that none of these issues are outright deal breakers. The camera may get awkward at times during platforming and in tight corridors, but usually works as intended. You also can’t save your progress, so you’ll need to complete the game in a single session every time. The game isn’t particularly long, but the size of the maps means that a proper save system would be greatly appreciated.
While Heart&Slash does have its rough patches, the good greatly outweighs the bad. The combat controls are tight, the weapons are very satisfying to use and feature interesting upgrades and combos, and there’s a lot of cool items to find and experiment with. I didn’t mention it before, but special props also go to the aesthetically pleasing graphics and retro-inspired soundtrack, which gives Heart&Slash a charming old-school look and feel without resorting to 8-bit pixel art like most indies. Heart&Slash is a welcome addition to the genre, and fans of both roguelites and brawlers in general should check it out. You can find Heart&Slash on PS4 and Xbox One for $20. The PC version is still technically in Early Access and costs $5 more due to Kickstarter obligations. The full Steam release is scheduled for August, at which time the price will drop to $20 as well.