Frozenbyte's best known for the Trine titles: a colourful trilogy of platformers characterised by lush fantasy environments and physics-based co-op puzzling. Charming, funny, and gorgeous, they were some of the best examples of the genre on consoles. Has-Been Heroes, however, is a very different beast.
The charm is still there, although the comedic presentation is less pronounced. That's not to say the game isn't funny – after all, the main objective is to escort two princesses to school. You play as a collection of mighty heroes that have grown long in tooth after saving the kingdom, reduced to escorting the king's daughters to the academy. The story is threadbare, with only a brief prologue in which the adventurers die and are gifted with magical powers from heaven (literally) before the main adventure begins.
Essentially a turn-based lane fighter with randomly generated routes, Has-Been Heroes takes the single lane combat of games like Plants vs. Zombies and the position-based tactics of The Banner Saga, and then adds a bit of forward motion and the ability to switch heroes between lanes on the fly. This mechanic is really what sets it apart from other games in the genre, adding a tactical depth to each fight.
All enemies have a stamina bar, which needs to be taken down before you can do any damage to them, halting their progress towards your heroes or knocking them back to give you some breathing space. Most characters have a low impact 2-3 hit attack, which isn't enough to do significant damage against anything but the basic enemy type, which is where the switching comes in. A successful strike triggers a pause to the action, which affords you the opportunity to move an available hero into the vacant space of one attacking, allowing for a potentially devastating follow-up hit. If you have a greatsword wielding heavy in your party, lead in with a quick combo from your sprightly rogue to remove the enemy's stamina, and then smash them with the big fella. It's a tricky system at first, but rewarding once you get into the flow of juggling the strengths and weaknesses of your party.
The trouble is, the game makes it so hard to master its combat that having a smooth game where things just click feels like pure luck.
This being a rogue-like, there's decent chance that you'll be thrown in at the deep end and forced to stay there for a considerable amount of time. Our first post-prologue attempt ended in instant death thanks to a massive torrent of enemies and no firm grasp on how to effectively beat them. Only after a lot of trial and error were we able to become comfortable enough with the combat that most randomly generated routes weren't completely impossible. Yet even after learning the ropes, there is still an element of chance to besting any one playthrough. On top of that, the combat gets stale quickly, forcing you to focus on the game's other shortcomings, like bland enemy design (aside from some fun boss encounters) and an overall lack of polish.
There is a tutorial of sorts and a quick-fire succession of tooltips in the opening sections, but they are brief enough that when the skeletons hit the fan, you may have forgotten them. This is where pausing comes in handy: alongside the in battle auto-pause you have the ability to manually pause the action and take stock. This is where you prioritise the use of magical spells and assess the battlefield, planning out your next few moves. It's slightly jarring that a game that seems to put so much emphasis on locomotion requires you to freeze events so often.
Magic adds an extra layer to the combat: spells can freeze enemies, double an attack, or apply burn over time. The princesses trailing behind our heroes can collect enemy souls that will trigger a free use of a spell, which should be used sparingly given magic is great for pulling you out of a tight spot. The number of enemies killed are also tallied up during a playthrough and unlock extra loot upon death, which can take the edge off a loss... But only a little.
The game's key failing is that not one of its systems are adequately explained or introduced in an intuitive manner. Some will likely enjoy the unpredictable challenge offered here, but the frequent difficulty spikes and a combat system that doesn't stand up to repeated sessions makes this a frustratingly unfair experience for the most part.
Has-Been Heroes is as tough as nails and built for people that like to lose over and over again. The combat offers an interesting twist on a familiar mechanic, but never really evolves beyond that initial learning process. Some of the whimsy present in the Trine series has been carried over here, but not enough to balance out the punishing difficulty.