Loop Hero Review: Groundhog's Roguelike
To describe Loop Hero, it would nearly be easier to tell you the descriptors that aren't relevant. Part deck-builder, part real-time strategy, part survival horror, this roguelike from Four Quarters is novel and deeply compelling.
After a recent Steam demo piqued my interest, I was excited to dive back in and see if the full game could deliver on those initial strong impressions. What I got was something that's even better and continues to find ways to keep me on my toes.
Underneath the game's colorful '80s fantasy aesthetic lies an engine whose constant motion is a touch bewildering to start, forcing you to make moves on the fly while your hero takes down wave after wave of monsters. But in those fleeting moments where you manage to make everything work in your favor, this is a game that's absolutely worth the timesink.
Loop Hero Review: Groundhog's Roguelike
As the name suggests, Loop Hero involves some amount of repetition. A cataclysmic event has occurred, and the titular protagonist must try and rebuild things using resources gathered from expeditions into the wider world. These expeditions involve doing laps on a randomly generated circuit full of slimes. Defeating slimes gives you cards to build out the circuit with scenery that generates resources like wood and food, as well as spawn points for other ghoulish monsters.
Killing enemies gives your intrepid adventurer new equipment, on top of more cards, and on you go until either the boss is killed, you die, or you retreat. Each successful lap, demarcated by your campfire, levels up the surrounding creatures, and a recurring day-cycle dictates creature spawn-rate and other bonuses.
Published by Devolver Digital, Loop Hero is a lot to take in, at first. Unless you pause, your character is always moving straight ahead, and enemies are constantly wandering around. Battles happen automatically, and though you can switch equipment at any time, if you enter one in which you're badly outmatched, you're pretty much out of luck. It's a gauntlet that harkens back to the Ultima and Might and Magic series, by way of Hades and The Binding of Isaac, but the remarkable thing is just how well it teaches you to navigate this desolate world.
Most of the cards have basic descriptions for things like "Meadow," which gives you 2HP at the start of each day, or "Vampire Mansion," which adds a bloodsucker to any fight on an adjacent tile. Spaces where you can put any given card are highlighted in green, and the majority can be played without any specific criteria. As you play, the map fills up with tiny, solid-color animations for each moving entity, your literal white knight marching to the ominously heavy 8-bit soundtrack.
It's about constantly making moves and seeing what happens. When you change equipment, the previously equipped piece evaporates, and if you get more equipment than the nine weapon and armor slots allow for, the overflow becomes resources in your rucksack.
Many of the cards have some form of stacking effect if you place them close together, like nine mountains or rocks becoming a mountain range for a bonus. But watch out, now you've harpies flying around, and one more mountain or rock and a goblin camp will form somewhere on the path.
Half the fun, and much of the challenge, lies in placing something and realizing you've made a mistake, and now a blood golem's in the way. Keenly, unlike Sunset Games' Into The Breach, another timey-wimey strategy-RPG, I never encountered something in Loop Hero that stopped me dead from making just one bad play. It was always an accumulation, accidentally making a chokepoint full of skeletons and spiders or not thinking about just how fast goblins respawn.
You're always cycling through different modes of thinking, from smart land placement and making sure your champion's healthbar stays up to keeping count on the resources being generated. The different classes each require different strategies, where health regen serves the warrior well, but the rogue is more suited to evasion, and so on. It's important to stay wary, but focusing on one is a recipe for disaster.
There can be a temptation to treat this as a passive game, letting the laps run and resources build, and certainly moments to catch your breath do occur, but they're just that. I always found there was something to do, and the random elements make it hard to do anything on auto-pilot. Nothing in Loop Hero comes easy, and keeping the rewards flowing requires your full attention.
Should you last long enough, one of several Lich entities that contributed to this world reset will appear as a boss. Beating them opens the next stage and grants some lore that helps parse what's going on, and if it can be fixed. Losing sends you back to the campsite, with 30% of what you collected in tow – a manual retreat lets you keep 60%, and defeating the boss gets you the whole lot.
There's no retrieving your body, like in Dark Souls or Hollow Knight, much to my absolute relief. As much is a small blessing amid the continuous deaths when trying to figure out each chapter. Loop Hero's difficulty curve can be as steep as any other modern Souls-like, and on occasion I found myself having to step away after an otherwise prosperous run ended in cold hard defeat. A staple of the genre that manifests a little too much in prolonged sessions.
You gradually build out the camp using materials you've picked up, unlocking improvements to your loadout, new cards, and more. Each new square on-site brings another NPC and some more information on what reality was like before whatever happened happened. Everyone and everything has become trapped in this endless vortex, where time doesn't matter, and a collective amnesia is forcing us all to become reacquainted with the old world and how things used to be.
This isn't confined to people in your camp, either. New enemies will often spark dialogue, mentioning the adversarial roles, remembering it was all part of an ecosystem at one point or another. Loop Hero doesn't necessarily do anything profound with this meta candor, but its inclusion did give me some pause.
It doesn't take much to recognize the way Four Quarters has captured the current moment. Living in a strange stasis between an old world that's gone and a new one that's going to need some work, battling forces that are difficult to comprehend.
Loop Hero is the morbid Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask sequel we never got, where the moon crashed down, and this is what happened. Like Majora's Mask, Loop Hero structures itself around temporal distortion but is not a story about time travel.
Rather than taking the Avengers: Endgame approach of having you battle through the ages to stop the big bad, Loop Hero is about existing in the post-apocalypse and using the tools readily at your disposal to fix things — or at least make them better.
It's an important distinction, amid what is now months of lockdown, because bending the laws of physics is not a solution that is available to us. The allegory of breaking time and space doesn't bring me much comfort, but being reminded that taking each day as it comes, and that doing what I can where I can is enough, does. Someday, we'll beat this thing, and Loop Hero is a very welcome reminder of that.
Loop Hero Review — The Bottom Line
- Cleverly mixes many different genres
- Plenty to discover
- Easy to learn
- Beautiful art and catchy soundtrack
- Can be grueling
- Replaying early levels sometimes boring
Loop Hero is a great game for an exhausting period, as much for being a compelling distraction as for its thematic core. The synergy between the interlocking mechanics is remarkable, making all the spinning plates you've to manage seem effortless by times.
The range of inspirations gives it a wide appeal, only held back by the harsh frontloading on new challenges. Be careful, this can make days feel like an instant.
[Note: Four Quarters Games provided the copy of Loop Hero used for this review-in-progress.]