Developer: Parallel Circles
Publisher: Parallel Circles
Played on: PC
Release Date: September 8, 2016
Played with: Steam Controller/Xbox 360 Controller
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
Deja vu is a sentiment I often find cropping up around games like Flat Heroes. Much as I love minimalistic art styles, there are only so many times I can play as a monochromatic quadrilateral before starting to wonder if maybe I should be asking for more. After all, appealing as I find flat-shaded shapes, others may see the aesthetic as little more than laziness on the part of the game’s art team. And with all the titles out there that do similar things with better art, it can be tough to justify the existence of another game like Flat Heroes.
Yet there’s just something about it. The crispness and precision with which the shapes move across the screen. The uncluttered aesthetic that ensures you always know exactly why you died. And of course, the fact that – by not being able to rely on extravagant graphics and visual effects – the game’s forced to hone its gameplay to a needle-sharp point in compensation. Perhaps I’m just waxing lyrical about a graphical style that – no matter how many times I see it – still manages to draw me into an experience far more than the latest skin textures ever could. Or perhaps it’s simply that Flat Heroes is a damn fine action platformer that is well worth your time to check out.
In Flat Heroes, you play as a box. How exciting, right? But not just any box; this box can roll over itself to move, jump, throw up a shield for both offense and defense, and even dash!
…hold on a second.
In Flat Heroes, you play as a box that fell into a vat of nuclear waste (or equivalent) and emerged with superpowers. With your uncanny ability to locomote, it’s up to you to survive hundreds of levels worth of deadly shapes that all want you dead. When you get right down to it, it’s basically Spider-Man with polygons.
“How do I prevent myself from dying, then?” you might ask; to which I would respond, “DON’T. STOP. MOVING.” In all seriousness, there are very few times in Flat Heroes where it’s actively beneficial to stop moving. As you dive further into the levels, there’s a near-constant stream of lasers, homing enemies, and more, to the point where freezing for even a moment is a sure-fire way to find yourself exploded, pierced, smashed, and so forth. The action is relentless, and on occasion, I found myself getting into a trance-like state a la Hotline Miami. Restarting a level and moving onto the next are quick and seamless, and I often ended up plowing through dozens of levels before remembering that I had to be somewhere in-person about 20 minutes ago.
Your character isn’t made for offense in the slightest. All but one of your moves is solely for evasion, and while your shield can destroy certain enemies and reflect some projectiles, it lasts for such a short time (less than a second) that timing is everything. Launch towards an enemy and use it too soon or too late? You’ll smack right into them and die instead. Once you get the hang of it, though, you’ll find yourself pulling off all sorts of life-saving maneuvers that make you feel like there’s a tiny ninja hiding inside your box. It’s just one example of how the “easy to learn, hard to master” cliché is alive and well in Flat Heroes, but in the best way.
My personal favourite bit of mechanical depth is the dash, which can be used once while in the air to lunge in any direction. It’s a straightforward evasive move that must be timed correctly so as not to leave yourself vulnerable as you fall to the ground. The catch is: the dash resets whenever you contact a surface, be that landing on a platform, touching a wall, or pinging yourself against the underside of a ledge. Suddenly, the focus becomes less on conserving your one air dash for the opportune moment, and more on finding ways to chain together dashes by resetting them as you go. It gives an almost parkour-like sense to the proceedings, as you jump up, dash to the wall, leap off, dash up to briefly touch another platform, and then dash at an enemy with your shield up just in time to destroy them. Words really don’t do the fluidity of movement justice, and once you get the hang of it, you’ll be leaping and lunging all over the maps like some sort of airborne fencer. It’s even possible to “cheat” at least one boss fight by hiding under the stage’s main platform and repeatedly bouncing off it to reset your dash, all while your foe uselessly unloads barrages of lasers into the other side.
The movement system isn’t flawless, though. There were times where I’d lose momentum on a jump, despite not doing anything noticeably different to previous attempts. Dashes occasionally feel a bit unpredictable, and there were a few points where I died because I didn’t quite go in the direction I thought I should have. Plus, the minimal visuals do the game a disservice when it comes to making it clear which walls are safe. Some levels have a “the floor is lava” setup where touching certain stage borders will kill you. However, the designator for this is a light-coloured extra line outside of the main wall line that can be frustratingly easy to miss when you’re so focused on optimizing your movement.
While those aggravations did a bit to hamper the experience, they were nowhere near enough to ruin it, especially with the breadth of content on display. A 150-level main campaign is available, with an extra “Heroes” campaign to unlock as you progress. Final bosses in each world (of which there are ten) frequently showcase clever tweaks to the formulae of the main levels, forcing you to adapt on the fly and experiment. This culminates in the final boss of the main campaign, which grants you a brand-new move (the ability to launch lasers as an offensive assault) for the fight’s duration. Despite finding this to be a jarring change in context, I nonetheless believe it shows just how willing Flat Heroes is to mix things up and keep you on your toes, right up to the end of the experience.
Additionally, there are some endless modes for leaderboard chasers and a versus mode to allow you and up to three friends to compete in hectic games of deathmatch, capture the flag (sort of), and so on. You can even take those same three friends (or others, I won’t judge) and play through the entire campaign with them, front to back! In the process of reviewing Flat Heroes, I took some time to play multiplayer with a friend of mine, and it rapidly devolved into a session of passionate yelling, raucous laughter, and good-natured cursing. Load this onto your laptop and bring it to a party (make sure you’ve got some controllers), and there’s a good chance everyone will have a blast.
I started off this review touching on why some people may look at Flat Heroes and give it a miss. Hell, I even pushed it to the back of my review docket for a while, simply because I had other games on the list that did more to intrigue me. Yet now that I’ve beaten Flat Heroes (after a damn fun livestream of me yelling at the final boss; props if you got to see that), I feel almost embarrassed that I pushed it aside early on. It’s a tight, laser-focused experience with a great movement system, diverse enemies, a groovy soundtrack, and a fantastic multiplayer implementation. So, say what you will about the visuals (for the record, I still like them), but I implore you to give Flat Heroes a shot. I think you’ll find that it does more than you may think to step outside of the box.