No matter how many games I played in my teenage years – the very jovial, British and dark tone and humor of games like Black & White and Fable always left a strong impression on me. So I was excited when I learned that Ex-Lionhead Studios developers Adam Langridge and Imkan Hayati had come together under Deadbeat Productions to produce a 3D arcade style brawler. This game was under my radar for a while, and it’s a shame it hasn’t received as much press coverage as it could have.
Deadbeat Heroes is a fast-paced comic style brawler than places heavy emphasis on dodging and chain attacking multiple enemies. You play as a band of quirky one-liner quipping superheroes punching your way through waves of henchmen and supervillains, to confront and defeat the games main antagonist, the Prime Sinister.
The plot is kept vague. The game opens up with a few brief words from the aptly named ”Captain Justice”, introduces you to the control scheme via a short tutorial, and sends you on your way to fight danger within minutes of loading up the game. The story is that the evil Prime Sinister and his ragtag group of deadbeat villains are out to do evil things, and you have to stop them. The game puts you through ten levels, each consisting of three stages and a boss fight featuring one of the dastardly villains you’re out to thwart.
It’s a simple and to the point story.
Deadbeat Heroes chooses to deliver its dialogue through self-aware banter. Each character seems aware of the casual playfulness of it all. Characters often poke fun at their own ‘gamey-ness.’ The writing quality varies between jokes that fall flat and ones that are hilarious. I found myself grinning during some of the quick back and forths between the characters. Or hearing the villains scold themselves and make excuses for failing at the end of a mission. It’s an entertaining presentation that goes down well with both young and old gamers who are a fan of the comic-book aesthetic. The player can choose between four characters, each with a different regional accent, some unique clothes, and little backstory.
Deadbeat productions do the comic-book world justice with an upbeat and funky soundtrack filled with slap-bass. Voice acting is performed decently.
The game takes place in one central hub with a workbench to learn new moves, and a telephone and car the player use to pick a new mission. When a boss is defeated, the player unlocks one new room which consists of a new vehicle and telephone to choose more missions. There’s an odd emphasis on the constant vehicle upgrades, considering the player never interacts with them.The map design is initially charming; each map based on some warehouse, back alley, or underground metro in London. Although the already small maps are often recycled, and by the end of the game it can feel monotonous fighting through the same London Underground after five levels. Oddly enough, after the player completes a level, they are taken back to the main menu with no explanation. Once you hit start again, the game resumes. It’s a jarring and unexplained tug out of the game world every time you complete a mission.
Your friend can also plug in their controller and take control of a second hero to help you punch your way through the maps. Clearing out hordes together and chaining combos can be a satisfying experience for a while.
The bulk of Deadbeat Heroes appeal (and where you’ll be spending the most time with it) is the combat. Priding itself on is agile characters, combat in the game is mostly spent dodging through enemies attacks from all directions, and attacking enemies while trying to juggle combos. The player moves with the WASD keys – J is to punch, K is to dodge, and L is to use a super ability. Because of the way these keys are bound, PC users find will find themselves positioning their hands as if they were using an arcade cabinet. Defeated enemies drop ‘super energy’ which fuels the player’s super meter. Once full the player can release a homing attack that instantly kills regular enemies and does significant damage to bosses.
Despite the friendly aesthetic of the game, combat in Deadbeat Heroes in the later levels is a unforgiving. The player is always in a small environment against many waves of enemies that have unique abilities to watch out for. At first, enemies start with basic melee attacks. Once the player is comfortable with these, more elaborate enemies make an appearance. The game puts you to the test by running the player through a gauntlet of several types of enemies at the same time, with only three chances to get hit before death.
Your character is a glass cannon. The game demands you play it quickly – and the more openings you can find to exploit, and combos you can pull off – the higher your score will be. The game measures your performance at the end of a stage with a medal system.
At it’s very best, Deadbeat heroes can feel similar to a bullet hell game that the player can feel a stylish pride for mastering. Skilled players will be able to pull off lengthy combos and use their skill and reflexes to take on enormous waves of enemies without getting hit. Sometimes, however, the game feels like it actively is trying to pull you away from that ”zen” mode, where all the mechanics are working fluidly with each other. The game does this with some incredibly strange design decisions.
One big problem is the claustrophobic feel of the maps and the fixed camera angle that causes the player not to be able to see their character entirely. The maps are so minimal and tightly packed together that late in the game entering a room with multiple waves of enemies can feel overly chaotic. Hazardous items are found in the rooms often, running into these takes one-third of the player’s health away instantly. However, they usually can’t be seen from another side of the room because of the camera angle or spawn in off screen. I can’t count how many times I went to dodge an enemies attack, evaded towards an area of the room that was off screen and got killed because I stepped on a hazard item that wasn’t visible on screen.
Similarly, getting killed by bullets coming from off-screen always feels cheap. The most common problem I found was the grenade throwing enemies throwing grenades off screen for me to run into when dodging away from enemies. These are not issues of skill and awareness, these are cases where the screen is so cluttered with attack animations and enemies, and so poorly visible due to the camera and map design that running into insta-kill attacks that you can’t see between all the clutter becomes regular. The win condition becomes not getting hit by something offscreen.
Boss fights are handled questionably. After achieving a satisfactory medal in three levels, the player is put up against the boss of that level. Each boss has a unique power, and during the levels previous they deploy minions that serve as more dangerous enemies that share their power. The player can steal their powers and use the bosses super ability for a short time during combat. Once a boss is defeated the player can summon their superpower in any map after filling a resource meter. The boss fights are underwhelming compared to the rest of the game. Each boss reveals themselves in a similar room and can be killed in less than forty seconds by spamming normal attack for super energy and then using super. There is a ton of missed potential here regarding what Deadbeat Productions could have done with these boss fights, considering the excellent movement system of the game. Unfortunately due to the four characters being identicle in skillset, there is little to no incentive to replay the game once you’ve completed it, which took me slightly over five hours.
There is little emphasis on explanation. The scoring system relies heavily on juggling enemies to maximize point gain for higher medals however, the game never shows how to do this. A solution to this would have been to use the first level as a guided tutorial through the different type of combos, environmental techniques, and enemy juggling.
One thing Deadbeat Heroes does well however is difficulty curve. For the first half of the game, new moves unlock after completing a boss. There is a significant jump in difficulty by the time you’re at level five that the game expects you to have adapted to. Difficulty ramps up considerably level seven onwards, and then once more for the last level. The entire thing felt natural and was reminiscent of getting better at a roguelike and surviving much more challenging odds.
The game wants you to like it; it’s witty dialogue, the funky soundtrack and ambitious combat make for a charming experience. It feels like it needs some more polish though. There is an incredibly solid premise here moments in the game that had me locked in a rhythm of perfectly dodging enemies and surviving incredibly stacked encounters stylishly. The game can feel great if you master its mechanics, it just doesn’t reward you well for doing so. However, if you’re just looking for an introduction into high octane brawlers to play with a friend, or just looking to hear some British voice actors have a laugh – this is still worth a purchase.