Heart & Slash. Heart. And, Slash. Ostensibly a play on the title of the genre, “Hack and Slash,” but equally two words that haven’t gone together since that one crazy night out with Guns ‘n’ Roses. Not just “Heart & Slash” either, but, correctly formatted, “Heart&Slash,” like you’re saying it quickly under your breath to get out of admitting something you’re proud of. I will never, ever claim to understand the naming conventions of indie developers.
Heart&Slash, other than trying to make my job more difficult by decreasing my word count, is a game set 100 years after the downfall of humanity, and everyone’s just getting over the fact it wasn’t caused by Donald Trump. Instead, the “Robolution” starred machinery rising up against their human oppressors, lead by QuAsSy, a rogue quality assurance system (get it?) with an undying hatred of humanity because of… reasons. Probably because we use his brethren to make toast and watch videos of cats falling over, in which case its rage is entirely justified. HRT-1, or “Heart” (get it?) a prototype bot at the time of the Robolution, is reconstructed in the present day, and sent by computerised remnants of his creator Dr. Sympathic to take down QuAsSy to get some answers. Which is a fairly convoluted way to get to “here’s a reason to hack some robots to bits” but the effort is appreciated.
What isn’t convoluted is the gameplay – and that’s very much a good thing. Y is light attack, X is heavy attack, A is a dodge-roll. That’s it. Most hack and slash-ers have you mashing thesis-length strings of letters into your controller, which serves only as a way for nerds to impress each other (yes I appreciate the irony) and a barrier for entry to everybody else. Heart&Slash’s system, however, for its simplicity doesn’t lack depth. Weapons have completely different movesets in the air for instance; you get different combos for putting together light and heavy attacks in different orders, and every weapon has unique upgrades. The number of initial weapons is pretty meagre to allow you to get to grips with the basics – and the number of initial cosmetic upgrades for Heart is, I believe, 1 – but this quickly balloons as you fulfill gameplay challenges, which keeps runs feeling fresh. You’ll quickly find favourites, and least-favourites, making each playthrough a story; blasting through at top speed or creeping through ill-equipped and low on health, both are enjoyable experiences. My current favourite right now is the Volt Hammer; slow but very powerful, ideal for mashing rogue robots into metal-flavoured horseradish before they get a chance to hit you back.
Asides from the actual gameplay differences, Heart&Slash is essentially a 3D Binding Of Isaac – weird biblical overtones and foetus protagonist notwithstanding. Each area pulls from a couple dozen of room designs and threads them together in a randomly-generated order, has a couple of different bosses blocking access to the next area, sets you off with a mostly optional plot and says “go get to the end.” Permadeath is in play (though advertising it as a feature on the marketing feels a bit much), but upgrade tokens are conserved between runs, so you can save up and go all in for “the run.” All the areas feel suitably unique: the tight, claustrophobic corridors of the factory, which makes the relative vastness and openness of the city feel like a breath of fresh air, and finally the foreboding and decidedly hexagonal final climb up the Space Elevator. The graphics service both this design and the gameplay well – clean, blocky areas with clean, blocky cel-shading, which makes it easy to see clean, blocky enemies and dice them into clean, blocky sticklebricks. The soundtrack, however, is perhaps the most noticeable stand-out; there’s something of a dichotomy between the gloomy, winding factory hallways and the upbeat techno-esque music playing, but it works, gives the game a very notable personality and keeps you pumped up for the next battle.
That’s the good stuff about Heart&Slash, so now, predictably, on to the bad. With perhaps a third section later on the ugly if the movies is to be believed. I have a few minor gripes and a fairly major one that I’ll save until last to keep everybody in suspense. Minor gripes include not being able to rotate a 3D map across a 3D space, which on long runs can make it difficult to tell where you need to go. The frame rate is fairly smooth and consistent but occasionally has little hiccups, which can result in you getting hit and feeling unfair; some environments, especially in handheld mode, are dark to the point of not being able to see. The game’s (somewhat passive-aggressive) hints advocate running away sometimes, but occasionally you’ll get locked into a fight with very bulky enemies resistant to your element, at which point you may as well put the controller down and put the kettle on. You’ll have time.
So if these are minor gripes, what would constitute an adult gripe? Well, Heart&Slash on Switch crashes. Kind of a lot. In a normal game with autosaving and similar modern conveniences, crashing would still be a fairly noticeable irritant, but it’s magnified as an issue here. As I mentioned earlier, Heart&Slash has no autosaving, or similar modern conveniences – in fact in prides itself on its permadeath; so you can be on a good run, have spent all your upgrade tokens, be nearing the final showdown, and beep! Crash. Run’s dead. Not your fault, nothing you could do, but all that progress is gone, irretrievable. I can’t in good conscience fully recommend a Roguelike with a crashing issue, even one as fun and spirited as Heart&Crash, which is a real shame.
Spirited is exactly what this game is. Vivacious, energetic, choose a word; its pure, visceral fun to play and has a lot of good ideas and a lot of personality, whether it’s the bold, stylistic visuals or memorable, eclectic soundtrack. A bugfix is reportedly in the works for the crashing, but until then that, a silent prayer goes out to all the runs lost to the robot’s final evil trick, the worst known to man; occasional performance issues.