Retro-styled games have, over the last few years or so, really taken the gaming world by storm. Often with 8-bit graphics and music to match, games like Stardew Valley, FTL & Terraria to name but a few are held aloft as proof that fancy graphics only get you so far. A sound base to build from along with clever and intuitive mechanics is often where the wheat is separated from the chaff. With Pixel Heroes: Byte & Magic developers Bitfather hope to rekindle the roguelike games of old albeit with a decent smattering of irreverent humour.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there are only three difficulty levels: hard, brutal and insane. There’s no shying away from the fact that Pixel Heroes is hard, and with permadeath thrown in as well you will restart this game a lot. In fact it wasn’t until our fourth run through that we were able to conquer our first dungeon. Our previous attempts saw our party completely wiped out within the first few rooms of the first dungeon. It was demoralising to say the least and left us questioning whether the base difficulty was set too high. However, we then created a party that, for the first couple of dungeons, seemed rather overpowered as we completed them with ease. Each game requires you to select three heroes from the town’s tavern. They have different skills and are, of course, different classes and it’s important to pick wisely as your party’s makeup will very much dictate just how far you’ll go. Sure your characters can level up their stats but start off with too weak a party and that first dungeon will be a pretty frequent sight.
It’s probably a good thing, then, that visually Pixel Heroes is rather nice. It has a lovely, bright colour palette and will no doubt bring back lots of memories for those who have played games like this the first time around. Animations are rather cute, especially after beating a room or dungeon, as each hero has their own little victory dance. Almost everything is controlled via menus with the exception of party movement which is controlled via the right thumbstick. The ‘A’ button selects items with the left thumbstick navigating the menus. Inventory management is a little bit more fiddly as ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons must be pressed to select items whilst moving them around with the left thumbstick. It’s clear that these menus are more intended for touchscreens and that’s no surprise as Pixel Heroes started out on the iPad. Thankfully battles are turn-based so being inept at navigating the menus is no real issue except for when you keep selecting the wrong item or accidentally consuming a potion when you didn’t intend to (not that we did that, of course).
It’s a shame that the audio doesn’t fare so well. While in keeping with the era of the game Pixel Heroes is imitating, after a while it just gets rather irritating. There’s no real character to it and it doesn’t change when navigating between locations. We don’t have any music for when you are travelling or boss fight music if you manage to reach the end of a dungeon. Nothing that tries to change the mood of the game dependant on what’s happening. There’s not even a change of tune for when you’re down to your last party member and you are desperately clinging to life.
Luck plays a huge part in Pixel Heroes as does knowledge of the different dungeons and enemy types. There are many different status effects as well as different elemental ones. Knowing what you’re about to face is generally guesswork but knowing what to use to counter can be the difference as to whether you make it to the end of the dungeon. Trial and error does not work here. If your heroes are incorrectly specced then no matter how hard you try you will most likely fail. However it’s here that Pixel Heroes omits something so basic to the genre it’s mystifying: a stash. As with any roguelike game, loot drops are commonplace. However, you only have twenty inventory slots which can easily fill up part way through your first dungeon. If you don’t clear it out you can’t move on and whilst there may be items in there you won’t use straight away you might want to keep it - but there’s no stash, so you may be forced to just bin it. Why a stash hasn’t been included seems odd and saw us junk an item just so we could move on only to find it would’ve pretty darn useful in our next dungeon.
As mentioned, combat is turn-based and pretty straightforward. You can’t use the same character twice in succession so the game forces you to use at least two characters. It certainly promotes you to develop tactics on how to bring down your foes and as you replay the game you’ll get a decent understand on which of the (up to) three enemies you might want to take out first. On our strongest playthrough our mage would drop down acid rain on all three opponents, often pushing them to near death and allowing our warrior to mop them up with relative ease. We were rather gutted when she bit the dust and made our future dungeon questing rather more difficult. There are also plenty of random encounters to keep you busy between dungeons, often with pop culture references and characters, Dr Who being our favourite so far.
Overall Pixel Heroes is a decent game to play. There are plenty of achievements to keep perfectionists going for hours and with extra classes to unlock there’s plenty of replay value here. Let’s not forget either that the order in which quests occur and the foes you fight are randomly generated so each playthrough will be unique. However, things like the lack of a stash as well as a cumbersome UI for the gamepad pull it back just a touch from being a must play. Still if you’re yearning for a nostalgia fix and moreover want it in a roguelike game then Pixel Heroes will be right up your alley.