Traditionally, some of the best stuff in an RPG is the combat. The tactical decisions, crunching numbers, the strategizing, conserving strength for future encounters. But what’s left if you take away character control and just about everything but crunching stat numbers and filling in the map? You get Loop Hero, and it turns out to be a game full of compellingly unique ideas and a weird fantasy world that demands attention. There’s nothing quite like this strange combination of idle game autobattler with roguelite deckbuilding and puzzley tile placement. This exploratory experiment drew me in so deeply with its buffet of synergies and clever strategies that I lost track of time while playing more often than not. I only escaped because once its stat-building puzzles are solved there’s not much more to it.
Before we even get to its strangely hypnotic and unorthodox gameplay, it has to be said that this is the most excellently surreal apocalyptic fantasy setting since Dark Souls. Loop Hero’s world is ending; nobody can remember things anymore, so those things are disappearing. Even abstract concepts like knowledge and permanence are vanishing into the void. It’s a delightfully unsettling, disorienting place where even the elaborate pixel art portraits of the bad guys aren’t sure what’s going on.Everything is forgotten except, of course, your lone hero, who walks a circular path through the void, fighting monsters and — crucially — remembering things before coming back to a campfire to rest. You have strange, dreamlike conversations with the people and creatures you meet, from bandits unsure why they’re stealing to goblins who have somehow remembered themselves right into existence. The conversations and unlockable tidbits of lore are wonderfully meandering oddities.
The map is represented with charmingly simple pixel graphics for the loop itself, which begins as a featureless, angular path through the lonely darkness. It’s inhabited only by your hero – little more than a 4-bit blob of white pixels – and a handful of bouncing green bubbles representing basic slime blob enemies. The art in fights is more detailed, showing 8-bit warriors slugging it out with basic attack animations, though like a 1990 RPG the sprites don’t vary with changes in weapon or as enemies level up. The correspondingly retro music’s good, too, even if a few tracks play a bit too often for the couple dozen hours Loop Hero will likely take you to play through.In those first few minutes you won’t do much, quite literally, as battles are hands-off. Once you’re in a fight your fate is controlled by your and your enemies’ Attack Speed, Defense, and Damage stats, with a dash of whether or not the percentage chance gods give you more Crits, Counters, and Evades than the other side. This even goes for boss battles: it’s very strictly your stats vs theirs. So for the first few uneventful loops, well, it’s a good time to fill your water glass or grab some snacks in the kitchen.
But Loop Hero soon gets you occupied and challenged – and this is where the ability to pause between battles becomes essential. As your hero fights they earn cards representing map tiles among their other loot, and the conceit is that placing these tiles makes the hero “remember” that features like forest groves, mountains, villages, rivers, and more were actually part of the world all along, restoring them to reality.
However, along with the benefits that those tiles bring (largely minor things like boosts to attack speed for forests or a town that restores some HP when your hero passes through) come corresponding tradeoffs. Beasts inhabit the woods, vampires come down from their castles, skeletons roam the graveyards, fishmen emerge from rivers, and gargoyles fly in and land just about anywhere. I found the balancing act between adding useful tiles and not overwhelming my hero with new enemies to be one of the best challenges in Loop Hero.
Watching the map go from blank slate to overwhelming collage is a rewarding sense of progression that at least somewhat makes up for the lack of customization in your character. That said, the muted palette isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, nor is the chunky pixel font all of the text and stats appear in. (Which you can change, thankfully, to something easier on the eyes or dyslexic friendly.)The loot that drops in battle is a big part of what keeps you busy: while it’s fairly robotic early on, you soon have to stop and think about which stats are best for your class. Does your Warrior want to buff his automatic health regen or his vampirism to gain health with every strike? What stats will your Necromancer sacrifice for the ability to summon an additional skeleton into their posse of the dead? You’re often swapping out one sword or magic ring for a shiny new one, but this is where Loop Hero leans too hard into randomness: If you don’t get the weapon drop you need for a couple of loops you’re just out of luck as your damage doesn’t keep up.
That, and the only thing about loot is stats, stats, and more stats. There are six to eight for each of the three classes, and that severely hurts replayability, even when you look at the special abilities a class gets on levelling up, because you can’t rely on any one stat to show up in the constantly-moving treadmill of random gear. I never once got a piece of gear so cool that it made me change the plan I had going in and build around it.
Your biggest angle of customization is in Loop Hero’s roguelite-style progression between expeditions when you choose which of your unlocked map tiles you bring in your deck, and how those tiles relate to each other by synergizing into new forms. For instance, a three-by-three cluster of nine mountains transforms into a huge peak, and a town will give you more health if it has wheat fields adjacent. Because you have so little control over your actual hero, much of mastering Loop Hero is about searching out these bonuses, deciphering the way that they could benefit you, and figuring out the optimal combination of terrain for each of the three hero classes.It is a remarkably simple set of rules, and that’s a big part of what’s good about Loop Hero. Place tiles, equip gear, get loot, go to camp, repeat. At the same time, that simplicity wore on me when I binged for hours at a time: there’s a certain amount of grind you have to do in order to progress. I did expeditions fairly often not with the goal of fighting and defeating the boss, but just to repeat the same combos a few times and gain resources so I could retreat and purchase a critical upgrade back home. That just feels anticlimactic and low-stakes.
Each time the loop takes your hero to the campfire you can retreat back to your camp with all of your gathered resources (as opposed to a mid-loop retreat or death, which leaves you only a fraction of your haul.) You build up the camp over time, adding new buildings and people. This gives you the little incremental upgrades you need to progress and beat the boss of each act. You might carry a farmer’s scythe to get more food from the fields you pass, a silver necklace to reduce damage from vampires, or build potion racks so you can bring more healing with you on the journey. (Also, though the developers have promised a fix for this soon, you cannot currently save your progress mid-expedition – quitting out and restarting puts you back in your town as though the run had never happened.)The thing is, when I call those upgrades incremental I really mean it. They’re simple, straightforward and, frankly, bland. You get more health, more damage, more attack speed. They don’t shake up how you play other than unlocking the two additional classes, which happens early on. Loop Hero’s biggest fault is that aside from the scale of the fiction and the ingenuity of the base concept it’s not ambitious or creative in the details of its design. It doesn’t provide variety or shake things up often enough to avoid becoming stale. There are clear optimal ways to build your character – and after you stumble on them there’s very little incentive to try anything else.