Loop Hero is the rehydrated essence of a dozen misremembered, ancient games. From the moment the 16-color title screen fades in alongside dramatic chiptunes, you feel like you’re playing some forgotten, VGA-era fantasy RPG, a game that still contains some of the mystery and difficulty of 1991, but gently modernized to 2021.
This isn’t nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Loop Hero presents a novel and dead-simple gameplay format that’s strangely engrossing, considering much of your time playing it is hands-off.
You send one of three hero classes (Warrior, Rogue, Necromancer) on repeated expeditions to an empty road sitting in an otherwise blank void. As your little hero auto-walks around this stone path, you populate the rest of the world yourself by playing cards like graveyards, battlefields, villages, meadows, or mountains one by one. These environment pieces in turn alter hero or enemy stats like attack speed and HP, and spawn corresponding enemies that you fight automatically as you pass through them: ghosts, ratwolves, bandits, packs of spiders.
What Loop Hero adds to the “fight, die, repeat” formula of roguelikes is this indirect action. You do not decide where to move or what to attack; you can only build the level itself and hope that the machine you’re piecing together is good enough to give you enough XP, resources, and gear to make you strong but not kill you outright. Each run becomes a small experiment: what if I drop a bunch of spider cocoons and sand dunes, which lower all creatures’ HP? What will river cards do if I intersect them with the road itself? Can my Warrior survive two adjacent tiles filled with giant sandworms?
Loop Hero becomes a game about tending a vicious circle, a gauntlet that perpetually regrows deadly shit that scales up in level each time you complete a loop. Make it too hard, and you’ll get pummeled. Make it too easy, and you’ll probably fail to kill the boss or earn enough resources to make the trip worthwhile: wood, food, and mysterious orbs you need to build and upgrade new structures back at camp, the persistent layer of Loop Hero.
My favorite design element are the hidden effects that trigger when you play certain cards. When you drop nine mountain cards in a 3×3 grid, they transform into a massive Everest peak, granting a mega boost to max HP. But, surprise: harpies now live in the mountain you built, a challenging enemy type that will fly down to a random part of your board every few days. And if you play a tenth mountain or rock card, a goblin encampment will randomly spawn on the road, churning out some nasty, fast-attacking enemies.
These surprises are arbitrary, telegraphed, and delightful. It’s refreshing as hell to play a game that doesn’t even hint at how to unlock some of its powerful effects. But by the time I was 15 or 20 hours in, I just wanted more of these surprise interactions. Unfortunately they aren’t sustained evenly across the entire four-chapter ‘campaign.’
The other side of Loop Hero’s spare interactivity is swapping out pieces of gear, an almost constant task of swapping out helmets, shields, and enchanted pikes. The inventory is permanently fixed to the screen, and as you kill monsters, new gear of differing rarity pops into your inventory for consideration. It’s fun and effective in practice, a hyper-distillation of action RPGs like Diablo: would you rather have 25 percent more attack speed or 15 defense? Then, seconds later: here’s some new boots with high evasion—but is that better than improving my critical hit chance?
One knock against all the loot management is that, like its mysterious card effects, Loop Hero doesn’t explain the relative value of every combat stat. Particularly for the Necromancer, I had to guess whether +4.3 “skeleton level” was as valuable as +24 percent “summon quality.” Did buffing my own attack speed also make my skeletons hit faster? Unclear. Likewise, some enemy abilities aren’t easy to understand, even though Loop Hero contains tooltips. It could be argued that all this under-explanation is a deliberate, nostalgic part of a retro RPG that doesn’t tutorialize or hold your hand. I’d be wary of opening up a wiki on Loop Hero and potentially spoiling its best surprises. Loop Hero’s in-game encyclopedia is a smart way of mitigating some of this confusion (as a bonus, be sure to unlock the actual paragraphs of lore for super mundane items, like a dresser).
Loop Hero does have some fun class-specific nuances. The Necromancer was my favorite class to play. Combats with multiple enemies can become pleasantly tense battles of attrition, where your Necro struggles to summon enough skeletons to soak. The Rogue only earns loot once he reaches the campfire tile, so you’re often holding your breath until you reach this finish line, praying you make it there alive to heal up and gear up. Necromancers get a unique amulet slot that gives them a powerful HP over-shield, an accessory unaffected by cards that lower max HP.
These are wonderful little pockets of depth considering you have zero control over combat other than the gear you’re wearing. My small disappointment is that the build I came up with for the Rogue so vastly outperformed anything I could figure out for the Warrior or Necromancer.
Loop Hero is the concentrated experience of watching numbers get bigger in a video game, but a grimly enchanting one at that.
It’s a style of game that has something in common with the so-called idle and clicker games that’ve emerged over the last few years, and 2012’s Half-Minute Hero. It’s a pleasant format, and maybe Loop Hero’s biggest point of success is that it makes a home in this middle zone between watching, planning, and acting. Supporting each moment is some excellent music and sound design—scraping slashes, a giant mosquito’s buzz, the unlubricated sound of a skeleton reanimating. I love the creepy little organ you hear every time you drop a Vampire Mansion into the level, one of Loop Hero’s tougher bad guys.
This is the sort of smart, focused resurrection of old games I want more of, something that feels old and new with every expedition step. I managed to put more than 40 hours into this quote-unquote small game.