Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
How idle does a video game have to be before we label it an “idle game”? Can a game be a perfect mobile game if it’s not available on mobile? Is it still “tower defense” if you’re rooting for the little dude to make it through? Will these goddamn vampires get off my back for a second so I can drop my food orbs back off at camp? These are the kinds of questions that race through my mind while playing Loop Hero, the new small-dose strategy game out this week on Steam from Four Quarters, and published by Devolver Digital. Which means I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot, because Loop Hero is pretty damn addictive, as it happens.
The premise is: Whoops, world done ended. (Hate when that happens.) As a lone hero somehow persisting in the resulting oblivion, the player has to face off against an apparently malevolent lich who looks distractingly like Sans from Undertale, building up power to attempt to rebuild the world from their disparate memories. Unfortunately, most of our hero’s memories appear to be of slimes and goblins and such, forcing him to beat these pesky vermin down in exchange for the resources necessary to re-create some semblance of life in the void. The game’s central twist, though, is that it almost completely strips you of control over the hero himself. Instead, you’re reconstructing the world on his behalf, laying out the increasingly harsh (but hopefully not too harsh) path he’s trapped upon, as each trip around the Loop increases his opponents’ viciousness (and lucrative rewards).
The result, as noted above, is something like a tower defense game, albeit one where you’re rooting for the little mook to actually survive your carefully crafted gauntlet. And it’s a bit like an idle game, because all you can do during battles is watch your little guy duke it out with spiders or ghosts or “flesh golems,” etc., and pray that you haven’t stacked the deck too high against him in pursuit of riches. But while you’re often beholden to luck—a really nice sword dropping early can make all the difference in the fate of the run—Loop Hero also has considerably more strategy afoot than its hands-off presentation might initially suggest. Rebuilding the world involves not just dropping evil forests or haunted cemeteries in the hero’s path, but also planning for beneficial structures like meadows (which regenerate health) or mountains (which add to his max HP). But even here, the push and pull of risk and reward are fascinating: Too many mountains will encourage goblin camps to spawn along your loop, and those little fuckers are mean; dropping a health-restoring village in your hero’s path might be a short-term solution to a life point deficit, but the bandits they attract might cost you more HP than you realized you were wagering.
It’s all enjoyably compulsive in a way that makes me genuinely wonder why the game’s not getting a big mobile push, too. (The fact that the “world-building” aspects knowingly lift aspects from mobile-based juggernauts like Triple Town, allowing you to find combos that generate even bigger gains and deficits, only makes the connections all the more obvious.) For now, though, the game’s considerable pleasures are confined to Steam (which also has a demo available, if “Tower defense Triple Town with Sans from Undertale” somehow didn’t have you racing out to purchase), where its combination of deceptively deep gameplay, gorgeous retro-ish art, and a lovely moody soundtrack will hopefully keep it cycling through people’s brains for a good long while.