Renaissance Heroes presents a vision of a world where the bulk of Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished inventions didn't fade away into obscurity for centuries, but rather found their way into the hands of steroid-powered Spanish knights and assassins disguised as harem girls. Humorously enough, its paper-thin narrative drive also rests on the recovery of a world-changing project that the Tuscan master never finished. (Indeed, it supposedly killed him.) And so, in the bloodthirsty spirit of the Italian Renaissance, the harem girls and the knights riddle each other with bullets and bash each other's head in with clubs in this team-based multiplayer shooter, all in the hopes of being the first to retrieve the blueprints for the lost project. If it weren't for several regrettable design decisions, Renaissance Heroes could have evoked the joy of no-frills first-person shooter arena games in the vein of Quake and Unreal Tournament.
Much of the game's appeal lies in its Renaissance setting, which reveals a deep affection for the subject matter. In da Vinci's atelier, for instance, you dodge crossbow bolts and bullets beneath the massive, unfinished bronze horse da Vinci designed for the duke of Milan; in the library, looking up from the carnage rewards you with a view of da Vinci's famed flying device suspended above the shelves. That same affection for the theme extends to the characters and weapons. The eight playable characters, with their own small bonuses to melee or ranged weapons, walk an agreeable line between cool and outlandish, featuring everything from dandified Medici courtiers to resurrected knights from the Crusades 400 years before.
It's a shame, then, that Renaissance Heroes initially locks you into the first character you select. Only later does it inform you that unlocking a new character costs almost $10, although it alleviates the sting of this requirement somewhat by providing new character slots as some of the rewards for logging in daily. It's worth taking advantage of the slots, since it's fun to experience the different ways each character battles through this early modern wonderland. Loadouts feature four modifiable weapons with styles that meet somewhere between authentic da Vinci and unabashed steampunk.
Thankfully, it's usually just as fun to use the weapons as it is to look at them, particularly when you find yourself cycling through hefty blunderbusses and crossbows with a flick of your mouse's scrollwheel, along with lugging out limited-use special weapons that could pass for siege cannons. Unfortunately, the balance is off at times. Take the grinder. Because of its high accuracy rating and high rate of fire, it's not uncommon to see entire teams lugging them around. Elsewhere, headshots from the crossbows used by the dancer Aisha can drop even veteran players, and plentiful ammo recharge points--there's no reloading--mean that the little bombs that stand in for grenades sometimes fall like rain, even with a limit of two per character.
To developer ChangYou's credit, Renaissance Heroes' unique sprinting mechanic mitigates the grenade threat since you can use grenades and melee weapons only while running. This mechanic is awkward at first, but the availability of a practice room (and a needlessly plodding tutorial) eases you into the inevitably clumsy transition. After a few rounds, switching to melee while sprinting is as fluid as switching between the weapons in your ranged arsenal.
All this unfolds in a generally satisfying offering of six gameplay modes that hinge on reaching either 100 kills or a set time limit, even though the highly limited maps for each mode grows tiresome. The modes include old standbys like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and Capture the Flag (or Scrolls here), as well as less standard options like a 20-point one-on-one duel round. The most fun of all is TouchDown, which sends you charging through a ruined Greek castle to reach a goal on the opposing team's side. In short, there's little here that gets in the way of the simple--and slightly outdated--pleasure of hunting down up to six enemy players on the small but well-designed maps, and scattered power-ups for armor, health, and ammo allow even the lowest-ranked players to hold their own against veterans.
Oddly enough, it's that spirit of accommodation that chips the paint off the otherwise pleasing fresco of Renaissance Heroes. If you've been performing horribly--dying multiple times without scoring a kill--you trigger an absurdly powerful rage mode that grants massive boosts to your ammo, health, and power. The intent is to help balance out the matches (and possibly discourage camping), but it does so a little too well. You might trigger the rage mode and use it to score a dozen kills in a matter of seconds. It rewards playing poorly, and thus many players disable the option when creating matches.
The cash shop, meanwhile, leans towards the "pay to win" perspective, because it offers multiple cosmetic gear bundles for $70 that provide small bonuses to the character that matches the gear. An outfit for the Middle Eastern assassin Aisha, for example, yields a rage meter that fills faster, as well as a larger hitbox on enemy players for headshots. The upgrades are slight (although they add up), and you can hold your own against players ranked 20 levels higher with well-placed headshots and careful use of the environment for cover. Virtually all of the items you can purchase with cash you can also acquire by hoarding the in-game currency; the difference is that most cash items are permanent, whereas most weapons and stat gear are rented with in-game money, and are therefore only temporary. If you have the patience to hoard gold, however, you can unlock the permanent versions.
Renaissance Heroes is fun, but it's simple fun that gains most of its strength from its unusual aesthetic. Strip it of that, and it feels like any given arena FPS from the 1990s. But if you're just looking for a simple, fun twitch-based shooter with just enough thematic differences to distinguish it from its countless contemporary military counterparts, you'll find it does its job well enough to warrant a download. Whether or not you stick around will depend on your tolerance for a balancing mechanic that turns sorry players into gods and a cash shop that grants in-game bonuses--however small--to players willing to fork out the cash for them.