I've always struggled with roguelike games. They're traditionally battles of attrition, where only players that are skillful or stubborn enough to push through the repetition of failure and loss of progress come out on top--which can sometimes make reaching the endgame goal seem like an insurmountable task. Loop Hero, however, is structured as one big challenging deck building-focused roguelike that’s composed of many tiny easier runs that always build towards progress without intimidation.
In Loop Hero, you begin a new run by travelling from your camp and walking along the looping path laid for you. You always travel forwards, fighting everything you come across. Fights are automated, so you just sit back and watch them unfold. As you walk, time passes and new monsters spawn at random points on the loop with the dawn of every new day, creating an endless cycle of conflict. But defeating enemies nets you new weapons and pieces of armor that make you stronger, and, more importantly, the chance to draw cards from your deck.
Outside of combat, you can momentarily pause your journey around the loop at any time to play as many of the cards in your hand as you want. Some are beneficial: For example, placing "Meadow" gives you health regen with each passing day and each "Rock" card you play increases your base health. Others can present greater risk though: "Battlefield" spawns a chest of powerful gear but enemies that die nearby may become resurrected as dangerous ghosts and "Village" heals you partway through a loop but randomly makes one enemy on the loop significantly stronger every time it activates.
Whether they help or hinder you, you have to be strategic about when these cards' effects pop up on the loop, picking where boons benefit you and where you'll encounter more dangerous threats. So even though your path is predetermined at the start of every run and never changes direction, it evolves over time with every loop as you play more and more cards, gathering stronger weapons to take on the more powerful enemies that gradually clutter your way.
This pattern continues until you've either placed enough cards to spawn the boss, die, or decide to cut your losses and retreat back to camp with the resources you've gathered. If you return to camp while you're at the end of a loop, you'll keep all your resources. If you're already in the midst of a new loop, you'll lose some of your cargo. And if you die, you'll lose most of what you're carrying. Resources are important for upgrading your camp (which slowly begins to fill with other survivors as it improves, propelling the game's story) in order to unlock permanent upgrades--typically new cards for your deck or different character classes.
There's something wonderfully approachable about how Loop Hero breaks down the structure of a roguelike into a series of small loops, especially for someone like me who isn't all that good at them. Because yes, you're always striving for the long-term goal of optimizing a run to make your next run better, but your immediate concern in Loop Hero is to achieve the short-term goal of optimizing your current loop to make your next loop better--the bite-sized challenge of several small loops to work toward achieving one good run is far less daunting.
It helps that there's an incentive to keep pushing on individual runs and complete more loops. Loop Hero's tutorial explains very little to you beyond the basic mechanics, which corresponds with the titular hero having amnesia at the start of the game. So it's not immediately clear what you're supposed to be doing, but as you play you learn a lot more about the world and yourself by completing individual loops, encouraging you to at least keep going in order to piece together the larger mystery of the world.
It's immediately apparent that the cards you place aren't creating rocks and trees and enemies--they're the hero's memories slowly coming back. They're recalling that there's supposed to be a forest on the edge of the loop, for instance, or that a mountain once dominated the northern part of a once bloody battlefield. You have no idea why the world has been seemingly converted into this looping darkness, but you can piece together clues as to how the world once stood and what happened by completing loops and accidenting into informative coincidences.
For example, my initial encounter with a vampire was my first indication that there were enemies that I could talk to, and I spent subsequent loops on that run trying to figure out how to spawn other types of enemies that I could perhaps communicate with in order to better understand what was going on. I actually ran into the next one by accident--without warning, some sort of camp appeared on my loop that started spawning goblins. I had no idea how I had done it, but after a few more loops, I noticed that a camp appeared whenever I placed a bunch of "Rock" or "Mountain" cards. Perhaps goblins lived in rocky terrain and my remembering so many rocks and mountains had caused me to remember goblins as well. The creatures were very antagonistic towards me, unlike the rather courteous vampire from earlier who did all he could to not bite me before succumbing to his hunger--it all seemed to hint that humans and goblins had not been on good terms before the world had transformed into this endlessly looping place. It was another clue, and I decided to trek on for one more loop in hopes of discovering more.
This desire to complete one more good loop so that you can then try for another one adds up over time, resulting in a better grasp of how to optimize individual loops. And that, in turn, naturally brings about more successful runs. By the time you're finally ready to go for a big run and face off against the first boss, you've likely completed many short-term goals, like unlocking a new character class, learning more about the state of the world, and deducing how to pair certain cards for the best results. It's an effective method of teaching the player how to play without spelling everything out or forcing them to undergo numerous failures before the mechanics finally begin to click. I've enjoyed these first six hours with Loop Hero and am looking forward to playing through the full game when it releases for PC in 2021.
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