I’ve always been a little hesitant when it comes to playing community content-focused games. Games which, rather than focusing on the content which comes with the game, place the bulk of their emphasis on the content which its players create. Don’t get me wrong or anything, I don’t actively dislike community-focused games. Some titles, such as those within the Little Big Planet franchise, deal excellently with player-created content. But, at least in my humble opinion, it can’t be all that you’re focused on. For all of the emphasis Little Big Planet games place on community, for example, they still have enough single-player content to keep 1P purists happy. Are the single-player features the most important content in those games? No, of course not. And they shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t diminish their necessity.
And then, there are games like Next Up Hero. Now, let me set the record straight before getting into this too much. I don’t hate this game. Nor do I think that it’s objectively bad. On the contrary, I feel like what it was going for was a pretty neat idea. That transition from the realm of ideas into reality can be a tricky one, though, and it unfortunately it doesn’t seem like Next Up Hero made that leap quite as cleanly as it could potentially could have. And it’s because of that very middle-of-the-road execution that I was always left with wanting more, despite how much I played.
Dungeons… In… (Cyber)SPACE!
To put things simply, Next Up Hero is a suped-up version of the classic arcade Gauntlet games… and it’s also all completely online. Its goal is simple enough, and is one that many people, especially those who were fond of its spiritual predecessors, will have already had plenty of experience with; to make your way through a series of dungeons, defeat the boss at the end, and repeat the process as many times as you can. Sounds familiar, right? Sure it does! But that’s not the entirety of what Next Up Hero has going on in terms of its dungeon delving exploits.
As I’ve already said, Next Up Hero is entirely online. But what exactly does that entail? A lot of things, really. The most important thing, though, is the fact that — outside of a special challenge mode known as the “Champion Trial” — every single one of the isometric dungeons within the game are player-created. I hear some of you out there groaning after reading that, but there’s no need to panic. Next Up Hero doesn’t expect its player base to be master dungeonsmiths (is that even a word?). Instead, dungeons are almost entirely procedurally generated. All you need to do in order to create a dungeon is pick the theme (Lava, Desert, Forest, or Tundra), the length, the difficulty (in terms of enemy encounters), and, if you’ve got the cash, what kinds of Rare Enemies will spawn, and let the game do the rest. It’s easy to get into, and it’s honestly kind of neat. But it left me with one nagging question — why does this game need to be entirely online?
Now, now, no need to start furiously typing within the comments section – that was a rhetorical question. Sort of. I know that Next Up Hero has its supposed reasons for being an online-exclusive. It’s attempting to foster a unique, dungeon building community. It’s also unashamedly attempting to pander to the streaming crowd — a practice which I personally find to be distasteful. Personal tastes aside, however, I still don’t think that what this game has to offer is enough to warrant it being 100% online. I could very easily choose to only play through levels which I have created, and would still have plenty of things to do. I also know for a fact that the game has the ability to spawn in its own Echoes (something which we’ll get into later). Dungeon creation and Echoes are neat. And they do work in an online setting. But there’s no way that I’m going to believe that a single-player mode “just wouldn’t work” with Next Up Hero as it currently is. Do you know how annoying it is to be in the middle of what is essentially a single-player game, only to get forcibly ejected mid-level because of a server error? Very annoying. And very unnecessary, as well.
Running the Gauntlet
When it comes to actual hacking and slashing, (you know, the stuff that goes on inside of the dungeons), Next Up Hero is fairly competent. Once again following in the footsteps of Gauntlet, gameplay is all about clearing your way through the hordes of monsters populating each dungeon’s floors, collecting loot and making your way to the big, bad, baddie at the very end. Mechanically speaking, things aren’t difficult to pick up on at all, with players able to make use of normal and special attacks, a basic dashing maneuver, and the “Focus Mode” ability which, when activated, decreases a player’s speed but increases their accuracy. While easy enough to understand, I will admit that the game is a little weird with PC button placement. Both Focus Mode and the character’s Prestige skill (which can be unlocked after shelling out some in-game cash) are placed awkwardly on the keyboard (“Shift” and “R” respectively). They’re so awkward, in fact, that I ended up having to bind them to macro buttons on my gaming mouse — something which I never thought that I’d have to do for a game as mechanically simple as this.
Of course, knowing how to attack and doge aren’t the only important things. You’ve got to know your character as well. Next Up Hero features 11 different classes, or Heroes in this case, each of whom come with their own unique attacks, skills and stats. Personally, I felt this to be one of the game’s stronger points. Despite only being split up into three different categories (Melee, Ranged, and Wildcard), each of Next Up Hero’s Heroes are all incredibly diverse. It’s obvious from the very beginning that Digital Continue put a lot of time and effort into creating them. Some of the most fun that I had during my time with the game was testing out each Hero, and deciding which one worked best for me (it ended up being Mixtape, in case you were curious). What’s more, players can even customize their characters with equipment and, after defeating enough enemies and collecting their tokens, special abilities to really give them an edge while they’re up to their neck in monsters.
Unfortunately, the actual fighting doesn’t fare quite as well as the characters themselves when it comes to quality and balance. My biggest issue? Honestly, the game’s too hard. I know that almost everyone reading this doesn’t know the first thing about me personally, so let me clarify something — I love difficult games. I absolutely relish them. But only when they’re hard in a fair way. And I don’t feel like this game qualifies as “fair hard”. Enemies are often times too frequent and too fierce, the game’s unimaginative terrain doesn’t allow for any kind of creative maneuverability, and many of the game’s floor clearing conditions — such as extremely reduced visibility, or those infuriating floors which continuously rain down torrents of deadly rocks upon the player — do nothing but make the already somewhat frustrating combat even less enjoyable.
Echoes of the Past
To their credit, Digital Continue isn’t blind to this difficulty spike. They openly admit that their game isn’t easy. They know that you, and everyone else playing, are going to die. A lot. And with that knowledge, they’ve actually done something rather brilliant — they attempt to turn failures into successes. Each time you die, you spawn what is known as an Echo in the exact location where you met your demise. Echoes are ethereal AI versions of dead player characters which, when revived, will follow you around and fight alongside you. They aren’t the smartest, nor are they the most aggressive, but what little assistance they offer is nice, and it only gets better as you manage to collect more. And their usefulness doesn’t stop there, either! After collecting enough Echoes, players are able to sacrifice them in order to summon Ancients — creatures which, when called upon, offer a variety of buffs aor combat assistance. Ancients are incredibly powerful, and can easily help players turn the tables in a bad situation. They don’t stick around long though, unfortunately, so you’re generally with only using them in an absolute emergency. …Except in boss fights. Where you just might need them the most.
And this brings us back to the online aspect. Collecting Echoes is important to player survivability. Echoes are created when players die. But what happens when there are no players? I can actually answer that question myself; the already difficult game that is Next Up Hero becomes even more difficult. Because of the game’s seemingly small community (based entirely on my own experience. of course), most dungeons are going to be incredibly difficult due to an overall lack of an extremely important resource — dead players. This leaves you with two realistic options. You can either play the most popular dungeons which, while filled with Echoes, are incredibly long and most likely way too difficult for you in in the hopes of possibly clearing it and obtaining an overpowered piece of equipment (this is possible due to the game allowing you to continue from your current floor after dying), or, you can play through some tamer dungeons and cap out quickly in terms of strength. I guess you could also wander into a dungeon that’s both Echo-less and difficult if you wanted to, as well. But I didn’t want to do that. And I’m sure most other players won’t, either.
You see the problem here, right? Those two realistic options are both extremes. I never felt as though what I was playing was appropriate for my current level. I was either too strong, or too weak (usually the latter). Not once was I ever completely comfortable with where I was at. I understand if Next Up Hero wants to make a shtick centered around a community, but there need to be options for those who don’t have easy access to areas where most of the community is located (ie high-level dungeons), and maybe, while they’re at it, for players who don’t consistently want to be part of an online community at all.
There’s no sense in beating around the bush, here; Next Up Hero could do a lot better. It’s not quite in a spot where I could call it “bad”, as it does have some good things going for it. Its selection of Heroes is nice, combat is smooth (albeit hard), its procedurally generated dungeons have potential, and I think that the whole Echo mechanic is somewhat intuitive. But there’s simply not enough to keep me coming back again and again. It relies too much on other people playing — to the point of its difficulty artificially inflating with a low player count — and there’s honestly no reason for it to be an online exclusive in its current state save, the fact that it’s trying to draw in streamers. So, while I can compliment this game for attempting to do something intuitive, its lukewarm execution makes it difficult for me to give it much more credit than that.
FINAL VERDICT: 3/5
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One ; Publisher: Aspyr ; Developer: Digital Continue ; Players: 1 – 2 ; Released: June 28 2018 ; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone Ages 10+ ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Next Up Hero given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.