It’s hard to find a concise description that does Loop Hero justice. It’s a mash-up of a whole bunch of different genres—roguelike, RPG, strategy, city-builder, tower defence, deck-building game, auto-battler—but the ways all these different things come together make it so much more than the sum of those parts. To put it simply (if, perhaps, unhelpfully), Loop Hero is Loop Hero, one of the most unique, original games I’ve played in a while.
Each expedition sees your hero following a path that’s randomly generated for each outing but always follows a looping pattern. At first, this path is a straightforward road in the middle of a vast nothingness, the only points of interest being the odd slime to fight and a campfire that marks the start and end point of each loop. The hero moves and fights automatically, without any direct involvement from the player.
Your main involvement is to modify the path and surrounding scenery, thus helping to strengthen the hero and improve their chances of success. Defeated enemies drop cards that you can place on the map, either on the path itself or surrounding area, depending on the card in question. Some of these are straightforward stat boosts: rocks and mountains increase the hero’s HP, with a cumulative effect when placed side by side; meadows improve health regeneration. Other cards do things like spawn new monsters along the looping path, increasing the danger but also improving the chances at better loot, or add helpful nodes along the way to restore a bit of HP each time the hero passes by.
But where things start to get interesting is when you start combining cards. Almost every card has some sort of impact on those around it, whether that’s a bonus side effect for a card that can be placed on its own, or a card that can only be played as a companion to another. A meadow placed next to another, non-meadow card increases its effect; a wheat field can only be placed next to a village, improving the amount of HP recovered with each visit.
Some of these side effects are indirect consequences that you have no control over, at least until you see them happen a couple of times and start to understand how everything comes together. A three-by-three square of mountains and rocks becomes a mountain peak, increasing the hero’s HP by much more than those individual cards would, but also periodically spawning a harpy somewhere along the path. Every second village spawns a bandit camp at a random location—potentially throwing a big spanner in your works if, say, that spot happens to be adjacent to a vampire mansion, which adds a vampire to every encounter within range.
The core loop (sorry) of Loop Hero, then, is about strategically placing cards in a way that’ll let your hero get stronger, while also trying to account as much as possible for the random nature of loot, card drops, and many of those side effects. It’s a mesh of systems that’s fascinating to explore; as you start to understand how all the little details come together and how, you’ll find an endless array of strategic possibilities.
And if you’re thinking of just not placing any extra monster spawns or other “harmful” cards, think again. Enemies level up across the board with every loop, and the only way for the hero to keep up is to get better loot and more cards—which, as you’d expect, mean you need stronger enemy types to fight against. At the heart of every Loop Hero expedition is a balancing act, as you try to create a loop that’s as challenging—and therefore, as rewarding—as possible, without overplaying your hand and suddenly backing yourself into a corner you can’t get out of.
There’s a system of long-term progression to go along with this, too. Between expeditions, you can use resources you’ve gathered to develop your base camp, unlocking new cards, classes, abilities, and the like in the process. There’s a light city-building touch here, with placement of different facilities having an impact on their effects in relation to one another. This also adds another layer to the expeditions themselves: each time you complete a loop, you have the choice of retiring with all your spoils in tow, or going for another, riskier, potentially more lucrative loop. Die along the way, though, and you’ll only bring back a fraction of the resources you’ve gathered.
What’s the context for all of this? Loop Hero takes place in a world that’s been almost entirely wiped from existence—not just destroyed, but erased from history, made to have never been in the first place. But our nameless hero, for some reason, survives, and manages to hold onto tiny little fragmented memories of the world. That’s what all those map-making cards are: little details of the world that the hero manages to dredge up with each loop, only for them all to be forgotten again when the expedition ends.
In Loop Hero, memories of a world that once was are hard to come by and easily lost. This is a story of odd (and oddly loveable) characters facing desperate times, a bleak sense of humour underpinning much of that, but there’s a more terrifying existential dilemma beneath it all. What happens when memories are lost? When they’re lost on a grand, cosmic scale? If something that has been completely forgotten, can anyone really say whether it existed to begin with? Between the jokes and the witty dialogue, these are the things that Loop Hero grapples with.
A very particular approach to pixel art helps drive this atmosphere home. Loop Hero uses a limited palette of muted, earthy colours; set against the backdrop of empty expanse, it means each tile and piece of land feels grounded but also disconnected. The level of detail varies from meticulous character portraits to pixel stick figures that roam the loop map, again helping to create a mood that’s both familiar but also deeply alien. It works to great effect, the art style really driving home everything else that Loop Hero works so hard to achieve. One nice touch that you don’t often see in pixel art games is the option of high-res and dyslexia-friendly fonts—for all the aesthetic appeal of pixel fonts, that shouldn’t be a barrier for people who aren’t able to read them properly.
Loop Hero is something truly unique: you could fairly describe it as a sort of reverse tower defence roguelike deck-building strategy RPG, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a game that takes all those pieces and combines them into something that isn’t quite like anything else out there. Sharp writing and a story that moves effortlessly between morbid humour and murky existentialist musing tie it all together nicely, but its in the fascinating experience of exploring the little details of its web of intertwined systems that Loop Hero finds its true brilliance.
Loop Hero is developed by Four Quarters and published by Devolver Digital. It’s available now for PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.