The tide has well and truly turned against my hero. Far from home and weighed down by a pack laden with hard-won resources, the road ahead has grown treacherous. To get back to the safety of my campfire, I'll need to fight my way through the bandits, zombies, and giant spiders that block the path, but my health bar is getting dangerously low and I'm not sure I'll be able to safely run the gauntlet. But the worst part? I've got no one to blame but myself.
Loop Hero takes place in a shattered world in which the last remnants of humanity are clinging to existence even as their memory of the civilizations they've left behind fades to nothing - once a person or place is left behind, it's as if they never existed. The only exception is the titular hero, whose apparent immunity to the end of existence makes them the perfect candidate to venture out into the wilderness and gather the materials required to rebuild.
That wilderness takes the form of an empty, looping pathway that's randomly generated at the start of every expedition, with your camp at the start/end point. At the beginning of each run, every tile on the path is a wasteland with a small chance to spawn a basic monster, which your hero must defeat (combat plays out automatically based on your stats) to earn a reward; loot improves your hero's damage or survivability but fights also drop cards which can be used to transform the wasteland around you. Placing a 'Grove' card transforms one tile on the loop into a small copse of woodland, providing part of the wood resource every time you pass through, but also periodically spawning a rat-wolf hybrid which can roam to adjacent tiles. Moving through a village tile provides healing, but helpless villagers eventually attract bandits that you'll need to fight off.
Before heading out on each expedition, there are two sets of choices to make. The first determines which class your hero will be using; the warrior makes use of heavy armor to deflect attacks; the rogue relies on increased attack damage and devastating critical strikes, and the necromancer calls forward skeletons to do the fighting for them, all while hiding behind a magic shield. The second is the deck of cards that you'll be taking with you, each of which offers a different one of the resources you need, but which interacts with the world around it in a different way. Placing a Blood Grove card next to a Grove tile executes low-health enemies on any adjacent roadway, but playing multiple Blood Groves close together creates a Hungry Grove, which can also damage your hero. Place a Vampire Manor next to a Village, and you'll create a Ransacked Village that's initially filled with blood-sucking zombies, but is one of the best ways to gather an essential resource and will eventually transform into an upgraded tile that provides far more healing than the basic village.
With just a couple of exceptions, every tile risks upsetting the balance between risk and reward. Placing a mountain tile increases your hero's max HP, but for every ten of them you place a Goblin Camp will appear somewhere on the map. The healing benefits of a village can be increased by planting wheat fields, but those can quickly fill up with sentient scarecrows that guard their crops against outsiders. To progress to the end-of-level boss fight, you have to fill up the map, but doing so creates an increasingly difficult path for your hero to tread. Death isn't exactly the end, but it'll cause you to lose the majority of your most valuable resources, potentially wasting an entire run if you can't get back to camp and bank what you've gathered.
It's learning to strike that balance that makes Loop Hero so compelling. It's helped on by an intriguing narrative, some basic progression mechanics, and the excitement that comes with figuring out a new combination of tiles, but what makes it so fascinating is how much control it grants the player. Every expedition offers a blank slate of a game in which you are cast in the role of level designer, tasked with creating an experience that's complex enough to be rewarding but not so difficult that it feels unfair. And if you fail? You've got no one to blame but yourself.
Loop Hero is out now on PC.