Game Freak's new self-published RPG asks a lot from players in return for an enchanting, (although small) world, and immensely satisfying combat system. What it asks is for players to endure prevalent performance issues throughout, a tedious story, lacklustre characters, and a bit of patience learning how to do battle. In many ways, the budget-minded Little Town Hero feels like a digital card battler with mostly lazy RPG elements thrown in as accessories to the excellent battling at its core.
Release date: October 16, 2019
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Developer / Publisher: Game Freak
When I say the RPG elements are "mostly lazy", I'm referring to the wonderfully inviting world and its lovely sounds, scored by Undertale developer Toby Fox, as the sole exceptions. It isn't the most detailed or expansive, but this little town is downright cosy. Glinting rivers run alongside sloping dirt roads and small hillsides, rushing waterfalls pour from high-up caves, and the quaint town is dotted with tiny homes and ornate windmills. There isn't much to explore here, but what you can see is a succulent treat for the eyes, and the music only amplifies the atmosphere in every event.
Nothing to see here
Unfortunately, the story told from within those tight boundaries isn't nearly so digestible. You're a child who dreams of becoming a soldier and venturing outside of the small town where you grew up, but the guards at the gate won't let him, and so instead he fights monsters which are appearing in town. You aren't single-minded though, as between battles you'll frequently chat with friends about girls and prepare for a bizarre ritualistic courting tradition held by your town. Even though Little Town Hero makes a small effort to tell a story with real consequence – and indeed things tie together loosely in the final act – the lifeless characters living the story seem to care little more than I did about what was going on.
Interacting with the townspeople often left me feeling like I walked in on the middle of a conversation or an inside joke went over my head, and the extraordinarily formulaic NPCs cloned across the small map rarely have anything consequential to say. Here and there, Little Town Hero's awkwardly dry humor makes me double-over in a fit of laughter, but mostly I wade through the solely unvoiced dialogue sections anticipating the next battle, and holy hell are they battles.
No rash decisions
Even inconsequential training fights with your best friend, of which there are many, will last you anywhere between 10 minutes to half an hour, depending on how quickly you grow accustomed to the combat system. If you aren't studiously taking note of every little rule, taking advantage of every perk, and carefully executing your strategy, boss fights will continually beat you down until you're forced to pay attention. Little Town Hero demands – even deserves – your full attention during fights, and almost nowhere else.
Battles play out in turn-based rounds where you employ "Ideas" to counter your opponent's moves and drain their three hearts. In boss fights, you'll move across a map each turn to position yourself with support characters, new Ideas, and bonus effects. Ideas are called Izzits, which can be turned into Dazzits in exchange for different amounts of Power points. Dazzits are what you'll use to defend yourself, attack your opponent, and activate temporary stat boosts. After each round you'll earn Eureka points which you can spend on a basic, yet serviceable skill tree.
You'll quickly learn to be resourceful with how you use your Power points in battle, since once you run out you're left to literally "Struggle" your way into the next round, or give up the whole fight if you'd rather start over fresh. Battles become increasingly complex as you progress through the story, and most boss fights introduce yet another mechanic you need to account for when deciding your next move. Little Town Hero never lets its battles grow dull, keeping you on your toes until one knocks you on your back when you aren't paying attention.
In more advanced battles, I found myself vocally ruminating about how my proposed course of action would play out and then realizing an enemy's Dazzit contained a perk which would've foiled my plan before starting from scratch. Little Town Hero will occasionally hurt your brain, but the payoff is worth the pain. My reactions to triumphing over bosses ranged from enthusiastic fist pumps to screeching, stomping, long-winded celebrations of victory. This is a game that makes you think about how to win; when I fail I feel daft, but when I win I feel like a mastermind.
Slow and unsteady
The high of planning and executing a successful strategy runs hard and fast, as once the battle's over you're soberly whisked back into a dull, shifting story, told through monotonous fetch quests and sometimes lengthy conversations with boring people.
While battles are frequent enough to make trudging through Little Town Hero's narrative easy enough, you'll have nowhere to escape the game's frustrating performance on the Switch. When you're only jogging through town, it's nothing distracting, but even attack animations slow the movement down noticeably. At times around loading, the framerate slows to a freeze for silent moments before picking up again.
Thankfully, I never experienced a crash in my 20-plus hour playthrough, but there were many moments where I anxiously anticipated one. Out of curiosity, I checked out the main menu's monster index and left in horror of the selector delay. It won't impede battles much at all, but for such a compact game I was surprised to see it struggle so much.
If you can swallow the uninspired storytelling and framerate drops, there's a lot of fun to be had taking down monsters in Little Town Hero. An exercise in battle strategy and patience for its flaws, Little Town Hero knows where its strengths lie, and thankfully you'll see more strengths than flaws if you invest in them.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.