It’s hip to be square.
Is there a genre in indie gaming more consistent than the tough-as-nails precision platformer? No matter the developer, it’s a genre defined by formal, tried-and-true ingredients: tight controls, devilish level design and the oh-so-necessary quick respawns. But with so many games built atop these same familiar foundations, a new hook is required to draw players into each respective game – Slime-san lives off its uniquely charming visual style and cavalcades of content, while Celeste uses the gameplay structure of a platformer to weave a touching story about a girl overcoming her inner demons.
Flat Heroes possesses no such visual or narrative bells and whistles, instead choosing to eschew all these flourishes to focus all its efforts, purely and utterly, on gameplay. As risky as a decision like this can be in a hard-to-stand-out market, it’s one that I commend. Every aspect of Flat Heroes’ simplistic-yet-challenging design feels carefully considered with laser precision. With Celeste’s release back in January and Super Meat Boy Forever scheduled to release this year, 2018 has already seen its fair share of notable hardcore platformers. But if you pick out Flat Heroes from the crowd, you’ll be greeted with some of the best the genre has to offer.
True to the design philosophies in its gameplay, Flat Heroes’ visual style is pleasantly minimalist. You play as a little square inside a square-shaped arena dodging and fighting foes that are decidedly not squares – generally, enemies comprise of your garden variety bullet hell projectiles such as missiles, lasers and multiplying balls of death. Whatever the square did to deserve this torment is unclear; all I know is that these shapes really have it out for our quadrilateral hero.
While Flat Heroes controls in much the way you would expect for a game like this – fast movement, wall-jumping, a mid-air dash ability and an attack button – the devil is in the details here. Given that you play as a square, you constantly tilt over each of your corners as you roll about the level. There’s this excellent feeling of heft to the square; let’s say you are booking it towards the right and then decide to suddenly shift the control stick to the left, the square will drift a bit to right first due to its weight before it starts heading back towards the left. It’s a seemingly small detail, but it gives a very satisfying level of weight and friction to movement.
It’s a relief that the intricacies of movement are easy to grow accustomed to, because accustomed you will need to be. Unlike a linear platformer in which there are generally only a few intended ways to beat a level, Flat Heroes throws you in an open arena with certain hand-picked enemies and platforms, simply tasking you with surviving at all costs. This often encourages improvisation as you manage your distance from projectiles that chase you down all the while deftly bobbing and weaving through laser beams like a square possessed.
With over 300 levels that progressively drip feed devious new enemies and boss fights, Flat Heroes will keep you occupied for a good, long while – but that’s not even including all the extra modes available. Besides the main campaign is “survival”, which plops you in an arena to hold out for as long as possible, and “versus”, which allows you to compete against four friends to determine who truly is the Flattest Hero.
Both survival and versus have multiple modes which alter the rules and determine the obstacles you are pitted against. I’ve found myself really enjoying the survival modes in particular, and I’ve dived back into Flat Heroes much more than required to chase down some high scores.
And don’t think you’ll have to tackle the campaign or survival alone – almost all the playable modes allow jump in/jump out multiplayer with up to four players, which is such a nice feature. Practically, there are two entirely different games hidden in Flat Heroes; single-player requires focus and precision, while multiplayer also requires focus and precision – but with the addition of four people crowded together on a couch, yelling over each and screaming incoherently at the ever-present threat laser death. A hardcore platformer like Flat Heroes becomes an entirely different, more chaotic beast when you add friends to the mix, which is entertaining in its own right.
Taking the best that hardcore platformers have to offer and doubling down on every aspect, Flat Heroes proves that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – refine it. From the ultra-polished feel of the movement to the freeform arena-based level design to the pure quality and quantity of content on offer, this is a strong debut from developer Parallel Circles. The fact that it doesn’t drastically stray from the genre’s typical formula may put some off, but make no mistake – Flat Heroes is a class act.