Impressions: Flat Heroes – Thinking Outside the Box, Inside a Square

There is a spectrum in the world of video games when it comes to their focus on story and narrative. On one end, you have what are called “walking simulators,” games with little to no actual gameplay, and some do not even consider these as video games. On the other end, you have games like Flat Heroes, a game that does not even pretend to have any story – it is purely about the gameplay.

Flat Heroes is a minimalistic 2-D puzzle platformer where you take control of a small square and jump, dash and attack in order to survive hundreds of increasingly difficult levels. I did not really know what to expect from the game going in, other than it being difficult, but I was very pleasantly surprised by everything about it.

Flat Heroes1

The Good

Simple Controls with a Lot of Depth – In Flat Heroes there are only four things your hero can do: move, jump, dash and attack. You may think that this will make the game highly repetitive, but there is a surprising amount of depth to these mechanics. The entire game is about exploring this depth and making the player experiment with the mechanics. Many levels have multiple solutions to them, and it is up for the players to figure that out and learn what they can do with the limited amount of abilities they have available. For example, triple dashing is a hidden mechanic. If after a jump you wait for a few frames and only then start dashing, you can dash up to three times instead of just once. The game never tells you about this, but through experimentation, you find out about it naturally.

Great Level Design – There are nearly no tutorials at all in Flat Heroes, which means that it was up to the level design itself to introduce players to the game’s mechanics. I believe that the levels do a great job of teaching the players how to control the hero. For example, in a later level, you have bullets coming at you and no way to escape them. Until that point, you have already been taught that your attack – a small quick burst around you – can destroy some of the enemies. Thus, you come to a conclusion: what if I try to dash-attack the bullets? You try this and see something you were probably not aware of until that level – you can, in fact, destroy them.

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Large Variety of Enemies – Introduced slowly as the Flat Heroes progresses, it has a surprisingly high amount of enemies to either avoid or destroy. Enemies range from large triangles that will send out huge lasers in three directions, to the simple bubbles that need to be popped. Even hexagonal hives that spawn small bees to the arrows that chase you down while maneuvering around platforms are in the game. All of these enemies have unique behaviors that you need to study and react to accordingly. In order to avoid simple bullets you can just hide behind a platform, but when the game mixes these bullets with tracers – small triangles that trace out their trajectory in a line before they zoom down it – you have to develop a different strategy.

This also extends to the bosses, each with its own unique gimmick you need to learn. One of my personal favorites is the hard version of the Chapter 2 boss where two “snakes” chase you down and you have to get them to hit each others’ tails

Many Modes – The 10 normal campaign mode chapters, each with 14 levels and a boss, are not the only thing you can do in the game. There is also a harder mode called “Heroes” with 10 remixed chapters, a “Survival” group of modes where you try to survive for as long as you can and a “Versus” group of modes where you can play against your friends or an AI. In both Survival and Versus you need to unlock the modes by either earning points (Survival) or winning (Versus). The variety of modes allows players to vent their frustrations if they feel like a campaign level is too difficult. They also act as a training mode, helping teach the players how to better control the hero.

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Co-op Fun – Everything in the game, with the exception of two survival modes, can be done in four player co-op. Whether it’s a regular level, a boss or the versus modes. Entering co-op is incredibly easy as well. Just press a button on your controller, even if the main player is in the middle of a level – once they respawn you respawn with them. Co-op makes the game a little easier and more fun, though the entire game can be played in single-player only. For example, in survival, if one of the players is killed, another one can attack their “corpse” to bring them back.

Music, Aesthetics and Transitions – The game’s retro soundtrack is fantastic. Even if there are only a few pieces of music, they are all great and I never got tired of them. The art style is also excellent; the fact that it is minimalistic only makes it more memorable for me. You can also easily choose the color palette of the entire game (for example, a dark background with four brightly colored heroes), and beating all the levels in a chapter unlocks new palettes. If you happened to really like a specific palette there is an option to lock it. The quick transitions, say, from the main menu to a specific level are also wonderful in their simplicity and how quick they are. If you die, you immediately respawn, and you can even fast forward through the countdown that begins a level. All of these quick transitions mean that there is never any downtime, which helps alleviate frustrations because you never feel like a death is too costly.

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The Bad

Survival Mode is Too Grindy – As stated, in order to unlock new survival modes, you need to earn points. The issue is that you earn one point per second that you survived, and points only count if you survive more than 20 seconds, and the levels themselves never change. Instead of having a randomly generated survival mode, the game has several different levels that you need to unlock, but mechanically they are not that different. In each one, you basically do the same thing over and over again, in order to get a high score and earn points.

To the game’s credit, the longer you survive, the higher the point multiplier is when you die, but the amount of points you get is still too small for how much the levels cost. The cheapest is 1000, and the most expensive is 10000. The problem is that you buy levels, but they do not unlock once you reach the required amount – you need to spend those points and then earn them again. I never bothered to unlock the final two levels.

Some Levels Feel Unfair – While many of the levels are great, genuine puzzle levels, where part of the fun and challenge is to figure out how to beat them and then to execute the solution, some of the levels just feel unfair. The hero’s somewhat unusual physics and momentum make sense considering it’s a square and not your usual 2-D platformer character. Yet, I felt like the lesser levels were not designed with this quirky momentum in mind and just felt frustrating.

A pretty big example would be the final boss itself. In this fight, you are introduced to shooting (one of the versus modes also has shooting, but this is the official introduction), and shooting just feels bad to control, as it is nearly impossible to properly dodge the boss’s attacks and attack it. In other lesser levels, I just felt like I survived through dumb luck and not by beating the challenge. These levels mostly consist of ones where the game throws 20 enemies at you and you blindly dodge them.

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Preliminary Thoughts

I really enjoyed my time with Flat Heroes. My biggest problem with it is that it just got too difficult for me, which only means that with time and practice I may beat it one day. Then again, I am not that good with 2-D platformers, and I still managed to beat most of the game (10 normal chapters excluding the final boss and three heroes chapters). It felt like through its level design the game taught me how to play it and constantly challenged me.

I can recognize that many people do not enjoy difficult games, but if you have a friend or you want to play a great 2-D platformer, then I wholeheartedly recommend Flat Heroes.

Ofir played Flat Heroes on Steam with a code provided by the developer.

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