Earth’s mightiest Flat Heroes.
Flat Heroes is an action game from developer Parallel Circles that looks like a puzzle-platformer but has you dodging a variety of projectiles and hazards like a bullet-hell game. You control a colored square, and I know what you’re thinking, but you haven’t played a game quite like this one, or at least a game as robust as this before. The goal is to jump on platforms, stick to or slide down walls, dash away, shield yourself to avoid lasers, avoid homing arrows, and other dangers. In short, survive by any means necessary. Most stages last from 30-60 seconds, and a meter in each stage helpfully indicates how much more is going to be thrown at you before you reach the end and move on to the next stage. Drop-in and drop-out is featured in local multiplayer across Campaign, Survival, and Versus modes. The Campaign and Survival modes are fun on their own, but the game really shines with a group of your closest chums.
Campaign mode consists of 150 normal stages and 150 more challenging versions of those stages called Campaign Heroes that are gradually unlocked as you work through the 10 worlds of the normal campaign. The 15th and final stage of each world is a boss fight that mixes up the gameplay in interesting ways. One of the bosses is reminiscent of the Snake game that came pre-installed on mobile phones of yesteryear; rather than just avoiding the ever-lengthening boss for a set time limit, you have to use your shield ability against glowing segments of the snake to destroy it. The entire campaign of Flat Heroes can be played solo or with up to four friends; stages that are more difficult alone become easier with friends as only one person needs to survive each stage in order to progress. Not requiring all players to survive each stage really emphasizes the cooperative nature of the game, with teammates cheering their last surviving member on as he or she works to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Survival mode is divided into a variety of themes and includes daily challenges and mixed challenges with different types of levels. All of the challenge modes have time-attack leaderboards, adding nicely to the replay value of the game. When you first start, you will only have access to the daily and mixed challenges, with other variations needing to be unlocked by earning points in the two available modes. The enjoyment of Survival is really enhanced by multiplayer because you can revive your fallen comrades to keep your chances at a leaderboard spot alive.
In Versus mode, there are four types of competitive multiplayer games: Zones, Battle, Runner, and Catch. Zones tasks you with holding a control point for a set amount of time. Battle sees players use their shield ability to destroy each other; Runner plays a little bit like laser tag, and Catch is a game about trying to be the first player to collect randomly generated tokens that appear in the play area. Playing solo, you can add up to three computer players to any of the game modes, but their difficulty level cannot be adjusted and they do put up a significant challenge.
What the game lacks in story and characterization, it makes up for in creativity, sense of progression, and challenge. Each world introduces new hazards to avoid, and although the gameplay mechanics stay the same, you need to devise new strategies for dealing with the variety of bullet types and dangers. Some missiles can be deflected or destroyed by your shield ability while others have to be avoided entirely. As you progress, projectiles from previous stages make a return and combine with new hazards to ramp up the difficulty, but not unfairly so. Each level feels different and unique, even if the way you play and succeed remains largely the same. In terms of presentation and aesthetic, the music and sounds of the game remind me of an arcade (lest we forget), with a tinge of upbeat, video-game techno; the look of the game is simple and minimalist, but completing each world also unlocks new palette swaps for the background colour and the squares themselves.
Looking at screenshots of the game, one might think they have played this type of game before, but Flat Heroes is much more content-rich and thoroughly satisfying. The challenge ramps up gradually, and there is a great sense of accomplishment in completing later levels, especially the boss stages. The final boss in World 10, Stage 15 is a special type of nightmare. I’m not ashamed to say I had to recruit my brother to help me dispatch the foul beast. Regardless, Parallel Circles has created a true winner here, and I look forward to going back to Survival mode to keep my name on the leaderboards (Mother3, naturally). I also plan to return to the Campaign Heroes stages, but I’ll give my heart a little break first. Flat Heroes isn’t the first game to feature a small square as the main character, and it won’t be the last, but in the case of this game, Huey Lewis and the News had it right: It’s hip to be square.