Scroll down to see the video review of Heroland.
Growing up, I spent more than a few hours imagining myself as different characters from Final Fantasy games. I would run around in the woods pretending I was Cecil saving Rosa or Sabin beating up Kefka. The sense of adventure and accomplishment might not have lived up to the satisfaction of playing the games, and if I pretended for too long it got boring, but it was a solid substitute when my mom (lamely) forced me to go outside. It never really felt right, though; my imagination could never match those games. I would have done anything to be truly immersed in the stories I spent so much time sitting in front of a TV enjoying.
Heroland, the latest offering from developer FuRyu, gives you just that: a game that places dozens of characters in an RPG-themed amusement park where they can build levels, take down Bahamut, and save the princess. When I got my hands on it at E3 2019, I thought my childhood dream had been realized in video game form. I loved everything I saw — its stylish character models, witty writing, and unique combat. Unfortunately, while all the things that piqued my interest are still here in the full title, it’s only as satisfying as pretending to be an RPG character in the woods all those years ago. Heroland’s quirk and imagination lost their luster long before I reached the game’s conclusion.
Heroland opens with the arrival of the protagonist, Lucky, at the aforementioned amusement park. To help out his struggling family, he starts working as a tour guide at Heroland, and it’s his job to guide people through dungeons. Soon after Lucky’s arrival, his first client shows up: Elric, a prince who has recently been demoted from first to eighteenth in line for the crown. He’s come to prove he’s worthy of the throne. Elric is soon followed by a huge cast of quirky characters, all seeking their own form of redemption at Heroland. Of course, it turns out there’s actually something evil lurking beneath the amusement park, and all these people are there for something besides just having a good time.
The story of Heroland is frankly nothing special. While there is some not-so-subtle anti-capitalist social commentary built into the narrative regarding the treatment of the workers at Heroland, the game lacks the teeth to go anywhere with it. The characters, on the other hand, are universally amusing. Whether it’s Elric’s petulant outbursts, Jason’s complete lack of awareness, or any of the other 20+ characters, they never fail to be delightful. This is in large part due to XSEED’s outstanding localization. There is a lot of dialogue here, and I mean a lot, and there isn’t a typo to be found. The script is full of meta-commentary on RPGs and pop culture references, and in the early going all of it lands. Unfortunately, that’s the rub: the game is so chock-full of jokes that eventually it wears thin. The characters never really move beyond their amusing quirks to become real people, and the few moments of attempted pathos fall flat because nothing else in the game sets you up for them.
That brings me to the problem that casts a pall over everything in this game: its length. I put almost 50 hours into this game while doing as little side content as possible. It turns the clever jokes into too much of a good thing, and even worse, it makes the mostly hands-off gameplay a true chore.
At first glance, the gameplay in Heroland seems unique enough to be engaging. It’s a fairly simple loop: a character approaches you with a problem, or they tell you they want to travel through a dungeon at the park, and you guide them through it. While in the dungeon, you navigate through a connected set of battles, with a few breaks for story and dialogue in between. In battle itself, you always have a four-person party, but you’re not directly controlling the action. Rather, characters choose their own actions, and when a meter fills up, you’re given the opportunity to tell a character what to do, throw out an item, or change the general strategy for the party. As you guide the party through the dungeon, each member has a satisfaction meter, which is determined by how well they do in battle, how often you give them directions, and how often you choose to give them gifts you find. At the end of each dungeon, the party gains experience and also “friendship” levels, which opens the characters’ individual side quests and occasionally unlocks more powerful abilities. Lucky’s level is also boosted based on the satisfaction of the party; as his levels go up, he can carry more items and act more often in battle.
Early on, this hands-off approach works pretty well. It lessens the general monotony of constantly moving through menus to select actions and forces you to think strategically. Eventually, though, each fight boils down to using the same strategies over and over with little to no variation, and doing very little in battle gets tiring. Luckily, you can speed up battles to make them go quicker, but even that doesn’t alleviate the general boredom of the combat and the entirely too linear dungeons. There’s little to no character customization, either; the only thing you can adjust is the weapons characters carry, and each party member has only one unique skill to distinguish them from their peers.
The worst part of the gameplay, bar none, is just how much you have to grind. Each new dungeon has a level recommendation, and each one requires you to bring certain characters with you. While party members who don’t go through a dungeon get some experience, it’s not enough to get them up to par when you’re forced to use them, sometimes over 20 hours since the last time they were required. I often found that my party members were up to 10 levels below the recommended level. So I had to either engage in the fairly mediocre side missions to grind levels or go through an old level again. And again. And again. This doesn’t happen just once, either. Out of the 30 or so dungeons I had to run through, I was under-leveled for at least 25 of them. I get that this is part of what Heroland is going for — engaging in the classic trope of grinding — but oh boy, it’s not fun to run the same dungeon 8-10 times before moving on to the next one. It adds unnecessary padding to an already overlong game and is simply inexcusable. I can only hope they patch the game to adjust experience curves, or I suspect not many people will finish it.
Luckily, there’s one thing the long playtime doesn’t ruin about Heroland: its unique character models. Each of the characters are highly pixelated models, on what appears to be a 3D cut out, that move, stretch and gesticulate. It’s a wholly original style, which mostly works. While bouncing and moving, the characters are surprisingly effective at communicating their emotions and helping the jokes throughout the game land. The innumerable otters (yes, otters) sprinkled throughout the game are especially amusing to watch. Unfortunately, the rest of the graphical presentation is best described as “meh.” The backgrounds are entirely static and drawn cartoonishly. It’s not too much of a problem until you start visiting the same areas of the park and the same dungeons over and over again. There just isn’t much happening in the background, and it gets stale after a while.
The music doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself, either. While there are a lot of catchy tunes that appropriately match the tone of the game, they play so often that they get very annoying very quickly, and I’d be hard pressed to identify a single track from the game even now, mere hours after finishing it.
Playing Heroland is a little bit like going to a birthday party where the only thing you can eat is cake. Initially, you’re excited, and the first few bites are delicious, but as you eat the rest, you feel progressively worse until you get sick and never want to eat cake again. Heroland oozes style and charm, but there’s just not enough substance to be satisfying. If the developers had cut about 30 hours off the playtime, adjusted the difficulty curve, and allowed for a little more character customization, we could have been looking at something special here. Instead, we’re looking at yet another missed opportunity for FuRyu.