STAFF REVIEW of Vertical Drop Heroes HD (Xbox One)

Monday, February 27, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

Vertical Drop Heroes HD Box art I’m normally not one to shy away from games with punishing difficulty, but ones that include permadeath and force you to begin anew each time you die isn’t my ideal definition of fun. With that being said I also don’t gravitate towards roguelike games as the aforementioned idea of permadeath is the biggest deterrent for myself, but indie title Vertical Drop Heroes HD really surprised me. I expected to have to slog through it, but low and behold I actually enjoyed this game. Let me explain why.

Two main characteristics that define a roguelike game usually revolve around permanent death and randomization of levels and enemies. There are a few more features that help define the genre, but these are probably the two big ones that are really make a game fit into the category. Vertical Drop Heroes HD makes a great compromise though. Even though you’re going to die hundreds of times, restarting as a new character each time, portions of your progress are carried over, making subsequent playthroughs slightly easier, until you get to the point of being able to survive long enough, hopefully to the end.

I actually never played the original Vertical Drop Heroes, which appears to have originated as a simple flash game on Kongregate, and now it’s returned with a HD version on console, and after trying the original flash version, for this review, that’s many years old, this HD version is vastly superior and actually much more addictive than I thought it would be.

The story revolves around a prophecy that describes a hero in search of some sort of Holy Sanctuary hidden across many strange and fantastic lands. The problem is that this prophecy is very generic and not descriptive about the hero, so everyone thinks that the great hero is actually themselves. Vertical Drop Heroes HD is a tale, not about the hero, but the endless piles of corpses of heroes that actually paved the way for the 'true' hero that the prophecy foresees. It’s a clever backdrop for a narrative that actually explains the permadeath mechanic and actually makes sense, so kudos to developer Nerdook, a single man developer, for coming up with a unique and hilarious narrative setting that relates to the gameplay.

Keeping up with true roguelike mechanics, each level you play is randomly generated, but what makes Vertical Drop Heroes HD stand out is that you’re actually progressing vertically downwards, instead of the traditional side to side (left or right). Each beginning offers you three different heroes to choose from, each with their own stats, weapons, and eventually, abilities, leaving you to traverse the levels downward to defeat each boss and move onto the next world.

But it won’t be that easy, as each level is littered with enemies, bosses that are very difficult early on, and even traps like fire, projectiles, and more that will make some serious attempts to kill you. Expect to die quite often, and quickly in fact, especially during your first few dozen runs. Dying in a matter of minutes is commonplace as you begin your journey, but any coins you’ve gathered, and abilities purchased, will carry over into your next character selection which incrementally helps surviving become easier.

Given that this game is roguelike, the gameplay itself revolves around knowing that you’re going to be making repeated runs through the levels multiple times. Each time you begin you’re given a choice of three random warriors, some of which will have huge swords, dual wielding, shields, arrows, magic wands, and more. Each character plays slightly different and can cater towards different playstyles. So, what happens when your heroe inevitably dies? You’re given another selection of three randomized heroes, but you’ll eventually notice that you’re sometimes given the same character you played before, but that character is the next one in the bloodline. With this in mind, though the warrior Earthstrider was valiant for example, he perished, but you might get to play as Earthstrider II, III, IV, and more as your hero continually dies and is replaced by their kin.

Since hero selection is randomized, you’ll have to make some runs with characters that you may not enjoy, or are not good with, but you can still make some progress by collecting coins or trying for achievements. During your runs you’ll come across merchants, again randomly, that will offer to sell you abilities and upgrades for subsequent heroes, and it's a safe bet to spend your hard earned coins here. These abilities are varied, some are more powerful and useful than others. My favorite is the one that causes all the coins on the screen to automatically be sucked towards you, making it so you don’t have to go and collect them individually. The abilities are also randomized on the heroes, so even though you really enjoy playing with Earthstrider III, his abilities may not be as useful as you’d hoped, though it’ll be completely different for Earthstrider IV.

As you defeat enemies you’ll level up, which is very handy as it also refills your small health bar each time. You may ask "what’s the point of leveling up if you’re just going to end up dying shortly afterwards?" Well, as you level up you become stronger, allowing you to progress slightly further, which allows you to gain more coins, allowing you to accumulate more money to purchase more upgrades. For the first few hours you’re better off simply focusing on collecting coins and purchasing upgrades, as it’ll allow you to survive longer and gather even more coins, eventually making each run slightly easier. While the first bit of the game will feel like a grind, the randomization of the heroes, levels, abilities, and even bosses, keeps the gameplay fresh and exciting even though you’ve played through the first level or two a hundred times.

Even though you’re restarting every few minutes, and the difficulty is quite high, you do feel slightly more powerful on each run after a handful of upgrades. There’s a hub that you begin in with each new hero, allowing you to spend coins on permanent health and weapon damage upgrades that can make a huge difference. The controls are quite simple, as there’s even an option for auto attack, which can be incredibly useful. The boss that guards the exit at the bottom of each stage will grant you many coins and experience points should you be able to defeat them.

There are a ton of treasure chests that are also randomly scattered throughout the levels, offering coins and health, but you’ll need to collect keys to open them. These keys are also used to free prisoners trapped in cages, which if freed, will fight alongside you until their health is depleted. These can be knights, thieves, wizards, and archers, each with their own pros and cons, but keys aren’t plentiful, so you need to strategize when to use them on treasure chests, for the always important coins, or freeing companions that will allow you to progress further, which in turn can mean even more coins gathered.

Enemies are randomly placed in levels, and even though the first stages always have the same type of enemy, and second stage has it's own enemies, and so on and so on, there are other 'one-off' enemies randomly thrown in that are much tougher for the level they reside in and they can kill you almost instantly when you’re simply beginning your journey. The payoff for being able to defeat these mini-bosses are a coins and experience, so there is good reason to defeat them if you think you’re able.

A unique mechanic within is having random teleporters placed throughout where you to warp back up to the top of the stage, essentially allowing you to drop down once again and collect every coin and key while defeating all enemies, should you wish. Sometimes you’ll want to rush through levels and progress, but other times you’ll want to kill as many enemies as you can to help level up, making the following levels and bosses that much easier.

For those wanting a real challenge, there’s even a way to play in a pacifist approach. At the start of a stage there will be floating heart-like icons that, when collected, grant you coins and experience, but they disappear once you kill an enemy, adding for an extra challenge, especially since the levels are randomized, so there’s no memorization allowing for an ideal route. Though you need to defeat the boss to unlock the portal to the next stage, a pacifist run requires a handful of keys to unlock the portal instead, so there’s quite a challenge in doing so on your vertical drops, especially without killing any enemies. There are even side quests that are randomly offered by NPC’s looking for you to collect a hidden treasure, collecting items, or other varied goals. These quests are an easy way to earn some bonus gold and experience and adds more variety to the simplistic premise of making your way downwards as quick as possible.

Vertical Drop Heroes HD may look basic in its visuals, but its style is very clean and doesn’t resemble anything as rough as its flash based roots. The animations are smooth and each of the 10 worlds are varied in looks and gameplay. Even more impressive is the great soundtrack, especially World 4, which makes me want to rock out every time I make it that far. I was expecting very basic visuals and sound, but I was incredibly impressed with the outcome for a small single developer indie game.

There is a multiplayer component, though sadly it’s only local split screen only, so those that have people to play on the same couch will find a lot of fun, but those wanting to play online with their friends sadly don’t have the option. I never expect online co-op in smaller indie games like this, but it sure would have added a lot of enjoyment and replayability if it was present. While it will take quite some time to complete all 10 levels, opening up New Game+ will allow more play for those seeking a challenge. In terms of overall gameplay, the journey is had in the hours and hours it will take to complete the stages, making baby steps each time you start anew. Normally I grow tired of having to play the same stages over repeatedly, but with the randomized levels and heroes, it never became stale.

Vertical Drop Heroes HD may not have lasting power to keep you playing for months on end, but it will satisfy you for a good amount of time, even more so for those looking a serious challenge. This game has sold me on the roguelike genre, which is quite an accomplishment and speaks volumes for its quality and gameplay.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.2 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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