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RPG Codex Review: Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption
Review - posted by Infinitron on Sun 29 July 2018, 17:23:12Tags: Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption; Transolar Games
[Review by Deuce Traveler, edited by oasis789]
Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption is a new adventure RPG by Corey and Lori Ann Cole, the creative minds behind the famous Quest for Glory series. The Coles have been out of the spotlight for the last two decades, and over the course of the its six year long development there was some concern about how well the game would turn out. Let's find out if those concerns were justified.
In Hero-U, you play as wannabe master thief Shawn O'Conner, who is caught stealing a certain special coin from a rich man's manor. To atone for his crime, Shawn is forced to attend the titular Hero University. At Hero-U, you're just one student in a classroom full of aspiring rogues (though they insist upon calling themselves "disbarred bards" in public to avoid scrutiny). Your teacher, Master von Urwald, encourages you to take the virtuous path of the roguish hero instead of that of the thieving villain. Over the course of the game, you'll have to survive through the fifty day long school year, with the goal of making it to graduation without being expelled or killed. Expulsion is the most immediate threat since the school hands out demerits like candy. You start out with a few coins worth of valuables and have to find a way to purchase your own school uniform before the school administrator Terk starts dropping them on you. If you collect 100 demerits then it's game over.
Terk is a great example of an effective one-dimensional villain. He's a power-hungry weasel, delighting at every opportunity to torment you and your fellow schoolmates. As a character he has no real depth outside of being weak and opportunistic, but the man is utterly relentless, always ready to drop a demerit on you for the slightest perceived insult, or if he catches you walking around past curfew, or if you aren't wearing your full uniform during school hours. Every time Terk spots you he'll stop you in your tracks just to heckle you, making you want to strangle the man for the needless disruption. The petty asshole is everywhere, constantly abusing his power, for which you have no immediate means to strike back.
Time Is Not Your Friend
Terk does a good job of setting the game's tone. In Hero-U, you're not a paladin ready to take on swarms of foes, or a sorcerer who can bend the fabric of reality. You're just some poor kid with a bit of talent for sneaking, thrown into an unfamiliar academic setting where you have to put in real effort to survive. Time is your enemy, as you spend the majority of your days in class. Each day, you have about an hour to yourself before your elective class starts, another hour before dinner, and another three hours before curfew. After curfew you'll want to shower so people don't complain about your stench, do some studying, and try to get along with your roommate. You could stay up, but do so for too long and you'll be too exhausted to stay awake during the next day's class and suffer penalties to your skills.
Therein lies much of Hero-U's difficulty. I'll get to the combat system later, but for now just be aware that you can successfully retreat from a fight at any time, and if you fall to an enemy often the game will tell you that a classmate rescued you from death. But despite not having to worry about death, the experience of playing Hero-U is stressful because you always have to keep one eye on the clock. Over the course of the game, you'll have to find the time to explore the dungeons beneath the school. Having to sneak past threats down there will slow you down, and one wrong move can cost you hours. Personally, I found this enjoyable, since it kept my mind focused and I never felt like I could just glide effortlessly through the game. But I could see people feeling that Hero-U is just too slow to give them the buzz that they need. I will admit that it gave me unpleasant flashbacks to my college freshman year. No other game has ever done that to me, so at least I can say it's a great university simulator.
The downside of Hero-U's time-based structure is that there are some situations that seem like you should be able to solve them right away, but the game won't allow you to until enough days have passed. For example, early on I discovered some secret passages that a nighttime thief may have been using, but I wasn't allowed to set a trap for the thief until I'd collected all of the clues to what was going on. It's frustrating when a game that allows so much choice still finds ways to railroad you, especially when there's no hint that you need to sleep in order to progress.
Everything is a Choice. Every Choice has a Consequence.
Do you like choice and consequence? Every decision you make in Hero-U has some sort of consequence. The type of training you decide to take will improve your character in different ways, as will your choice of elective. If you decide that your basic thieving skills are more important to you, you can ditch the electives altogether and ignore invitations to hang out with your classmates, giving you the time to build a very talented character at the expense of losing out on craftable items, clues and extra coin. The story continues whether or not you decide to become involved with events.
Ignoring important quests in favor of other pursuits will result in one of the other students stepping up to solve them instead, which will impress your teacher. Impressing your teacher doesn't actually matter much unless you care about what he has to say when you graduate, though. You can also decide to be an asshole, earning the appreciation of the class bully at the expense of alienating everybody else. For example, at one point your roommate thinks someone stole his instrument when it was actually lost in a pile of junk. You can give it back to him, but you can also keep it to mess with his head. Hero-U wants you to perform good deeds, but it also allows you to pass on all of the heroics and gives you the opportunity to selfishly pull the rug out from under everyone at its conclusion.
A Skill-Based RPG System
As INXS would say, there's not enough time for all that I want to do. In order to survive, you'll have to quickly figure out what kind of disbarred bard you want to be and train up your skills accordingly. Skills can be increased by taking classes or by practicing them. Shawn's scores are pretty pathetic on day one and you won't be able to max them all out in a single playthrough. The first time I played the game, I was only able to max out my Climbing and Magic skills, while on my second run I maxed out Smarts and Gaming skills. Every one of your skills has some use. When you try to use one of them to overcome a challenge, it's compared to a hidden threshold. For example, you need a high enough Gaming skill to beat your fellow students at a game of billiards and take their money, otherwise you'll lose and have to pay them. If you have no magical skills, forget about being able to cast a spell to get through a magically locked portal. And if you're charming enough, you just might be able to pass one of the toughest challenges in the game and get your roommate to clean his side of the room without pissing him off.
The game has three such social skills - Charm, Smarts, and Moxie. Different characters will respond more positively to different skills depending on their personalities. Charm dialogue options allow you to be compassionate when people are talking about their issues, but you might also come across as a bit of an ass kisser. Smart rogues come across as cold and calculated, but the skill can be helpful for walking people through solutions to problems. And Moxie allows you to unleash your inner troll and piss off everyone with snarky comments. You should focus on one of the social skills and stick with it, since different characters will be drawn to you and different events will open up depending on your choice. Storywise there isn't much of a difference between Smarts and Charm, but playing a character with high Moxie will drastically change your outcome.
Twice throughout the school year you'll have the chance to take an elective class in Science, Magic, or Healing, allowing you to become a rogue-chemist, rogue-mage, or rogue-healer hybrid. You'll have no interaction with the Science and Magic instructors unless you take their classes, so if you want to meet every NPC in the game you'll want to split your electives halfway through the school year. Your responses to teachers will determine their opinions of you and increase your skills. Participating in their classes gives you access to several free craftable items. Sadly you can only craft these items during class. Don't expect to be able to go to the science lab after hours to create additional explosives.
I played through Hero-U twice. On my first playthrough, I focused on Charm as a social skill, and took Magic as my elective both times. Over the course of the game, I helped a fellow student find a pirate treasure, single-handedly defeated a giant bug, discovered the identity of the late night thief and befriended him, single-handedly rescued a lost student, reconnected with a lost relative, and took care of a dire rat infestation. At the end, I hooked up with a pirate's daughter while my roommate found love with a gypsy girl.
On my second playthrough, I focused on Smarts as a social skill, and took Science as my elective both times. This time, one of my fellow students found the pirate treasure by herself, while another student took care of the late night thief. I needed help rescuing the lost student this time, and I also had help taking out the giant bug. I helped another student reconnect with a lost relative, and once again took care of the dire rat problem. This time I was the one who got the gypsy girl, while my roommate pined that he would never find love.
Yes, Hero-U has romance, and it can be uncomfortably frequent. You can flirt with just about everyone. It's mainly a distraction, though. Despite the wide variety of romance options, romance has little impact on the game outside the ending. It would have been more tolerable if your paramours could fight alongside you, or gave you unique items that could help you during the school year.
If you can't tell by the last few paragraphs, social interactions are an important part of Hero-U and drive many of its side quests. There's always some major event happening at the school, with only a day or two of recovery after the event's resolution before the next one kicks off. Solving these events will require a combination of skill use, puzzle solving, tools, and dialogue. Your fellow students will be scrambling to solve them on their own, working with one another and comparing notes. Some of the faculty members will offer clues if you know who to approach and how. The game gives you a limited amount of time to solve these quests, and if you fail to do so then somebody else will step up and take the glory. In fact, if you're critically wounded while exploring the dungeons beneath the university, one of your classmates might drag you to the infirmary and take additional credit for the timely rescue. When you do you solve a quest, it's mostly in order to build up your relationship with somebody. Unfortunately, your friends don't ever really help with you quests. There was only one time in my playthrough when a friendship seemed to matter, and that was when a fellow student offered to help me cheat at cards.
Combat is a Mixed Bag
Combat in Hero-U is turn-based, which is always appreciated. During their turns, characters get to move and then attack, throw an object, or use an item. The Combat and Defense skills determine how much damage you deal and take. You can sneak up on your opponent and stab him for extra damage, or set a trap and then get his attention so that he sets it off. One tried and true tactic is to use your Throwing skill to toss weapons at your opponent while constantly moving away to keep your distance and avoid attacks. This is usually very effective since few enemies have ranged attacks. It only fails if they come at you in a group.
The main source of variety in combat comes from items, which are often costly and force you to make hard choices. When fighting the game's more difficult enemies, you might find yourself mentally calculating the number of bandages and healing potions you'll need to use to survive the battle, along with the cost of replacing them at the shops. One of the cheaper options at your disposal is to toss a sticky glue trap at your opponent, making him vulnerable to throwing attacks for a handful of rounds. Or you can just toss a flambe at him (basically a molotov cocktail). There are magic items that are effective against particular enemy types such as the undead, who emit a chilling anti-life aura that requires a special amulet in order to avoid taking damage each round. And a tossed bomb will mess up every opponent's day.
So although Hero-U can be criticized for having simplistic combat, it does offer you a variety of ways to approach a battle. If you find yourself having to fall back on healing potions, you probably didn't set yourself up for the fight correctly. The game does a decent job of introducing new enemies and locales just as you're beginning to find the current ones stale. When dealing with opponents such as spellcasters or the undead, your best bet is to follow the advice of your class instructor and act the part of a rogue, sneaking around to avoid combat when you can. You always have the option of fleeing, though this will cost you both in valuable hours of game time and in hit points, since the game shaves off some of your health when you turn tail. You can never lose your last hit point, though. I believe it's impossible to die in Hero-U unless you trigger a particular special event. You can finish the entire game without getting into a single fight, though there are at least two sidequests where combat is your only option.
Money is a Gas
However, you'll probably need to do some fighting if you don't want play through the entire game broke. Money is a constant necessity in Hero-U, and the quickest way to earn enough of it to purchase your initial school uniform (and therefore avoid demerits) is to clean dishes and kill rats. The game has a nice twist on the rats in the cellar trope where a rat is the one hiring you to go rat hunting. After you've gotten the uniform, you'll also need to purchase school supplies for class, another significant financial burden. Hero-U's economy continues to be pretty tight until the very end, at which point you'll have plenty of cash but little to spend it on. In order to get the sums of money you'll need for most of the game, you'll have to either venture into the dungeons or win it at the gambling table.
Strewn throughout Hero-U's dungeons are chests containing valuable supplies, skill-boosting equipment, and plenty of coin and loot. You'll need to be a good fighter or a good sneak to get to them. Many of the chests are locked, requiring a skill check and the right tools in order open them. Later on, chests as well as doors will also be trapped, and you'll need to disarm them via a Hangman-like minigame if you don't want to get poisoned. The minigame should be easy for anyone with a decent English vocabulary, but I could see it causing trouble for people who aren't native speakers or aren't well-read. Personally I enjoyed these puzzles and solved them all with no issues. The last trap in the game has a word that I thought was heartwarmingly appropriate. You'll know what I mean when you solve it.
Your classmates will occasionally invite you over to play a poker-like game called Poobah. This is actually likely to be your main source of income in Hero-U. The strange thing about playing Poobah is that you never actually see your cards. You're just told whether you have a bad, questionable, good, great, or unbeatable hand. The first game you play is for pretty low stakes, but will earn you just enough to purchase a set of decent tools should you do well. The games become increasingly costly and more lucrative as the school year goes on. I found that having a maxed out Gaming skill didn't seem to change how often I was dealt a great hand, but I do believe it increases yours chance of having a better hand during the discard phase.
Nearly all of Hero-U's characters are stereotypes. You've got the wise old black lady, the nosy receptionist, the gypsy with the heavy accent, the rich bully, at least one girl who says she's just as good as any man and left home to prove it, the eccentric science teacher who is a blatant Doc Brown ripoff, and so on. But that's nothing out of the ordinary for the Coles.
The real issue is that Hero-U's attempt at being diverse and inclusive has ironically resulted in characters who feel simple and shallow. As mentioned before, every one of the students in your class is a potential romance option regardless of gender. Not once will a student ever say, 'Sorry, but I'm just not into you. Let's just be friends.' I found that the game's best characters are non-humans, undead spirits, and certain faculty members - in particular, the school healer Moira Glenshannon and the nameless Librarian. These two faculty members will actually help you instead of just asking you to do things for them. Moira can even solve an entire quest for you (while still giving you proper credit) if you select the right dialogue options. Neither the faculty nor the non-humans are romanceable, though I'm sure Rule 34 will fix that if mods don't.
You Don't Know What You Got Till It's Gone
A few hours into Hero-U, I realized that I had missed the Coles. I'm glad they're back, and I hope this game does well enough for them to continue creating games. They originally left the business in the late 1990s, around the time when television, comic books and music all began striving for dark and gritty themes. With Hero-U, they've created a cheerful fairy tale that's spiced with danger and sprinkled with chaotic lore. The game is full of horrible puns, but it embraces the cheesiness and pulls it off. The Coles haven't lost their special ability to blend mirth and danger without going too far in either direction. A simple visit to the school library illustrates this blend, with Shawn making silly comments about the paintings on the library wall at one moment and contemplating the fate of fallen heroes from a history book on the next.
I really like Hero-U's atmosphere. There might be soul-sucking Lovecraftian horrors waiting in the wings, but for the students of Hero University, all of that is just ancient history. They spend their time cramming for exams, writing papers, playing games, trying to find a date, and contemplating their future roles in society - just like undergraduate students in every corner of our world, despite whatever good or bad things might be happening in their countries. The game's ending matches that theme perfectly. Instead of a difficult puzzle or final boss, you get a summary of all the decisions you made throughout the school year. If you prefer games where the stakes are personal instead of the usual 'save the princess/country/world' cliches, then Hero-U definitely delivers.
It's worth talking about the Coles' decision to create something like Hero-U instead of trying to make a Quest for Glory VI. The game is so different from their previous work that making the comparison is difficult. The sheer quantity of new mechanics in Hero-U is worthy of applause. The game simply has a lot more going on in it - the hectic daily schedule, the relationship gauges, the heavier reliance on equipment in combat. Not all of these mechanics work to the same degree, but hopefully they'll be improved if Hero-U ends up being the first game in a series.
To be sure, Hero-U pushes its romances a bit too much for too little an impact, and its combat is good but not great. But it delivers in other ways. There's a heavy emphasis on exploration that rewards you for discovering secret passages and new locations, the puzzles are clever and diverse without being impenetrable, and the atmosphere is heartwarmingly charming. In summary, Hero-U is a very good game, and I'm definitely looking forward to Shawn's sophomore year.