The love for old-school gaming shines through for developer The Bitfather and their rogue-like, classic turn-based title: Pixel Heroes: Byte & Magic. They are the latest developer to use retro 8-bit style graphics with a no-nonsense, straight-up nostalgia approach which works in some instances, but holds the game back considerably in many areas.
Originally released on iOS then ported to Xbox One earlier this year and now out on PS4, I can see how Pixel Heroes would work on a portable device as a ‘dungeon crawler lite.’ However, while the developers clearly created Pixel Heroes as a retro labor of love, they removed most of the features which make rogue-likes and dungeon exploration fun to play.
Being that this is a rogue-like, there is not much of a story to speak of. Pretty much there is an cult tribe called The Sons of Dawn, and their main goal is to awaken an evil force which will wipe out everything on the planet. As the leader of a town named Pixton, your job is to employ three heroes from the local bar (complete with a hard-drinking bartender and a uppity house band playing a continuous song similar to the Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes’ Mos Eisley tune in Star Wars) to set out on an adventure to rid the world of this cataclysmic evil force. To do so, your heroes will have to venture deep into enemy territory and conquer every type of dungeon archetype present.
Everything in Pixel Heroes harkens back to the 8-bit era; from the visuals to the soundtrack and sound effects. While I appreciate retro style games it seems the developers took this call-back too far and while this works for something like a mobile device, when blown up on a console doesn’t have the charm of other retro titles with reworked pixel art optimized for TV’s.
For example, there are large grey bars on the right and left which looks out of place. Also, I often times fought the navigation around the menus, mainly due to only being able to use the left thumbstick and no option to use the D-pad which is a shame. You can change the controlling option for using a cursor layout, but it never seems useful due to the imprecise nature of not having a mouse or keyboard.
Pixel Heroes officially begins by taking a refreshing approach to choosing your heroes. Your prospective party members roam around the pub, each with their own unique set of skills and classes. With about thirty classes which can be unlocked as you conquer certain dungeons, there are many possibilities of choosing a squad which suits your style. Almost every type of RPG trope is selectable, including wizards, rogues, barbarians, bards, priests, clerics, and many others. Once your party is chosen a harbinger brings forth world ending woes and your team sets out of the bar to rid the world of evil.
Before every adventure you can go around the small town of Pixton visiting the local tavern for a drink (drinks can be used out in the field for certain tasks), visit the blacksmith or library for weapons/armor and spells respectively, go to the clergyman to buy health potions, and then find a quest.
Once out of the town, traveling is done by watching the heroes head east or west along a predetermined path. Each time out on the world map you are met with three random events. These range from creatures or NPC’s you may or may not have to fight, events to choose a certain course of action, or even brief trivia questions, among a myriad of other circumstances. It takes a good amount of playthroughs to see every type of scenario and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount variations within these tasks.
Once a dungeon is reached, instead of open exploration you have a total of eight linear rooms to go through each with a enemy encounter or a random event. The events are random and can offer a reward if your characters have the appropriate stats to move a boulder or unlock a chest. This ensures you will want to head out with a diverse party to make sure there are no shortcomings to a particular scenario. After venturing through all the rooms, the final room always has a boss encounter and are usually the toughest tests in the game.
Going from room to room is inherently not bad, however, after going through a room or event you are forced back into the menu where you can heal, equip, or level up your heroes. This is where the grind starts to become a problem. Like I stated before, managing inventory is especially tedious with a console controller and the systems in place don’t make the control options intuitive making the process of navigating a simple menu a gigantic chore. On top of that, dragging/dropping items to use or equip is a serious hassle and oftentimes I found myself fighting the controls or the archaic design just to perform simple actions.
These navigation problems come into the combat as well, which is not particularly a pleasant affair. It revolves around each side taking a single turn — you hit the monster and the monster heals, you heal and the monster hits back, it becomes rather tedious. There really is not much of a strategic element to the battles, and the little strategy present is really not appealing to learn or care about. Pixel Heroes does incorporate a good amount of status effects and elemental magic attacks to change up the combat formula, however, it’s not enough to overcome the drabness of it all.
Pixel Heroes: Byte & Magic has a lot going for it at first with clever humor and many intriguing RPG, rogue-like systems in place, but the archaic design and multitude of navigation problems mar the overall experience. The Bitfather definitely had their heart in the right place creating this title, and it can be seen in the retro call-backs to many fantasy stalwarts. However, no amount of nostalgia can cover up the glaring control issues and dull, dreary combat present in the final product.