I’m a sucker for addictive progression-based games; as soon as a game introduces a roguelike/lite mechanic where you’re deemed to fail so that you can improve your stats and try again, I’m hooked. As such, I’ve recently found myself addicted to Hero Express from Fantastico Studio, the developer behind the fun and addictive Black Paradox. It’s a simple game which combines Excitebike-like physics with Roguelite progression mechanics. What more could you ask for?
Out now on the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC, Hero Express delivers the ‘Pringles Effect’ – Once you pop (start the game), you just can’t stop! However, I’ve forced myself to turn my Switch off for a few hours whilst I write up this review, so let’s get started (so I can get back to playing the game…)
*All images are from Portable Mode on the Switch, it looks much better docked and on the small screen*
Indie games are always the ones which surprise me with their stories and settings. Take Hero Express for example, what would you imagine the plot and premise of the game to be? Are you a hero on your way to defeat giant creatures? No. Do you have to quickly beat up enemies in order to save the day? No. Do you have to run a Fed-EX style service as you traverse across dangerous landscapes in order to deliver the tools to the absent-minded hero so that HE can save the day? N… Actually, yeah – that’s the one!
That’s right, you’re technically not the hero who is out to save the day, you’re the guy who saves the hero by transporting his tools to the battlefield. It’s an interesting concept which isn’t really shown outside of a few static images, but it sets up the gameplay nicely and gives you a purpose for reaching your goal – even if you’re guaranteed to fail many times in the process, thus watching your heroic buddy lose numerous times!
The games’ store page states there is around five to six hours worth of gameplay, as you work through all eleven levels, followed by a similar time to then take on the ‘same’ levels only on the harder difficulty. I’d have to disagree with this statement though, not because you can finish it much faster, but because in my experience, it’s much longer! It may just be me – maybe I’m terrible at the game – but I’ve easily sunk over an hour into a single level as I’ve followed the routine of Drive, Die, Upgrade, Repeat, over and over again. Although, once you’ve fully upgraded your vehicle, the ‘hard’ mode isn’t actually that bad as you’ve already pimped your ride.
The gameplay in Hero Express is simple, drive as far to the right as you can without meeting your demise via one of the many hazards you’ll encounter along the way. The terrain is all over the place (as you can see in the images), with steep mountains, pits of water/gunk, bridges, and lots of jumps. Not only this, but the game also utilises an Excitebike-like orientation mechanic where you must push left or right whilst in the air in order to level out your vehicle before it hits the land so you don’t crash. As you’re in a car-like vehicle, and not a bike, you won’t be spinning all over the place as we see in games like Trials, but you can use it to your advantage to get decent momentum when going down hillsides.
In order to help you along the way, you’ll pick up two power-ups which can be activated when you need them. First, we have some cleaning fluid. Each level has an item/object which will splat a load of gunk on your screen (IRL) when you crash into it. Not only does this slow you down, but it also restricts your view of what’s happening on the screen. You can do nothing and it’ll vanish after about 30 seconds, or you can use the cleaning fluid to have it vanish immediately.
The second item is a power jump which allows you to thrust your vehicle high into the air in the trajectory your vehicle is heading.
This all sounds very easy, so where’s the catch? Fuel – you run out of it very fast. As well as the above two pick-ups, you also have to ensure you pick up cans of petrol as you progress further into the course. Failing to do so will see your vehicle running out and subsequently blowing up and killing our perky young delivery driver in the process (RIP HEX driver…). So, utilising the balancing mechanics, picking up the various power-ups, and remaining stocked up with fuel are all essential if you wish to succeed in your journey – however, these alone won’t guarantee your safety…
Hero Express is technically a Roguelite game in terms of its core mechanics and the way the game plays out. Your first playthrough will see you get to a certain point, which is usually a steep hill you can’t climb or a jump you can’t make, resulting in failure as the vehicle literally cries as it tries it’s hardest to overcome the environmental design. Up until this point, you will have collected a number of coins/money/gems which are scattered across the road and obtained when you reach a waypoint for the first time – you also get bonus currency for performing flips and airtime post-dying.
Before you start your second run, it’s time to pimp your ride – use your acquired currency to increase your engine, wheel, stability and traction statistics, each notch costing subsequently more as you level them up one by one. Once you’ve spent all your cash, try the level again and see if you can make it further than you did before. You’ll find that you’ll usually get a bit further and then hit another metaphorical brick wall in your journey, resulting in you having to buy more upgrades and try again from the start of the level.
Eventually, you’ll make it all the way to the end and deliver the tools for our hero buddy to save the day – yay! That’s when it’s time to either spend your cash and try the hard mode or move on to the next location.
Who wants some?
What I found interesting about Hero Express is its lack of restrictions. I’d expect a game like this to require you to hit a certain amount of coins, distance, upgrades, or to beat a level before you can move on to the next location – but you don’t have to! From the very start, all eleven levels are available, ala Mega Man style, for you to alternate between at your leisure. Another interesting thing is the fact that each of the levels has you in a new, unique vehicle which begins with no upgrades – so you can’t max out your car in an easier level and jump in, fully upgraded, to a new one.
Each level has a theme, such as Swamps, Snow, City, Graveyards, etc… The hero is fighting a new foe within each location, symbolised by a humorous title card, and each vehicle is suitably adapted, such as a Moon Buggy when you’re in space. Although you’re essentially going through the same process with each level (driving until you die and then upgrading your vehicle to try again), I never felt like it was monotonous or boring as each new vehicle has its own quirks and playstyle.
Another cool feature, which didn’t happen enough if I’m being honest, is the introduction of environmental hazards depending on the level you’re currently playing in Hero Express. The majority of the levels have three physical hazard – low ceilings, some form of water, and steep cliffs which require an upgrade. However, there was a level which introduced timed spike-lined ceilings which crushed you if you were under them – this made the level much more intense and exciting as you had to time your journey as well as be cautious about the wobbly landscape. I just wished more levels had their own unique deathtraps.
Games Like Hero Express are so addictive for me, once I get into the motion of playing, dying, upgrading, and then trying again, I find it really hard to stop and pull myself away from them. I have this issue with games such as Roguelikes on the PS4 and Tap-based games on my phone, sometimes spending hours each day just sat there mindlessly progressing a little further at a time. Thankfully, Hero Express isn’t as tedious as those games (especially in terms of the mobile ones), but it does manage to get you hooked early on.
If this game was released on mobiles (which it isn’t), then I’d imagine things such as currency would be a microtransaction and you’d only have a certain number of goes before your ‘energy’ runs out etc… However, as it’s a full game with none of these money-sapping mechanics in place, I feel it’s well worth the asking price as it felt so satisfying finally being able to reach the finish line after at least 50+ attempts on each level. Let’s not forget the Hard Mode as well! I’ve just finished all the levels on Normal and seen the end screen, in order to complete the harder versions you clearly have to fully upgrade your vehicle even more as the fuel tanks don’t seem to last as long and the overall experience seems much more intense and difficult.
For a game which you can literally pick up and play for a few minutes at a time or succumb to its addictive powers and become absorbed within it for hours, it feels right at home on Nintendo’s hybrid console. However, I’m hoping we see a PS4/PS Vita version – possibly with Cross-buy or a double platinum. If we do, I expect the thousands of Trophy hunters and millions of casual gamers will go nuts for this type of game.
Hero Express is a perfect combination of Excitebike-like balance physics and addictive Roguelite mechanics. Each time you inevitably die, you’ll be screaming in your head “just one more go” despite the fact you may have been saying that for a few hours already. Once the addictive nature of the core ‘drive, die, upgrade, repeat’ mechanics have set in, you’ll find it hard to put the game down until you finally overcome the ‘metaphorical brick wall’ you encounter, either by upgrading or alternating your playstyle. For such a simple game which provides a twist on the ‘hero saving the day’ narrative, I can’t believe how many hours I’ve actually invested into the game so far over these last few days.
If you’re looking for a game to help pass some time when travelling, during break time, or when you’ve got a few minutes to spare, then check out Hero Express. If you’re a fan of games like Trials but think those games are a little too hard due to their unfair and brutal difficulty, this game is much easier and forgiving – although it does have a number of frustrating moments if you’re too under or overpowered!
- - Very addictive and extremely satisfying once you finally finish a level
- - Interesting concept in terms of the story
- - Nice visuals which runs really smooth on the Switch
- - Upbeat music which varies between levels and stops you getting too frustrated when you die (a lot)
- - A few varied hazards to keep the game new and exciting
- - I wish there were more hazards and unique mechanics per level
- - Each level plays out almost the same as you gradually build up a better car. Some people may find this tedious or monotonous but I found it entertaining and fun
- - The Hard mode introduced a few 'interesting' physic-based glitches (which I've reported)