During The Game Awards 2020's pre-show, Devolver Digital announced their latest title, Loop Hero. In the publisher's signature anarchic retro-punk style, it was announced as The Game of the Year of 2021, lampooning the pompous ceremony of the event in their own tongue-in-cheek fashion. After spending a considerable amount of time with the game, it becomes obvious why Devolver Digital was so confident promoting this offbeat title in this way. It's too early to say it'll be a contender by the end of the year, but its central gameplay idea is certainly memorable.
Boiled down to the bone, Loop Hero can best be described as an idle deckbuilding roguelike RPG. You control a hero that fights monsters, gets weapons and armor, and will eventually get taken out by whatever monster gets a lucky hit in. But unlike other games in this prolific genre, most of the immediate gameplay: combat, exploration, etc., happens automatically. The world's main path is a giant loop which the hero constantly treks through, and combat plays out with no direct input from you. The only way to make combat encounters more manageable is micromanaging your character's gear.
My very first impressions were lackluster. There are plenty of roguelike RPGs out in the wild that manage to bring new ideas to this genre. But this felt like a game that took things out, reducing the thrill of making a broken character build to the monotony of number-crunching. The mind-numbing simplicity of weighing the benefits of having a magic ring that grants vampiric damage or a magic ring that regenerates health and offers a chance to block and parry an incoming attack. I found myself comparing this detached approach to more immediate competitors even as my hero continued to rotate on the path, making its numbers slowly rise.
Then Loop Hero got my attention with the deckbuilding elements. Before you start each run, you assemble a deck of cards that have different locations and landmarks on them, drawing them as monsters are defeated. At any point, you can pause the game and play these cards, adding new areas to the map. These can range from landmarks that apply buffs and bonuses to your character to dangerous roadside locations that spawn new types of enemies. All of this plays into an escalating threat system where encounters become tougher as time goes on but yield better rewards if you win.
But the one crucial element of this deckbuilding is that every single time you add something to the map, a progress bar fills. Once it is maxed, the hero's camp gets replaced with a big bad boss battle, one designed to be one last major challenge for your current build.
The very first time I encountered this boss encounter was after some experimentation. My hero ran completely on health regeneration and was a master at hitting multiple opponents at once, leeching their life force to keep going. It was the kind of build that was the result of me making every other tile on the path spawn multiple monsters. Much to my surprise, the boss battle wasn't a large horde waiting to win with death by a thousand cuts, but a singular all-powerful lich that walked like a tank and hit like a truck. My hero was dead within seconds.
It was after beating my head against one of this spinebreaking horror that Loop Hero clicked for me. The point of the game isn't the hero getting stronger – that part of the game is on autopilot – it's you building the hero's very progression. It's that rare RPG experience that does effortlessly simulates the thankless job of a tabletop game master. You can't just have the entire adventure be nonstop killer swamps and undead horrors, nor can you have it be just generic slimes and helpful villages. Much like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, there's a nebulous start, a vaguely defined but guaranteed final battle, and a giant swath of unexpected twists, turns, and course corrections in the middle.
My second round against the lich happened in a more deliberate manner. After almost two hours of carefully peppering the path with touch enemies and health-restoring villages, I built a far sturdier hero. One that could tank, evade and counterattack anything that was thrown at it and had a chance to stun their opponents with every attack. Round two was a close but a deliciously sweet victory.
I've put nearly twenty hours into the build of Loop Hero provided for this preview, and I've barely scratched the surface. There is a camp management system where you can unlock additional abilities that change the gameplay like healing items and an ongoing perk system. There are even unlockable classes which change up what the hero can wear, what gear drops for them, and even how the loot system itself works.
As simple as it looks on the surface, Loop Hero is the kind of experience that grows on you. It's a game that isn't so much about playing out the hero winning so much as you making it possible for them to win in the first place. As for whether or not that idea can fully sustain this game until the credits roll, that remains to be seen.
TechRaptor previewed Loop Hero on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is set to release some time in 2021.