Heroes of Ruin Is Rich With Ideas, Shorter on Atmosphere

Heroes of Ruin is a deft, well-implemented multiplayer-RPG—but right now it's lacking in distinctive character. The title, published by Square Enix and developed by n-Space, the team behind the GameCube action-adventure title Geist, is due to launch on the Nintendo 3DS in early 2012. So far, our exposure to the Heroes has mostly been limited to some evocative concept art and a catalog of features meant to exploit the capabilities of the platform's StreetPass and WiFi functionality.

The thirty-minute demo I played at E3 made good on what we've heard about these social and multiplayer functions, and was a compulsive good time; but lacking in artistic originality and a strong sense of setting, it left me just short of being fully engaged and ready to declare the title as a 3DS must-have.

I began my session with Heroes of Ruin by selecting one of the four playable classes available in the game. Each of the classes in Heroes features a predetermined backstory, gender and general shape. While you'll have the option to modify the hairstyle, coloration and apparel of these characters, their overall appearance is fixed—and, in role-playing terms, the type of character you'll play as is largely a function of their gameplay style. For the purposes of the demo, I was asked to to play as a Vindicator: a fierce, lion-like warrior who carried a two-handed sword and was skilled both with brute offensive capabilities and curative magic. My partner was a Gunslinger, a cold-blooded rogue donning a hood and carrying duel pistols. There is no friendly fire in Heroes—a sensible design choice, in light of the fact that I would frequently run headlong into enemies that my Gunslinger partner was firing upon.

The dungeons in Heroes of Ruin are randomly-generated from a set of corridors and chambers; each time a player returns to a previously visited environment, the layout and enemy positioning will be different—and in concept, it's reminiscent of the dynamically-generated dungeons of Atlus' Persona 3. This feature reenforces n-Space's ambition to create a gameplay experience that will survive frequent repetition, by offering those players seeking additional loot or wishing to complete optional side missions something slightly new each time. An area map is drawn in real-time; it was easy to read and was dotted with large, clear icons.

Combat is mostly a hack-and-slash affair, with one button used for chaining basic attacks and the other three reserved for class-specific abilities that consume stamina. Those looking for a role-playing experience driven by careful strategy and positioning might want to look elsewhere; this is a button-masher in the vein of Kingdom Hearts or Rune Factory. That said, I felt that the combat struck a enjoyable balance between allowing for the allotment of diverse skills while still being viscerally satisfying.

Characters can be customized using a skill-tree comparable to those employed in any number of PC and console titles. Heroes makes intelligent use of the touch-screen by allowing players to tap icons during battle in order to quickly reassign abilities to various buttons. Pressing either the left or right shoulder buttons will cause your character to consume a health or stamina potion, respectively—yet another judiciously designed feature that I appreciated in the heat of my the dungeon crawling.

The developers of Heroes of Ruin have promised that the game will contain tens of thousands of unique pieces of equipment and items—many of which are specific to only a single class. I was impressed by some of the clever functions that have been implemented to help players manage this potentially-overwhelming stream of loot. For one, positioning a character near to a dropped weapon or armor will cause the game to display a quick comparison between the fresh loot and the relevant item currently equipped to the character. More detailed comparisons are available with a bit of menu-navigation, but I found that this in-the-moment valuation of an equipment's properties and worth was a fantastic time-saver that kept me immersed in the action of the game. Moreover, tapping down on the 3DS's digital pad will cause the loot to be instantly sold for a welcome bit of profit. Collecting and selling items at in-game vendors will fetch more gold than this quick-and-easy method, but I appreciated the option to bypass the overcrowded inventories that are the bane of many other RPGs on the market. Perhaps the most intriguing element of Heroes of Ruin is that fact that each piece of equipment that you sell will be added to a virtual Trader's Network—and subsequently becomes available to other player's games via a 3DS StreetPass.

The multiplayer in Heroes is drop-in/drop-out, and players in the midst of riffling through menus can pause the game without affecting the seamless experience of anyone else participating in the session. The developers of n-Space have taken a hint from BioWare, and will be offering an online hub that will automatically collect data about each player's adventure. This hub will also be a place that gamers can visit in order to download "Daily Challenges"—though what precisely these challenges will consist of remains a mystery. These challenges excluded, I was told the title's main campaign can be expected to last for roughly 12 hours.

As much as the gameplay was well-executed and appealing, Heroes of Ruin's visual style and world-building left me steeply disappointed. The game's initial concept art, which reminded me of Akihiko Yoshida's rich illustrations for Square Enix properties Final Fantasy XIV and Tactics Ogre, had me hopeful that Heroes would follow suit and feature stylish and unconventional characters and locales. Instead, the game is very much indebted to the bland visual generalities employed by many games on the MMO-marketplace. Giant insects, shambling corpses, sword-wielding beastmen—these visual archetypes have all been done to death, and in tackling them Heroes in no way appears to make them its own.

Likewise, the narrative as expressed in the demo was threadbare and dispensable. Text was delivered in a stiff and unembellished frame, and without portraits of the various speakers or any dynamism in terms of the viewing angle or the player's distance from the action, it had a certain disembodied quality. The narrative content of the mission I experienced was very much a means to an end: go to be point A, slaughter the guardian of the forest, rinse, repeat. Some players will not find this narrative sparseness to be bothersome; for me, it was a glaring barrier preventing me from immersing myself in the game.

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If Heroes of Ruin is ultimately delivered in a state similar to what I encountered at E3, it can expect to find favor among fans of loot-driven dungeon crawlers like Diablo and Torchlight. The title makes clever use of the 3DS's connectivity, and has been optimized as an on-the-go experience—I'm a particular fan of how n-Space has been able to streamline what could have been a tiresome trudge through inventory menus and status screens.

But the game is lacking atmosphere—something that even some of the least successful games in the Square Enix library manage to express in abundance. Barring a large artistic overhaul in the coming months, Heroes of Ruin will remain a concoction of fantastic design features, without a strong vision to cohere them together.