If there was ever a good time to get nostalgic and play some 16 bit gold on the SNES it’s right now after the recent release of the SNES software on the Nintendo Switch. Having said that, I have never needed an excuse to boot up the old machine before because in my opinion, the SNES is still my favorite console of all time due to the plethora of high quality content that was released for it. Why is this relevant? Because the game we are going to have a look at reminds me of certain cult classics that were released on the SNES that I pray get a release on the Switch’s SNES emulator. Nostalgia aside, It is fair to say that Heartbound grabbed me where it hurts and left a pain within me that will not go away until I get closure from its rich narrative and heavily focused character development tropes within the full game.
At it’s core, Heartbound is a non-traditional RPG set in a dark world of lush pixel art visuals and an atmospheric sound track. The hook of the game appears to be its angle of being non-traditional, what that basically means is that there are no stats to level up and character progression is not built upon like it is in other traditional RPG’s. Instead, character progression builds the further you explore the game by learning about who the characters are, what secrets they are hiding, their bonds with other characters and generally getting a feel for how each character feels. Heartbound is definitely a game who want to be gripped by a deep story line and people like me who is a sucker for a heart-melter. The demo was my chance to lose myself in such an experience and as soon as I started, I was instantly reminded of two classic SNES games: Earthbound and Secret of Evermore. Not only does the name sound similar to Earthbound but Heartbound contains similar dark tones within its story telling in a similar vein to Earthbound. While Secret of Evermore shares a similarity to Heartbound in that you control a boy who has a tight bond with his dog.
The demo starts you off in bed on a dark, gloomy and stormy early morning where you see the first slice of character interaction between the character you control called Lore and his dog Baron after you wake him up. What struck me as odd is that the dog talks to you, whether the reality is that the dog can actually talk or it’s all in Lore’s head or if Lore can understand dog language is up in the air at this point but I’m sure more could be revealed on that front in the full game. Whatever the case, it’s clear from early on that the bond between Lore and Baron is a strong one and that Lore would go to hell and back for him. I won’t spoil too much of what happens in the game but I will say that after you take out the trash (literally) you both go back to sleep only to find that when you wake up again the house has been trashed and Baron is missing! The mission at this point is clearly to find out what on earth is going on but most importantly to find your dog and return him home safely. But what becomes apparent is this is more than just a typical dog-napping, the demo showcases some of Heartbounds dark turns and eerie dialogue.
Despite the dark tone of the setting of Heartbound with its dingy unloved house you start in with its dead plants and garbage everywhere, the game actually does look very good. The pixel art stands out and really brings the dark setting to life, a highlight for me being the reflection of the rain and lightening against the floor boards. Accompanying these visuals is an atmospheric soundtrack that fits the games purpose extremely well. There is a moment in the demo where the music stops completely and all you can hear is the sound of your footsteps in an almost pitch black environment which I thought was a nice touch. Controlling the game is straight forward, I used my Xbox One controller but you can use mouse and keyboard if you desire. While you are free roaming, there is not a lot you have to remember in terms of how the controls work in the demo at least. Walking around and interacting with characters and objects is what you will spend a lot of your time doing while reading a lot of text. You will also be tasked with some puzzle solving to break up all the reading you have to do such as moving objects around, solving riddles and hitting switches. While not a necessity to read absolutely everything in the game, sometimes you get the odd joke thrown in which is a nice way to lighten the otherwise intense and dark atmosphere.
What we have not yet addressed is how Heartbound handles combat, again being a non-traditional RPG you will not be upgrading weapons and armor or leveling up stats of any kind. Instead, you will be defeating enemies via a series of mini games which means each encounter will require you to be skillful and have quick reactions instead of you relying on critical hit chance stats etc. Although I only got to do battle twice in each of my playthroughs in the demo, I enjoyed what I was doing. For example, one of the mini games against the enemy required me to hit a fireball back at it with my axe back and forth like a game of tennis until it hit home (Ganondorf battle in Ocarina of Time?). Another mini game would be to simply remember which order of buttons to press in order to do damage, get it wrong and the enemy does damage to you! So a very unique take on combat but one that left me wondering what other kind of mini games the full game contains. Also they are a nice way to break up the pace of the game. Another thing worth mentioning is that the games story changes depending on how you interact with the world creating replay value. You are able to finish the demo in three different ways depending on which portal you take and I wonder if collecting all the socks hidden around the world makes any kind of impact?
Heartbound is available to purchase on Steam in early access and has already got some DLC love to boot. If you are on the fence I would at least give the demo a try, the combat is fun and unique but it is the story alone that has made me want to take a stab at the full game. Pirate Software have done a good job with Heartbound so far and it would be nice to see the game make it to consoles.If you have tried the game or are thinking of trying it I would love to hear all of your thoughts down below. Thanks for reading!
Written by Sammy J on 21st September 2019