Backpack Hero builds a roguelike experience around a neat idea: you have a backpack that slowly expands, and you can fill it with items that interact with each other to give you the strength you need to survive dangerous dungeon dives.
Unfortunately, I found that the execution of that excellent idea leaves a lot to be desired.
You are a rat named Purse. Rats aren’t exactly my favorite creatures, but there have been some good ones over the years. Master Splinter, for instance. Templeton, the rat from Charlotte’s Web. I can deal with rats as long as they’re doing something interesting, and they are in Backpack Hero. Being the brave adventurer that you are, you’re journeying through treacherous environments as you try to find out why your mother disappeared a year ago. Along the way, you might just save your village.
Packing it in
Being a roguelike, Backpack Hero expects you to start over a lot. When you first enter a dungeon, you get to arrange a few items in your pack, depending on your current adventure’s objectives. These might include a standard sword, a dish of food, and a weak shield, but there also are cases where items impose a handicap of some sort. You might have to use only projectile weapons, for instance, or an item you can’t discard will add an unusual effect after each battle.
As you work through the dungeon, you find a few points of interest on each floor and look for stairs that let you descend deeper into the darkness. Mostly, you encounter a lot of enemy creatures, such as giant bees and empty suits of armor the size of woodland creatures. As you vanquish your adversaries, you gain XP and items. The XP occasionally allows you to gain levels so you can expand your backpack a few squares at a time. You even get to direct the growth, which adds an element of strategy to the mix. And you get to choose additional items, which you can rotate and rearrange to stuff your pack with supplies.
Generally, you have more loot than space. That means you must occasionally make challenging decisions. Do you take the huge sword when you already have one good weapon, or do you grab a few helmets to improve your Block rating? A lot of the gear you find has bonus attributes to consider. A bubble might float to the top of the row where you place it. Some armor might not even provide a boost to your defense unless you position it on that top row. Other stuff may move or reorient itself periodically.
Inventory management is the best part of the game, if you can believe it. You’ll need to get good at it if you’re going to get anywhere, and I found it surprisingly addictive. As you play longer and gain access to new heroes, the game throws in new wrinkles to keep you thinking outside the box.
A battle to have a good time
One reason I like the inventory management, besides the joy I get from arranging objects to make the best of limited space (you should see my apartment), is that if you crack the code, Backpack Hero becomes a lot more manageable. You’ll face off against many tough monsters, and you’re not going to get anywhere against them if you randomly stuff your pack with whatever and hope for the best.
A typical battle begins with your character — which might not be Purse, since the roster expands over the course of the campaign — possessing a limited amount of energy. That energy determines how many turns a character can take before the various members of the enemy group get to move. Some items come with no energy penalty, but most of them use one or more points each time they are utilized. Accessories offer a nice boost in combat, but their effects are diminished if you have them positioned wrong. Sometimes you’re better off ignoring them when energy is at a premium and one more blow might eliminate a dangerous foe.
There also are items that restore additional energy, passively or through active use. Some of those items stick around and others are consumable. When you face a group of strong adversaries, you have to make some tough decisions. If you leave a snail alive, it may poison you. If you don’t tend to a bee right away, it may send a sticky honey glob into your inventory and render gear unavailable… or you can sacrifice some HP to just knock it out of your way.
You spend most of your time in Backpack Hero either organizing your pack or battling monsters. That’s the stuff these games are made of, so things could certainly be worse. They could also do with some improvement, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Building back better
Between dungeon runs, the game’s heroes manage to stay pretty busy thanks to a city-building element. Haversack Hill has fallen on tough times, so you need to destroy the remnants of old structures and build new ones in their place. However, these activities eat up a lot of resources that are especially rare near the start of the campaign. Even a lot of the simplest buildings require more material than you can gather on a single successful dungeon run.
As you gather resources, townsfolk and mission boards start to present new tasks. In exchange, you learn how to place new structures and meet new allies. However, this process takes a long, long while. Along the way, you don’t acquire the most vital rewards if you attempt a challenging run (because you’re sick of running the same few routes) and meet a boss your gear doesn’t suit. You can get a peek at who you will face ahead of time, but even so, loot drops don’t always favor you.
Once you’ve built enough buildings, even a simple run produces more substantial rewards. However, the first few hours can prove quite tedious, and their difficulty may catch you off-guard as you learn the rules. In that sense, the game almost punishes a person’s early efforts, rather than quickly offering the sort of rewards that will coax them to keep trying and improving.
However, even though I think the game could benefit from additional balance tweaking, that’s not my biggest problem with it.
Interface your fears
There are villains in Backpack Hero, but none are a greater menace than the interface you must endure. I can’t remember the last time I played a game that made me fight its menus so persistently.
I suppose the developers deserve props for making it possible to play Backpack Hero using an attached controller. I play a lot of games that way, so I tried that option first and came away thoroughly unimpressed. I’m accustomed to games that require me to use only a few buttons to accomplish tasks intuitively. However, Backpack Hero sometimes requires me to hold buttons rather than merely pressing them, just to confirm choices. And the button I need to press to exit out of the various menus isn’t consistent. After a battle, I might have to press one button, while leaving a different menu requires me to press another one. There’s no rhyme or reason to it that I can see.
Sometimes, I’ll get some items after leveling up after a battle. However, there’s no obvious button to press to accept them and start making choices about what to keep. I might have to wait for a few seconds and then try pressing and holding different buttons until one finally works. In other cases, an enemy might throw three globs of goop at me. I have to place them within my inventory or incur a health penalty. So, I’ll try to place them. However, moving the cursor over them to grab them and then place them doesn’t always work naturally. Sometimes it does and sometimes not.
If you play Backpack Hero, I recommend that you do so using a keyboard and mouse. There are still issues, especially if you forget to switch to Windowed mode when you boot up the game. When the top and bottom bars are showing by default, certain on-screen menu features just never appear. At least the experience otherwise improves. I don’t know how some of this stuff got through testing. It doesn’t make the game unplayable, but it regularly impacted my enjoyment.
That sounds about right
I’m not usually one to comment on game soundtracks, because so much of it blends into the background as noise. Backpack Hero caught my attention by being a little bit different in that regard. The song that plays on the title screen is quite rousing. It always gets me pumped to run through a few dungeons. The theme that plays while I wander around town, on the other hand, is relaxing. It’s also a bit bland at first, but that problem corrects itself as you build up the town. I was quite surprised when my progress reached a certain point. Suddenly, the familiar composition incorporated much richer instrumentation. The shift made me appreciate the familiar track all over again. There aren’t a lot of individual tunes on offer, but whoever produced them clearly understood the assignment.
Rough edges make for an unpolished gem
At its core, Backpack Hero is a neat little game. I like indie games that try something a little different and have the courage to execute them without apology. The developers have done that here.
Unfortunately, they’ve also pieced together a game that requires a person to put up with some unusual rough edges. On top of that, the visual style doesn’t feel consistent. There are some charming sprites when you are in the dungeons, but the characters in town are extremely bland. Town environments in general are generic enough that it’s not fun to build and decorate. Characters you meet float around and say the typical things, but their charm is limited.
I like many of the individual elements that make up Backpack Hero. Unfortunately, the game they helped build is too often frustrating or sometimes tedious to play. With some adjustments to the interface, more cohesive art design, and other tweaks to the overall design, there could be a great game with more accessible depth. Right now, though, it simply feels half-baked.