Libra is a series which provides first impressions of games before their full review. These are generally spoiler free, however, some base plot points – as well as some mechanic/system reveals – could lurk ahead.
For the record, I want it to be known that I don’t hate Game Freak. In a year where it seems no one is satisfied with their more tame efforts, they have managed to quietly launch an RPG that completely defies most of their traditions and expectations. Little Town Hero is an isolated experience, mostly due to its singular setting, but also because it tends to lean into its unique, one-on-one combat system in a way that doesn’t offer a great deal of experimentation. Aiming to transform each combat turn into a grueling, cerebral experience, Game Freak’s new RPG IP is certainly different in a surprising way, but stripping some of its superfluous concepts away reveals something rather familiar.
Little Town Hero begins by setting the stage through an unconventional series of flashbacks. By stumbling over one another, protagonist Axe and his proverbial Gary Oak Matock manage to catch the eye of the knight Angard, who promises to teach them how to fight if they should scratch his back in return. What then begins is a convoluted series of tutorials that attempt to explain the game’s mechanics. In lieu of sending your head spinning, I’ll do my best to summarize:
You have a deck of around fifteen cards, from which you draw until you possess a hand of five each turn. These cards come in three varieties: red attack cards that can only be used once per turn, yellow defense cards that can be used multiple times until their protective measures are exhausted, and blue instant cards, which are single-use abilities that often allow you to draw again or perform some sort of ability at any point during your combat phase. These cards will stay in your hand until they are exhausted, with red and yellow cards possessing attack and defense stats that usually conform to their color. However, all cards have an even more important number value- the amount of mana required to summon them. When summoned, they become usable spells, which can be selected to counter the enemy’s own spells. Because you have a limited amount of mana to use each turn, you’ll need to prioritize which cards you want to transform into spells each turn, as you have a limited amount of health and time to overwhelm your enemy and keep the town safe.
Now, replace each “card” in that explanation with “Izzit,” each “spell” with “Dazzit,” and “mana” with “power,” and you’ve got the basics of Little Town Hero. Though the game is not very transparent or even all that helpful with its tutorial, these are the foundations of Little Town Hero’s combat, and boy, is it a doozy. If you counter all of your opponent’s Dazzits in a turn, you’ll avoid taking damage to your Hearts and Guts, which are two forms of hit points, but overwhelming the enemy’s Dazzit with your own abilities causes it to “break,” which means they don’t get to reuse that ability next turn. The same goes for your Dazzits, however, and you need to be mindful of which Dazzits will carry over from one turn to the next, as the enemy continuously summons more to attack with. If you should break all of the enemy Dazzits, you’ll enter a Chance Turn, which is an opportunity for you to strike at their own Hearts and Guts with a red Dazzit or select the precise space to move into on the map. If you don’t have one of those available, however, you gain Break Points, another valuable resource that allows you to reshuffle and deal your set of Izzits once more, or switch one from your hand into your deck.
On paper, all of this sounds great. Because Game Freak can program random shuffles as well as set Izzit combinations, they maximize the system’s usage to create turn-based puzzle-solving portions to the side quests and several quirky scenarios, such as shearing sheep or plucking a hair from a cat. I’m also happy to report that game is balanced to an absurd degree, mostly because it prevents players from over-leveling by locking out progression to certain story points and making Eureka Points (the game’s experience system) a reserve limited to failed combat attempts and the odd combat simulator that allows you to replay previous battles. It’s a scarecrow. It’s weird.
If any of that sounds less-than-appealing, however… well, that’s because it results in something completely claustrophobic. There’s an astonishing lack of choice on display, here, as selecting the optimal scenario is entirely based on what options are the most beneficial to the player in their current hand and at their current power level. Power increases steadily over the course of a battle, which means your options start out limited and… well, they end pretty limited, as well. The playable character Axe has a terribly basic toolset, but this is where the benefits of the town come in: after each combat phase, the player is given a chance to stop a roulette that determines which space on the town map they will land on next. Though this roulette has varying speeds and will almost always end up screwing the player over, it adds a strategic degree of choice to the game- because some of your Dazzits will allow you to pick your next space, and hitting Chance Turns can also enable this option, you must balance these opportunities carefully if you want to maximize the usefulness of your resources.
Each unique member of the town will appear with an assist ability on the map, which are additional actions that can be taken during your turn. Some of these are basic, but others are such key game-changers, you’ll find yourself attempting to position Axe in the proper place on the map in order to access their abilities. Gimicks, on the other hand (no, not a misspelling) are supercharged attack options that are manned by chickens. Additionally, nondescript townspeople will offer up unique Izzits to add to your deck for the duration of the battle. These abilities are so cool, it almost feels like a shame that you can’t carry them over into future engagements, but hey… the game’s got to be balanced. Though these Izzits remain in your deck after use, every unique townsperson and Gimick can only be used once per battle, so you need to manage resources wisely.
When I say “wise,” of course, I mean “careful.” The thing is, with the roulette options on the town map, you can try to plan one or two turns in advance, but the randomization means that your best-laid attempts can implode, not necessarily because of what you’ve done, but because the luck-based mechanics can cause things to trip themselves up. Atop this, every battle has a new mechanic, with each new monster you fight- from the apish starting beasts to the nightmare-fuel creatures later on- possessing some sort of unique gimmick. Yes, that’s gimmick with two m’s. Fortunately, as Axe’s abilities progress via the story, you’ll gain some access to these gimmicks, but it feels like there’s a great deal of missed opportunity with how many other characters have unique Izzit sets that beg for exploration.
I’ve spoken a great deal about the combat, but what about the other aspects of the game? Well, Little Town Story has brief flashes of brilliance in its art design, script, and music, but on the whole, they’re a mixed bag. The game’s odd art design features characters with deformed proportions, and there’s strange height discrepancies between adults and younger townspeople. Every unique townsperson has a specific color theme, however, and each one features their own distinct features, which are nice. The monster design is truly what shines, here, with some abominations that stand in stark contrast to the cutesy aesthetic of the town. Though there are some hints at a much more complex narrative, with plenty of lore and glimpses at a larger world, the scenario writing itself is frustrating, with your rival Matock asking to fight you every five minutes just because the game doesn’t really have all that much else to do.
There are a few puzzle- and dialogue-based sidequests to perform, as well as a few optional monster battles that are once again extremely daunting and unique from a design angle, but the game is all about fighting, and the characters do little to fill the space with something that feels worthwhile in between. Toby Fox’s soundtrack has a nice blend of unique instrumentation that sets it apart from his other works, but a few of the scenario themes are a bit too repetitive and grating. The battle themes are all very enjoyable, though, which is good.
Because battles in Little Town Story take around 30 to 40 minutes to complete.
This is the hardest aspect of the game to stomach, and this is coming from someone who loves exploring new combat systems. But because of the very bland (and I hate to be saying this in 2019, the year where Game Freak can’t catch a break for this sort of thing) and overly long combat animations, you’ll be feeling fatigue set in as you attempt to fight through the skirmishes that comprise nearly all of the game’s play experience. The thing is, a cerebral, deck-based combat system is something I can absorb quickly and enjoy when options for optimization are presented clearly and the action is snappy, but Little Town Hero balances the weight of each choice made with the weighty, clunky actions of Axe and his enemies smacking against each other in response to every single command you input. Each turn starts with your enemy summoning new Izzits from their deck with an animation that, after fifteen turns of back and forth, screams for a skip-able option. Because the roulette will often upset your best-laid plans, you need to rethink your strategy on a turn-to-turn basis, which means every fight is all about extremely focused decision-making. If this sounds like your sort of thing, wonderful. All in all, however, the title is a bit hard to recommend as something to brute-force your way through.
I’m nearing the end of my Little Town Hero playthrough, and barring any specific narrative twists or new and drastically unique mechanics being introduced, I feel the game is a hard sell. There are some great ideas on display and I appreciate Game Freak’s attempts to try something different, but some technical options like animation skips or fast forward button would have been greatly appreciated. In addition to all of this, there are some concerning performance issues, where frame rate drops will occur when turning the camera towards a sprawling view of the town, or music will cut out during transitions until the next scene begins, leaving silence for an entire sequence. It’s unfortunate, because Little Town Hero is most certainly not a game for everyone, but it has enough unique charm in its own right to keep a patient and flexible individual engaged throughout its campaign.