Oh, Game Freak. You never cease to surprise me- take that statement whichever way you will. With Little Town Hero, this fairly-well-known developer has attempted to take their Role-Playing prowess in another direction entirely: this time, they are tackling the card-game subgenre. Based on your feelings towards this style of play, this title may or may not be your cup of tea. As a huge card-game fan myself, I was surprised to uncover the nuances behind Little Town Hero’s combat mechanics, but the game attempts to strike out boldly on its own when there’s little reason- or enjoyment- to be found in the additional mechanics presented. Will you cozy up in this hometown story, or will it leave you hoping to adventure elsewhere? Read on and find out.
If there’s one thing I can give Game Freak credit for, it is that they have taken the foundations of their combat system and applied them broadly across a variety of play styles. Little Town Hero is all about battling- there’s no other way to put it, but the way this turn-based system is implemented allows for a few different types of battles: puzzles, town member encounters, and boss encounters. Puzzles will deal a hand of highly-situational cards and require a specific turn order to expose the “weak point” of the enemy, but because there’s only one correct answer, you need to think of how your hand synergizes with itself in order to pull it off perfectly. Town members are unique characters with their own “deck” of cards, and these battles sometimes occur in a static position (where the board-game mechanic is ignored), but can also feature travel mechanics. Essentially, at the end of each turn, the player will also have to reposition themselves on an area map, which can be small or large and feature a number of branching paths. In town member encounters, this usually has less of an effect, but boss battles are where this mechanic becomes crucial.
Bosses are the main focus of this game, and they come in all shapes, though they’re usually massive in size. During these encounters, town members will pitch as supports, positioning themselves on certain spaces around the area map. Their special abilities- which are specific for unique characters and emerge as special cards for generic townspeople- are the key to turning the tide of battle, as protagonist Axe’s deck of cards is useful, but limited. When generic townspeople grant cards, they are usually boss-battle-centric, and depending on their utility, may be usable once or multiple times in a battle. Unique town members, as well as “gimicks,” are single use only. Gimicks require a specific card in order to operate, but unique town members are an additional action that can be performed during a turn.
There’s one issue with this board mechanic, however, and that is its relative randomness. After each turn, players choose to stop a roulette that allows them to move 1 to 4 spaces in a turn. This can be altered by utilizing certain cards in order to choose the roulette number, or a player can use an all-break turn- during which the enemy’s defenses are down- to escape and choose their roulette number instead. Both options for forcing a roulette number are highly circumstantial, however, and the looping nature of many area maps can often stop a player from obtaining a card or a unique town member assist that is absolutely crucial to success. Strategy is inconsistent, and in a card-game setting (where hand draws are already random), this additional layer of chance doesn’t feel fun or fair.
If you’re wondering what the specifics of turn order and combat are, well… an attempt to translate the vocabulary that the game uses is often more trouble than it’s worth. Fortunately, I offered what I hoped would be a succinct-enough explanation of Little Town Hero’s jargon in the Libra for this title. It’s a fairly convoluted form of presentation that does the game few favors, but there are some additional aspects that cheapen the effect of this system. More on that in a bit.
Aesthetics and Narrative
Game Freak’s narrative prowess has never been one of their strongest suits, and Little Town Hero isn’t much of a storytelling wonder, either. Though there are hints of intrigue masked behind lore explanations and some sparing cutscenes, the characters and their relative blandness are what hurt this game the most. Dialogue is simplistic, as are the characteristics of the unique town members. Protagonist Axe is determined but not very bright, while his rival Matock is a stubborn and annoying pest. Many characters have one specific defining trait that is rarely developed throughout the narrative, which boils down to uninspired interactions that serve to break up battles. The premise here is nice, but the execution disappoints, with some sidequests offering more engaging one-or-two-off scenarios, but the overall product doing little (heh) with its concept. The straightforward earnestness of the writing and narrative may be considered “charming” by some, but it lacks the depth of its combat, which is something it could have sorely benefited from.
One of the main draws (apparently) of this game is the soundtrack by Undertale composer and developer Toby Fox, which ends up feeling very uninspired. The instrument sampling is a bit too sterile and bland, with even the cozy town theme coming across sterile due to the pingy strings. Battle themes are often themed appropriately, with monsters having foreboding drum and horn lines, while supernatural spooks get some suitably creepy sounds, but there are a very rare amount of memorable tracks here, the only ones worming their way into the brain being those that are variations on a pre-established theme.
Though Little Town Hero’s character designs are distinct, the humans are oddly proportioned and don’t exactly embrace the spirit of the promotional art. The true triumph of the art style comes from the monster design- you have a collection of truly memorable boss battles on display, from creepy beetles to terrifying skeletal constructs and dolls. Even the most basic encounter, a mutated sheep, can still look formidable with its gnashing teeth and freaky fleece. Unfortunately, each and every one of these wonderful monsters can be found within a solid half hour to forty-five minutes of filler. Atop that, each battle is, you know, forty minutes long.
Impressions and Conclusion
If there’s one thing that hurts this small-scale Role-Playing Game, its the proportions of the title itself. Because of the bland, unskippable battle animations that play out in between each selected action and combat’s highly-strategic nature on the whole, battles will take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour to complete in a single attempt, and should you fail, you’ll be kicked back to the start of the skirmish. This turns each battle track from something that could have felt epic or impactful into a grating affair. In addition, the board-game nature of each map means that the town’s design must accommodate a large creature and a large playing space, and although the game does feature a fast-travel system, Axe’s default movement speed outside of combat makes traveling around this environment feel like a slog. Some side quests will require interaction with specific townspeople, but they don’t always explicitly mention where these individuals will be, and the player can get locked out of certain missions because of story progression.
Another frustrating element is the character progression- or lack thereof. Many RPGs aren’t strangers to the idea of layering on new mechanics as the game progresses, and Little Town Hero is no exception. But there are very few ways to improve your performance in battle, largely because Axe’s deck of cards is so limited in utility. But the game slow drips experience points as well as skill tree expansions, never allowing the player to boost their abilities beyond what Game Freak has balanced for specific battles. The most damning evidence of this is when the player attempts to access old fights- rather than allowing players to experiment with their new tools (thereby encouraging revisits of old encounters), the game boots their abilities back down to whichever ceiling existed at that point during the story.
I went into Little Town Hero with a vague sense of anticipation, hoping to see some addictive element in Game Freak’s design that I have experienced in other titles like Pokemon, HarmoKnight, and Pocket Card Jockey. This RPG feels a bit too unpolished in concept, however, leading to my time with the title feeling like an utter chore. I don’t really know what changes could be made to make this game more appealing to newcomers or those curious about a non-traditional RPG. For starters, the game is in need of some serious quality of life alterations, especially in regards to battle speed. But the insistence on putting a novel twist on so many pre-established concepts, such as deck building, hp systems, and terminology, just makes this Little Town story feel like a big disappointment.