When Undertale was first released – long before its cult following of skeleton-fetishising fans emerged from their closets – it was once heralded as the greatest RPG game of all recent history. Those among its first players would remember their fateful first playthrough of the game and the oddly displaced eeriness that crept around its edges.
Superficially, it hit all the right notes. Its characters were lovable, its jokes corny yet endearing, and its gameplay mechanics different and interesting. But as players steadily made their way towards the end goal, defeating the bosses that stood in their way, its creator Toby Fox took every opportunity to return the slaughter of his characters with a cruel vengeance.
He did actively what no creator in this decade had done. In the RPG genre which traditionally motivates players to collect items, defeat enemies, and level up, he encouraged his players to do the exact opposite through fleshed out characters and dialogue. Players that followed his path ended up sparing foes, not levelling up at all, and going through his entire game with nothing equipped but kindness.
Undertale as a game saw the beginning of a revolution in the indie gaming scene. Critics praised it for its ingenuity in reimagining formerly rigid RPG stereotypes. Players had their heartstrings pulled and every teardrop wrung out of them. Many found hope in the game’s message and it remains a source of motivation (and determination!) to this day.
So what then, makes Heartbound?
According to its Steam store page, “Heartbound is a “non-traditional role-playing game about a boy and his dog.” It’s being developed by indie game studio GoPirateSoftware and a demo is out now for free download. Those who have tried it are already drawing similarities to Undertale, mostly in regards to its art style and quirky storytelling methods. Naturally, bets have also been placed on its predicted impact on the RPG genre.
While it’s still too early to tell, its demo holds a lot of potential. It manages to pack in a little bit of everything for just under 30 minutes. You get a taste of its main characters, its world building, story pacing, but what’s most interesting is its battle mechanics, which you’ll get to experience twice throughout the demo.
Unlike the standard turn-based mechanics you’ll find in the genre, Heartbound teases a more fluid, skill-based mechanic which rapidly shuffles through a series of mini games, testing different keyboard and mouse combinations you’ll have to succeed in order to land your attacks. Think of it as a rhythm game, but one where you’re trying to escape certain death at the hands of a tentacle monster – fun.
The reasoning behind this, according to the game’s writer and designer Jason Thor Hall, is to move away from the grind-heavy aspects of the RPG genre and narrow it down to the player’s individual skill. That’s why the only statistic you’ll receive throughout the entire game is the main character, Lore’s, health bar. The battle mini games also change depending on which monster you’re fighting; so while you may face the wrath of laser beams from this tentacled monstrosity, you might end up picking up laundry when you fight a sentient sock monster.
But that isn’t the only interesting thing this game claims to offer. Reading through Heartbound’s official website reveals, albeit vaguely, the direction this three-man team intends to take with this project, and here’s what we managed to glean from it:
1. Items and consumables in-game are more than just support tools or trophies
In RPGs, there tends to be a weird dichotomy between different types of collectibles. Some appear to be extremely rare, which most players hoard in hopes for an opportune moment to use later in the game, while others are extremely common, making it almost worthless in the player’s eyes because it’s so easily obtainable (e.g. rings in Sonic games). On the other hand, what Heartbound intends to introduce is something far more interesting.
Judging by their description, every item or consumable you collect will have a direct impact on your game experience. Some of them will trigger new dialogue options, while others may awaken new powers in combat. Either way, it doesn’t seem like missing out on things will have any bearing on the player’s ability to complete the game. If the demo is anything to judge by, don’t be surprised if little to no emphasis is placed on an inventory system either; it’s all part of the plan to craft a more immersive experience.
2. The game actively adjusts to player choice
Choice-driven games have always excited the little story lover in me, but what Heartbound intends to do – if successful – could be revolutionary. On their website, the developers have lamented the common application of dialogue options to drive stories forward. Pick ‘Yes’ to kill a character and you get Ending A, pick ‘No’ and you get Ending B. While it certainly adds more stakes to the decision, it also has the opposite effect; players can always pick randomly, load their save files, and try the other option later. This isn’t something Heartbound wants to propagate.
While recent games have attempted to combat this issue, mainly by increasing the number of choices a player can make, almost none have created a game that actively changes as you play it. Games like Life Is Strange, for example, pride themselves on the “power of choice”, but ultimately fail when choices end up having no bearing on the final outcome of the story, or players are still funneled down a limited one or two endings.
On the other hand, whenever a player interacts with Heartbound – whether it’s talking to an NPC, interacting with an object, or forgetting to take out the trash – the game will remember your actions and change subtly for both minor and major interactions later. The most obvious outcome of this shows in Lore’s character, which slants towards good or evil depending on your choices in the game. How else it’ll manifest in the final version of the game, well, I’m waiting to find out!
3. Heartbound is built for a fandom to tear apart
You’ve already seen this happen to Undertale, Doki Doki Literature Club, and most famously, Five Nights At Freddy’s. If your game proves to be worthy, it will be dissected, discussed and theorised on the Internet. The thing about Heartbound is that the developers have publicly revealed their thoughts on the matter. That’s how we know, hidden deep within every single public announcement, character, and even game file, there are secrets left to be unearthed relating to the game’s lore (pun intended).
To the theorists of the Internet, this is an exciting way to learn about the game before it releases mid-2018. But it also makes an interesting case study on the ever-changing dynamics between game designers and its players. Heartbound already has a steadily growing fan base, so it’ll be interesting to observe how it grows and evolves once the game comes out for good.
— Pirate Software (@PirateSoftware) June 19, 2017
So, what’s the verdict?
Whether or not Heartbound will end up superseding Undertale in RPG history is still up for contention. It definitely holds a lot of potential, and the release of Undertale would have admittedly helped pave the stepping path to this game’s success. Personally, I’m just excited to encourage a new evolution of an old and tired genre. Am I the only one here getting tired of the same old, same old?
Give it a try yourself and let me know what you think! The demo is free and available for download on their website and Steam page. A lot of the existing mechanics I mentioned earlier are already up and ready for you to test out, so share your findings with us on Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter!