Illustration for article titled Review: Battleheart Legacy

Battleheart Legacy (iOS, Android) has a trait all too rare in RPGs: focus. The game eschews team building, exploration, grand moral choice, complex equipment systems and more in service of its engaging battle system. It ultimately excises too much, but what’s left is a worthy strategic exercise, if not a fully realized RPG.

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Character leveling and strategic player choice are streamlined, intelligent and expressive. At the beginning of the game you meet five class trainers who embody typical archetypes like paladin, ranger and wizard. Every level you gain earns you three skill points to allocate as you wish amongst core traits like strength or intelligence, which is sufficient to encourage experimentation while limited enough to make each choice meaningful. Want to be a swift ranger? You’ll need skill and dexterity. A stalwart warrior? Endurance and strength.

Since your training isn’t exclusive, the system lends itself to multiclassing and experimentation. I started as a warrior, and added some charisma to my build so that I could gain a holy Paladin attack. I met The Ox later in my journey, a barbarian trainer whose tutelage gave me access to colossal weapons and a dangerous, high-risk, high-reward fight style. The Ox was one of many additional class trainers you can meet in the game, and discovering each is a joy that spins out more possibilities.

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This system of multiclassing allows for great experimentation and strategic depth. As a warrior, I waded into battle with high defensive capabilities, using fearsome shouts to paralyze targets and well timed shield abilities to counter enemy power attacks. With every death, I reconsidered tactics. Which targets should I prioritize? Which abilities would be more useful in my limited loadout? And if I narrowly survived an encounter: should I press on in this dungeon, risking a death and a gold penalty, or should I return to the outside, recuperate, and approach again with different tactics?

While the skill system is expansive, you can only bring 8 to any encounter.
While the skill system is expansive, you can only bring 8 to any encounter.
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When it comes to combat, developer Mika Mobile intelligently cut the clunkier aspects of other RPGs. You don’t have a limit on your inventory, but a balanced economy incentivizes offloading your excess items anyway. You start every dungeon with 5 restorative potions, and you can’t buy more to brute force your way through challenges that should be overcome by better play. Encounters never feel rote, strategies never feel pre-prescribed, and skill allocation with each level becomes a thoughtful exercise in assessing your weakness and planning for the future. The game can be hard, but I never found myself needing to grind. Any improvements and edge in battle had to come from my own judgement and play.

While the dungeons themselves are varied in terms of structure and enemies, the quests supporting them are more bare. It doesn’t start out this way; in the beginning there are actually quite a few branching questlines. The local populace will point you at bandit-occupied caves, you’ll help a Mage cleanse a haunted tomb, and a smith will ask you to recover precious minerals to forge new weapons. One colorful mission has you investigate a drunk’s report of a witch living in the woods, which is further complicated by an altercation with town militia and a sentient book of magic and barbecue. While not exactly filled with depth or introspection, these worldly details provide enough substance for the player to generate narrative.

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But halfway through the game, these missions dwindle, removing context from your escapades. You’ll find yourself desecrating someone’s tomb before you pause and think, did someone send me here or am I just breaking things? I even wiped out a clan of “bandits,” before I realized that no one had indicated that these people were actually committing any crimes. In my defense, they were palette swaps of earlier enemies and I met their area’s recommended level, so they should have considered that before moving in.

This leads into the game’s other big design conflict: it’s world is empty. Aside from jokes and 4th wall breaks, the people of Haggerdom (a name I had to look up) just don’t have much to say. Some of them will teach you to play, some of them will point you in the direction of a dungeon, some will tell a joke, and that’s about it. They don’t have goals, and they don’t seem to have any investment in their world. They don’t even have permanence; my actions once inadvertently led to the slaughter of a clan of mages, but when I returned it was as if nothing had changed, likely because there were still active quest lines involving them. This created the odd scenario of the survivors living in the tower with the one who murdered their peers, who could be challenged for revenge at my convenience. Not that anyone acknowledged the new status quo.

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This is all at conflict with the game’s earlier storytelling, which introduced you to the world through branching dialogue. A lot of people will just gloss over dialogue choices and pick the funniest lines (and there are some pretty good ones in this game), but I tend to anguish over them. I know it’s fiction, but I have a hard time being consciously mean to people. So I tend to choose all of the standard, “good” dialogue. This was a viable choice in the early game, but the notion that you can determine a narrative falls apart as questlines and dialogue evaporate. And if the people of Haggerdom don’t have any goals, attachments, or investment in their world, if you are the only person that exists in the narrative, then all your actions takes place in a vacuum. The battle system is still fun and engaging, but the narrative sets an early expectation it ultimately can’t deliver on.

You should play Battleheart Legacy because it’s systems are wonderfully expressive, and mechanically it’s a step forward for action RPGs. You should play it because there’s value in it, in the way it invites you to plan, reconsider strategy, and better yourself through thoughtful play. But it’s lush combat mechanics are let down by an empty world. The only story it has to tell is the pursuit of power, and it tells that story without criticism or self awareness. You’ll be better for your time spent in Haggerdom, but it won’t be better for your intervention. It can’t be.

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