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REVIEW / Not A Hero (PC)

 

Assassin-cum-political strategist Steve has a simple job: get a man from the future who is permanently affixed in a purple bunny suit (aptly named Bunnylord) elected mayor. Or Prime Minister. Or Global Megalord. To accomplish this, Steve will do the usual things associated with successful political campaigns including hanging up posters, denouncing drugs, and slaughtering hordes of criminals in apartment building after apartment building.

 

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Enter Not A Hero, Roll7’s hyper-caffeinated 2D shoot em up featuring, what else, retro style pixel art, a chiptune soundtrack, and heaps and heaps of violence. The game features about 20 levels, each a day in the campaign, and progressing usually means killing everyone or collecting enough of a certain item. The game does offer three optional objectives in each level to jack up the replay value. Accomplishing these side quests will further Bunnylord’s approval rating and unlock new and sometimes better characters. These include things like finding all the robots in a level, finishing under a certain time limit, or not getting hit X amount of times.

A total of nine killers can be unlocked, each one with different attributes: Steve is average, Clive is slow but has a powerful shotgun, Samantha can shoot while running, Kimmy has a katana, etc. Most of them don’t feel terribly different from each other aside from weapon choice and movement speed, and the fact that there are so many different characters feels like an attempt by Roll7 to pad the game length (I completed it in a mere three hours, spending another three messing around and going after challenges). Some of the characters probably could’ve been combined for a total of four or five truly unique and interesting experiences. Throughout levels you can also collect power-ups to increase damage and special items like grenades or molotovs to toss at oncoming foes.

 

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Not A Hero is at its core a 2D cover-based shooter, albeit on crack. The optimal mode of travel is by repeatedly pushing the “roll to cover” button and assassins don’t run so much as they dart around levels. Rolling into an enemy usually renders them helpless and the speed with which you can traverse stages works nicely to keep the action (and blood) flowing. It takes a while to learn whether rolling into an enemy will knock them or you over, but once you get the hang of it you’ll soon be knee deep in dead drug dealers. Felled enemies explode into bloody bits when killed and the inclusion of brutal touches such as critical hits that happen if an enemy is too close (their heads explode) and the sudden silence after an execution make campaigning for Bunnylord a fun experience.

It’s a shame that the two most fun characters, who both have a rechargeable melee attack in lieu of special items, unlock so late in the experience. Ronald Justice is the funniest character in the game, a pastiche of golden age hokey comic book heroes. As played against the game’s ultraviolent atmosphere, this gave me the odd chuckle here and there. Having a hammer or katana to eviscerate enemies and knock them out of windows is well worth the tradeoff of losing access to grenades and makes me wish that melee had been more meaningfully integrated into the game’s design or at least available from the outset.

 

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Not A Hero is too easy for most of the game, and then the difficulty doesn’t spike so much as rocket straight upward once one-hit kill ninjas are introduced for the last few levels of the game. Up to this point, as long as you’re careful and take it slow (you can’t for many of the side missions), much of the game can be breezed through. You can pretty much just roll around and execute enemies with near impunity as health recharges a little too liberally and stages are short enough so that dying is only a minor obstacle.

Probably my favorite moment included finding one of the three secret missions with Ronald Justice. You start out on the ground floor and are given three buildings to clear. Hopping from one building to the next, smashing windows and people in a kind of hyperactive frenzy was the most fun I had in Not A Hero. Similar moments where the level design gives you a chance to really feel like a superassassin are the best moments in the game.

 

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But not all moments are this good. The last few levels will probably have you shouting obscenities as an ninja stabs you while reloading, sending you all the way back to the stage’s onset. However, it’s the writing that is Not A Hero’s weakest element, little more than a fusillade of absurdities haphazardly flung at the player. In fact, beating levels with different characters will actually shuffle the nouns and adjectives Bunnylord bestows upon you at your debriefing, adlib style. The game’s missions lurch the narrative forward in a desultory fashion, with only the flimsiest of excuses to send you into harm’s way.

Not A Hero might know how silly it is, but the fact remains that there is little reason to get invested with any of the nonsense thrown at you and little chance that the game’s neverending string of absurdities will elicit more than the occasional chuckle. Combine this with the hand-rubbing-a-balloon voice Bunnylord has and skipping through the inane cutscenes to get back to the action becomes your best bet. Mission objectives are literally interchangeable: switching from one level and back will change the text from something like steal two briefcases to something like steal two clown heads. At the beginning of one level, Ronald Justice announces that he would recover the Macguffins in the name of justice. We get it, Not A Hero. The writing might be stupid on purpose, but it’s still stupid. Likable characters, some kind of memorability to the events, and some wit or plot would’ve gone a long way in making Not A Hero easier to recommend. You could put a bunch of goofy nouns and adjectives on a board, throw darts at them, and end up with something that comes out of Bunnylord’s mouth. I’m fairly certain a similar process was used, as dialogue changes depending on which assassin beat the level and a few phrases end up grammatically incorrect and flat out awkward.

 

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Graphically the game is pleasant, even if employing a retro style aesthetic is the most overused indie game cliché out there. The chiptune songs that comprise the soundtrack and that bubbly song that plays whenever Bunnylord is on screen are forgettable, which is a shame as some kickass music would’ve helped to get the blood pumping while the bloodletting happened. Voice acting also leaves a lot to be desired, as the protagonists sound like they simply got two or three of the programmers to mumble the voices (Ronald Justice excluded. Him I like.) The gunshots, explosions and window breaking all sound decent enough but unfortunately the uninspired chatter ends up dominating the audio.

Not A Hero is a decent action game with some fantastic moments of building clearing mayhem. It’s too easy, then too hard. It’s too short and too stupid to really recommend. The mechanics simply aren’t refined enough to set Not A Hero more than a little above the pack. The writing is lazy, witless, and occasionally irritating and in another medium that would prove a major detractor, while here it’s a speedbump. But action junkies looking for a quick fix and having sampled all the superior titles on the market might get a few hours of enjoyment from this. Just be sure to unlock Ronald Justice as soon as possible.

 

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