There’s an indie game trope forming.
Every year, a fresh variation on the “roguelite” genre comes out of left-field and becomes a mainstream hit. It was Dead Cells in 2017, followed by Into the Breach and Slay the Spire in 2018 and 2019. That trend reached its peak in 2020 when Hades exited early access and captivated gamers of all stripes with impeccable style and crave-worthy gameplay.
Those looking for this year’s Hades don’t need to look far. 2021's most addictive indie smash hit is already here. Loop Hero is the new “it” game.
Like the games mentioned above, this latest viral indie offers a fresh twist on a tried-and-true formula. Loop Hero draws inspiration from a smattering of genres to create a unique experience that’s difficult to put down, mainly by using a time loop concept like Groundhog Day or The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Despite being a small, relatively obscure title that emerged from relative obscurity, the game garnered half a million sales in one week … and for good reason.
The secret to Loop Hero’s success is its contradictions. It’s both an easy-to-learn game players can zone out to, yet it’s deeply complex and full of secrets. The fact that it’s so effective on both ends of that spectrum makes it an instant staple of its genre.
Round and round
Like any roguelite — a catch-all term for games with randomly generated levels without the eye-watering difficulty of the roguelike genre — Loop Hero is built on repetition.
Thankfully, there’s a smart narrative reason for that here. A brave hero sets out to hunt down an evil Lich who has trapped the world in a chaotic time loop. Players must complete a successful “run” where they start with nothing and slowly acquire enough power to stand a chance in battle against the Lich. Die and they’ll start from square one with no items.
The clever twist is that each expedition takes place on a randomly generated looping path. The hero automatically walks around in circles fighting enemies. Players don’t press any buttons to move or attack; It all just plays out. That’s an idea that’s usually reserved for idle games like Cookie Clicker, a niche genre that requires very little active time from players.
But Loop Hero isn’t a hands-off experience. Instead of controlling the action, players manage their hero and the world around them. Defeating enemies rewards players with gear that features different stats from magic damage to health regeneration, and the quality increases over time. The idea is to constantly swap out gear between fights to create an optimized build on the fly. There’s a surprising amount of strategy to toy around with, which turns the game into a worthwhile time sink.
That balance between passive and active gameplay makes the game special. The idle elements give it a laid-back vibe. It’s almost hypnotic to watch the hero walk around in circles with their stubby little pixel legs. Meanwhile, the RPG mechanics give players micro-decisions every few seconds. It’s never quite demanding, but it requires quick thinking and gratifyingly rewards players who can build a flexible plan of attack.
Tile by Tile
The real star of the show is the game’s deceptively complex tile system. Before each run, players put together a small deck of cards that they can bring into battle. These can be placed around and on the path and each has a different effect on the gameplay. Some grant resources, while others spawn more powerful enemies for players to defeat on each loop. Think of it like an anti-tower defense game where placing buildings makes things more difficult.
Like the gear-building component, every small decision further evolves a run, giving players full control over how it plays out. For example, the end boss won’t spawn until a certain number of tiles have been placed. The player ultimately gets to decide when to take on the boss, giving them the flexibility to really craft a build they’re confident will be successful.
The system is much deeper than it seems at first glance. Placing certain tiles next to one another produces secret effects that are never explained. Place a Meadow next to a Rock and it’ll bloom, granting the hero more HP regeneration each loop. Place 10 Rocks on the map and a Goblin Camp will spawn. With so many surprises, part of the fun becomes just trying out different placements and seeing what happens next.
The combos create an unspoken language that’s difficult to master, but always satisfying to uncover. It creates a water cooler effect where it just begs fans to compare notes with one another.
“You’ve got to see what happens when you place a Battlefield next to a River.”
“Oh yeah? Put nine mountains together in a three by three grid and watch what happens.”
That’s part of the joy that turned Hades into such a social experience. There’s such a joy to talking to another player and describing a genius boon build you managed to cobble together. Loop Hero has that same effect thanks to all its little nuances. It’ll send players running to their nearest Discord server to share their findings.
The final piece of the puzzle is the game’s base management system. Every run, players collect resources used to build out a camp. Each building grants additional perks, unlocks new character classes, or adds more tiles to the deck. That idea is once again reminiscent of Hades, which solved the “die and lose everything” frustration of the genre by adding a persistent progression system.
Loop Hero’s base management system has the same effect, giving players a good reason to do each run, even if they don’t plan on fully completing it. The only issue is that it can take a fairly long time to get enough materials to build something. Exiting a run early only gives players 60 percent of the resources they collected. Die and they’ll only take 30 percent back to base.
By the time I hit the 10-hour mark (in a weekend haze), I was struggling to get anything built. Resource-focused runs started feeling long and weren’t netting me enough materials to progress. I’d spend hours farming just to get one upgrade. The game begins to feel like a chore when it's not handing out new discoveries, so that roadblock can really stall the experience out.
Like the game’s constantly evolving runs, Loop Hero itself is ever-changing. Its developers are already responding to fan feedback and planning on rolling out some much-needed quality of life changes, like the ability to save. While the current version could use some tweaking, there’s no doubt that it’s only going to improve from here.
Even with its pacing issues, Loop Hero begs to be played over and over again. There’s always something to work towards and an undeniable mystique to its unspoken complexity. If nothing else, it’s the perfect game to throw on while listening to a long podcast. The hours just melt away. 8/10.
Loop Hero is now available to play on PC and Mac.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)