Little Town Hero (Switch) Review
Game Freak’s non-Pokemon projects have always been a little bit hit and miss. Games like Drill Dozer and Harmoknight are excellent little experiments in genre, while others like Giga Wrecker and Tembo the Badass Elephant have been boring, uninspiring entries into Game Freak’s library. Little Town Hero fits into the former category; it’s a JRPG that takes place entirely within the confines of one small village — a far cry from the classic continent-sized journeys of other JRPGs, and especially Pokemon. The result is a focused, much more tightly-directed experience, that plays with traditional RPG conventions and throws in a fascinating series of twists and turns, both in its gameplay mechanics and its story. It’s not without its issues, unfortunately, but we’ll get to that later.
As mentioned, the selling point of Little Town Hero is that it’s an RPG set in a small farming village — a little town, if you will. A safe refuge in a world ravaged by war and destruction, the nameless village is cut off from the world at large, surrounded by untraversable mountains and kept under the protection of the castle. Life in the village is peaceful and unsurprising; the people farm to sustain themselves, mine to provide coal for the castle, and generally just go about their days uninterrupted by the dangers of war. To put it simply, life is quaint, and for the people of the village, that’s enough.
Except for the main character. That’s you! Kind of. You play as the little town’s hero (I’m not sorry), a rowdy, ambitious kid who dreams of nothing more than to see the outside world. After finding a glistening red gemstone in the coal mines in which he works, the little town hero’s world is thrown into chaos, as ferocious monsters start to appear. Aided by an exiled castle knight, long-time friend and rival Matock, and a host of fellow villagers, the hero must discover the origin of these terrifying beasts, and return the town to a state of safety and quiet.
If that setup sounds a little trope-y to you, that’s because it is — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These kinds of tropes are relied upon by writers for good reason, they’re captivating and familiar. But while Little Town Hero relies on these tropes, it’s also not afraid to step out of the familiar and subvert conventional storytelling. The story as a whole starts out slow, focusing more on the rivalry between the hero and his rival Matock, and the upcoming gifting rite — a ritual in which young men give gifts to young women in the village with the intention of bonding them for life. As monster appearances start to become more common, the quaint concerns of village living fall to the wayside and the story opens up in a truly captivating way. There’s not too much more I can go into that without some heavy story spoilers, but for anyone struggling with the slowness of the first act, I can promise you the story goes places in its roughly 20 hour runtime. Not outside of the village, but places.
The combat is where Little Town Hero shines the most, with a deeply fascinating approach to turn-based combat. The fairest comparison would be to a card game, like Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering, but even then the comparison is a bit loose. You’re given a slate of abilities, called Ideas, that are a lot like cards. Ideas are split up into three groups, each with their own colour: red, yellow, and blue. Red Ideas are once-per-turn attacking cards which, once activated, can be used to attack an enemy’s idea, and assuming they don’t get destroyed, are greyed out for the rest of the turn. Yellow Ideas are reusable defending cards, they usually have some sort of effect when activated, and also have an attack and defense value like red Ideas. If a yellow Idea doesn’t get destroyed, you can keep using it that turn for as long as it survives. Blue Ideas are effect cards, that activate an ability such as destroying an enemy’s Idea, can’t attack or defend, and are destroyed upon activation.
Each turn, you’ll have access to a certain amount of power, and power can be used to flip or “play” Ideas. Flipping an Idea allows you to use it to attack, defend, or activate an ability, but you don’t have to use it right away. Depending on your needs, you may choose to hold onto a flipped Idea for a later turn. You’ll also have to hold onto an unused red Idea if you want to deal any damage to an enemy’s body, which can only happen once you’ve defeated all of your opponent’s Ideas in a single turn. If you don’t have a usable red Idea after defeating your enemy’s Ideas, you’ll earn a Break Point, which can be used in future turns to swap an Idea in your “hand” with an Idea in your “deck.”
In between each turn in a major battle, you’ll also get to move along on a board-game like arena. The maps usually span the length of the whole village, and each stop along it has the potential to offer a twist to your battle. Some of these require certain Ideas — for example, landing on a chicken space requires you to have the “Throw” Idea to activate it, which lets you throw a chicken at your enemy. Others will simply have other villagers, willing to lend a hand in combat. It’s yet another mechanic to keep track of, but choosing your spaces carefully or getting lucky on a dice roll can mean the difference between winning or losing.
The result is a surprisingly deep system of combat, in which you’re tasked with meticulously managing your power, available Ideas, and yours and your enemy’s health. The level of strategy that goes into each and every battle is astonishing, and each enemy forces you to alter and adapt your strategies on the fly to fit its fighting style. There are even a few puzzle battles, which replace your regular Ideas with a special set of Ideas, and you’re left to figure out how best to achieve certain goals. It might be intentionally putting yourself in danger, or it might be trying to swipe hair from a dog without getting bitten. And that’s the real beauty of Little Town Hero’s battle system: it’s as flexible as it is fun, and it forces the player to engage with the tasks they’re performing instead of mindlessly selecting the strongest attack on the roster.
Unfortunately, Little Town Hero is not without its issues. As mentioned, the early game is excruciatingly slow, filled with far too many identical battles against Matock, in what I can only assume was an attempt to highlight the characters’ rivalry, but ultimately only serves to drag out the gameplay for as long as possible. There are also a few disappointing performance issues, with the game stuttering without fail after each and every special attack. In addition, there are a few areas in the game that inexplicably tank the game’s frame rate in handheld mode — docked mode seems to handle these moments just fine, leading us to believe it may be a bug or just an optimisation oversight. These performance issues aren’t enough to ruin an otherwise fantastic experience, but their frequency does tend to get rather frustrating in long sittings.
Performance aside, however, there’s little to fault in the game’s presentation. It looks absolutely gorgeous, with its colourful, cel-shaded art style making characters pop against beautiful backdrops. I also noticed that characters and man-made structures like houses and bridges are outlined in black, while natural structures like trees, bushes, and hills don’t; it’s a subtle touch, but it adds depth to the art style in a way that major details can’t. The music, of course, is also fantastic, as expected of Undertale creator Toby Fox. Initially I was unimpressed with the score, but as time went on and I spent more time immersed in the world, it really started to vibe with me in a way I wasn’t expecting. For the most part, it doesn’t reach the heights that something like Megalovania and Spider Dance from Undertale do, but there are some late-game boss themes that are absolute bangers from start to finish.
On a more personal note, something that’s a little harder to quantify about Little Town Hero is the way it so beautifully captures the feeling of living in a small town. I grew up in a small, isolated community, and every single moment of Little Town Hero made me nostalgic for my childhood in a way that no other game has done before. It’s the little things, like the way villagers talk to each other, with the familiarity that comes with having very few others to socialise with. It’s the quaint village living, making the most of the small little life you’ve carved out for yourself. And it’s the child-like wonder of desperately wanting to experience the great big world outside of your tiny community, of desperately hoping that taking your first steps into the “real world” would solve all your problems. Very few games have ever tried to capture this feeling, and none of them have ever come quite as close as this to absolutely nailing it. It won’t be an experience that everyone can relate to, but those that do will undoubtedly find a little bit of magic in it.
Little Town Hero is a masterclass in experimenting with genre. It does have some technical issues on the surface, but underneath that is a beautiful, complex game packed with charm, depth, and most importantly, fun. It won’t be for everybody, but if you like card-based RPGs, you’re bound to have a great time.
+ Phenomenal art style and music
+ Deep, satisfying battle system
+ Beautifully captures small-town living
- Frequent technical hitches
- Very slow to start
- Longer battles can be frustrating