A complex battle system bolstered by amazing visuals and audio make for a clever RPG twist from Game Freak.
Since its unveiling over a year ago, a lot about the new Game Freak-developed Little Town Hero has been shrouded in mystery. That might be because it’s a tough game to wrap your mind around, and the final result is very likely not what you would expect at a glance. However, the complexities and intricacies of the collectible card game and tabletop-esque battle system are layered with an immensely satisfying presentation and a charming, cute narrative. All this makes for a peculiar but excellent twist on the RPG genre on Switch that feels like a spiritual follow-up to the director’s previous game, Pocket Card Jockey.
Little Town Hero kicks off with your tiny hero, named Axe by default, striving to see what’s outside of his insular village. His town has been cut off from the greater world, supposedly because of attacking monsters and chaos. The monsters start to show up inside the town and after discovering a red gem, the player character gains the power to ably fight the monsters when they appear. This begins a multi-chapter linear story that bounces between exploring the visually pleasing but overall concise overworld and doing battle in a borderline confounding manner.
That battle system is the core of the experience, and while there are ample, well-executed tutorials, it’s still a lot to take in. Axe has a deck of “Izzits” (or ideas) that are dispensed into his hand five at a time. At the start of each turn, he has a certain number of points that can be used to turn the Izzits into Dazzits (or actions). This number generally starts at three action points, but increases all the way up to six as the battle goes on. Those Dazzits are then used to combat the enemy’s own hand. Damage can usually only be done to the foe when you defeat their entire hand and have an extra attack left over, which can be used as a final action to dish out the pain. Once your enemy’s hand is exhausted, the turn ends, and then you move around the map, which loosely resembles a game board. Then the next turn starts and you rinse and repeat.
Those are the basics, but so much more is jam-packed into these battles. Dazzits have different abilities and buffs that can be combined to do crazy things. Different spaces on the map can trigger special attacks or boosts, using either in-game objects (like a cannon or a chicken) or ideas from townspeople. Oftentimes the bosses themselves have puzzle-like ideas tied to them, so in addition to doing damage, you also need to figure out the best way to deal with their unique hook.
On the whole, the battle system is engrossing and rife with strategy, reminding me a lot of tense CCGs and tabletop matches. It does have its issues, primarily stemming from how long the battles can take. A typical boss battle could take you more than a half-hour with ease—and that’s if things break right and you beat the baddie on the first try. If that was the only setback, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but the early goings of these fights are usually spent playing highly defensively. Going back to the idea of the action points that can turn your character’s thoughts into actions, you start with just three points. Your basic actions require anywhere from one to three of these points, with some bonus ones requiring up to six, and for the most part, you can only use each action once. Some enemies come right out the gate with fast and furious attacks and it’s not rare to just be doomed to take a thrashing at the start of a fight, especially if your hand is littered with three-point Izzits. While it is easy to restart, this can get frustrating and repetitive. On the other hand, when this battle system clicks, it’s electric, often filled with “aha” moments that arise when you plot a strategy and decimate an enemy or relish in a last-minute victory earned through a clever final move. There is a degree of luck here, but generally in the same way that luck is integral to a card game. Behind-the-scenes dice rolls can weigh heavily into the outcome, but part of the challenge involves dealing with those more random elements.
The rest of Little Town Hero mostly functions as connective tissue between battles. The town features a handful of key locations, such as a main street, a mine, and a farm that Axe walks through to seek out the next story beat or side quest. Hand-holding definitely happens here, but especially as the game progresses, you have a lot more choice in the extraneous aspects you seek out. The main story is straightforward, but some of the side quests require greater digging and offer steep difficulty.
Some side quests are better than others. I vastly preferred ones that deepened the lore of the town as opposed to the ones that were more of the fetch quest variety. They do a good job of helping soften some of the difficulty as completing side quests can earn you more Eureka Points, which are how Axe’s powers are improved. There is no traditional level-up system here; the abilities you start with are the ones you end with. However, you earn Eureka Points that can be used in a skill tree to boost your abilities, whether it’s increasing their attack or adding an additional buff like temporary invincibility. Those side quests can also lead to getting more townspeople to assist you during battle or increasing their effectiveness. This all makes for a holistic battle system that truly does remind me of what the game’s director Masao Taya did with the essential 3DS game Pocket Card Jockey. The latter fused solitaire and horse racing in a way that was true to both concepts, while Little Town Hero ties your battle performance intrinsically to your town and its population’s success and happiness.
Through all of this, Axe and his friends try to figure out what’s going on with the monsters in their town, but while that can get serious, a lot of time is spent on goofier escapades, like shearing sheep, asking out girls, and pulling the hairs off of dogs for medicinal purposes. The writing is quirky, with a memorable assortment of townspeople that get their time to shine, whether it’s in a nice story beat or their assistance in battle with you. The final act does have winsome twists, but my favorite element of the narrative just involves the slow accumulation of helpers that aid you in battle, making the concept of Axe being the titular little town hero heartwarming and true.
Heartwarming is also a word that comes to mind in terms of the presentation. Visually, this game is gorgeous, with stylized characters, grand landscapes, and a cel-shaded look. Minor graphical hitches occurred consistently during my playtime, usually when triggering events, but none of it really negatively affected gameplay. Pairing with the visuals wonderfully is the delightfully enchanting soundtrack from Undertale’s Toby Fox and recent Pokemon composer Hitomi Sato. The music has a pastoral vibe to it during moments around town and then morphs into a variety of memorable battle melodies for combat. Even when the battles got tough and maddening, the stellar visual and aural presentation helped make the overall experience a positive one.
Little Town Hero is a decidedly peculiar game, with an involved battle system occasionally interrupted by a mostly adorable story. The complexities of combat can get exhausting, especially during some hard, slow-paced bouts, but the spectacular style and vibe found in the visuals and the Toby Fox-led soundtrack help to paper over some of the maladies. This Game Freak game might not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for an adorable aesthetic amped up by hardcore CCG-inspired combat, Little Town Hero might be made specifically for you, because it seems like it’s that way for me.