Little Town Hero is focussed. Every aspect of it guides you towards the next story beat; the next battle; the next bit of fun. That is largely a great thing. Moreover, the game enthuses you with its well-wrought and unique battle system, which it weds to an interesting storyline: within the trappings of 90s shounen protagonist sentiments, the game arrives at a moving meditation on the absence in one’s heart ( thematically and literally when battling), while finding time for rewarding and occasionally subversive character exploration. Game Freak’s latest takes more inspiration in styling, themes, and whimsy from Dragon Quest than it does from its own Pokémon franchise. It’s basically a Dragon Quest journey entirely set in the starting village Whealbrook from Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, by way of a deep battle system evoking Yugioh! or Magic: The Gathering on a board game map. The soundtrack composed by Toby Fox and Hitomi Sato is wonderful. Essentially, that’s the review. The game is very fun and very addictive, and if any of the above sounds appealing, go ahead and buy Little Town Hero. It’s not perfect, but it’s Game Freak’s best game in years.
I warn you now, because I was enraptured playing, and so while I tried to be as focussed as the game, this review is comprehensive. It demanded a nuanced dissection. The Gear Project team at Game Freak has clearly put a lot of effort into distinguishing the game from Pokémon, while still carrying over the knowledge that the series has taught. In some respects, Little Town Hero is a response to Pokémon: the very talkative protagonist (replete with internal monologue) stuck in his village is the diametric opposite of a silent player avatar travelling across the land, searching far and wide. For another monster-battling JRPG from the House of ‘Mon, Little Town Hero carves its own distinct path, and that’s worth analysing in detail.
This review contains minor spoilers for the opening chapters of Little Town Hero. Most of the information is in the promotional material, but if you want to go in blind, this is your one warning.
Videogames are unlike other fictional mediums in that they cannot be passively consumed. Players have to actively engage, and the immediacy of that involvement produces a direct empathy. As video games have evolved as a storytelling medium, the most potent games have tended to harmonise their gameplay mechanics with their thematic intent. Game Freak itself fell foul of this with Pokémon: the franchise spent the better part of twenty years across both the games and anime trying to reconcile the fundamental incongruity of battling pet monsters and breeding perfect specimens with messages of peace and acceptance, eventually landing on the notion of battle-worn equality in partnership between owner and monster. There is no such conflict in Little Town Hero; theme and gameplay are well synchronised to achieve a genuinely heart-wrenching result. However, both aspects are important, and readers might be only interested in one or the other, so this review is split into two parts: the first focusses on the battle system and gameplay, while the second is dedicated to themes, plotting, characters, music, and animation.
Pokémon has thrived on its easily comprehensible turn-based, rock-paper-scissors monster-battling, and the core gameplay loop in Little Town Hero is just as approachable; however, it provides a far more overtly cerebral challenge where strategy is essential. Functioning somewhat similarly to a cross between a trading card game (to repeat, it draws comparisons to Yugioh!, Magic: The Gathering, or Hearthstone more than the Pokémon Trading Card Game) and a board-game (here it might have taken a look at the short-lived Pokémon Trading Figure Game), Little Town Hero’s battle system is fun, innovative, and should satiate anyone looking for a fresh RPG experience. While the depth of Pokémon’s combat is only necessary for those who seek it out—nobody needs to pay attention to Effort Values as long their Pokémon are highly levelled enough to brute force through the campaign—Little Town Hero places the complexities of the battle mechanics front and centre. There is no levelling up to earn extra health or any way of gaining breathing room by superseding your opponent. Akin to Monster Hunter, it’s just you, your tools, and your adeptness.
The game eases the player in, layering mechanics over the course of three initial chapters. Players will progressively become comfortable with the basics and new functions act as invigorating possibilities rather than an intimidating rulebook. As tutorials go, it gives ample practice before events really ramp up and you’ll need a full command of the gameplay. Given the newness, however, it’s worth giving a description of the total suite of actions available. The combat is quite deep and varied, so even attempts at conciseness produces length (please forgive the jargon):
At the beginning of the battle, the player has five potential “Ideas” randomly drawn from a pool of concepts your character knows. These hypothetical Ideas, known as “Izzits”, have to be converted into usable battle actions through Power gems, a limited resource quota akin to the mana or magic points seen in other RPGs that periodically increases. Each Izzit has its own Power gem cost, becoming a “Dazzit” if activated. Each Dazzit has an Attack and Defence value, and basic combat involves the player and opponent’s Dazzits “colliding” against each other. The Defence of each Dazzit is reduced by direct subtraction of the opposing Attack value. Once the Defence value drops to zero, that Dazzit “breaks” and disappears as an available option. The essence of combat is to break all the opponent’s Dazzits—an awkwardly phrased “All Break”—to have a shot at attacking an opponent’s Heart health directly in a supplementary Chance Turn. Destroy all of the opponent’s Hearts, and you win the battle. Simple really. Anyone remotely familiar with trading card games could slip into the rhythm easily.
The trickiness comes from the different properties of Dazzits: Red Dazzits are powerful attacking moves that can be used once and damage Hearts directly during the Chance Turn phase. Yellow Dazzits have higher Defence points and can be used until they break. Finally, Blue Dazzits act in a similar way to spells or trap cards in trading card games and possess a variety of effects.
You have to be judicious. Simply accruing moves until you become an undefeatable god is impossible, because everyone’s Izzits are replenished from their Idea pool at the beginning of the subsequent turn. Sometimes you will be sacrificing weaker Dazzits in a war of attrition, praying for a better replacement. In other turns, inspired thinking allows you to pummel the enemy in one fell swoop, gaining you enough “Battle Points” to Revive all of your Ideas (essentially returning your discarded cards to your deck) and prepare for another assault. You might resort to the quicker but more painful route of letting one of your precious Hearts die. And sometimes you will just fail. The game is prepared for you to lose; it has a “Give Up” option to let you restart encounters, which you might end up using because you chose to spend your activating Power gems on the wrong manoeuvre two turns ago, and now you’re literally and figuratively out of ideas.
On top of all this, major enemies are further protected by Guts, which you have to slowly diminish before even stabbing a Heart. Eventually, you’ll be able to mix Dazzits together. There’s a skill tree to improve the base potential of your Dazzits. Then you’re constantly moving around the battlefield as if it were a board game. If you’re lucky enough to move the right amount, some spaces have townsfolk who can support you with various enhancements. Other spaces have cannons and explosive barrels strewn about to attack the enemy. These all add an interesting further dimension to the strategy. Memorably, I managed to fell a distorted giant monster sheep with a well-timed attack by a chicken. It was as awesome as it was absurd.
This may seem complicated and intimidating, but the game never overwhelms the player, only introducing one major mechanic per chapter. There is ample practice and very soon you’ll know the steps to this dance of pure luck, strategic enhancement and decision-making, and short-term loss for long-term gain. From there, it’s about improving your mastery.
The result is a tantalising battle system that will emotionally reward you with real empowerment for your cleverness, while just as quickly punishing you for foolhardiness. Most of all, it feels like an accomplishment when your ingenuity pays off and the oversized monsters collapse with a satisfying thud.
The battles are not perfectly balanced, however. After several hours of playing, not being able to undo a selection when you click on it before committing to the battle move can get a bit frustrating (it would be like never being able to exit Bag because you accidentally pressed it on the way to Fight or Run in Pokémon). I can understand why there is none: some of the minor missions have a Redo function and it changes the flow of the gameplay entirely, but perhaps a Redo function that used hard-earnt Battle Points to restart the turn would be a decent compromise, because the game is already not particularly forgiving of mistakes. Rather, you need your wits about you as you might whilst playing Fire Emblem. As with that series, this occasional frustration is compounded by the genuine randomness of the Idea draw. There will be the odd turn where you have absolutely nothing available and no way forward. From there, you can only Give Up and start over.
The bigger issue is the pacing of the battles. I don’t claim to be the Sun Tzu, but I thought the early phases of boss battles were sometimes artificially protracted, at least until you can properly start upgrading the power of your Dazzits a few chapters in. While you can get away with handily beating lesser opponents in the space of a few turns, once enemy bosses show up with their protective Guts and Dazzits that have special effects, a pattern starts to emerge that might irritate people. You always start off with three Power gems and it takes three full turns to gain a fourth. Owing to the randomness of the Ideas you earn in your hand, and with the modal Power cost of conversion being two Power gems, the first stage of the battle is often focussed on scrimping and eking out your Dazzits, hoping that your enemy’s infinitely more complex special effects don’t obliterate what small strategic advantage you’ve built up. I think the game hopes you’ll be able to get an All Break quickly and build up Battle Points to be able to switch in preferred Ideas to compensate, but this regularly won’t be possible. Resorting to sacrificing your own health as a way to revive your Idea pool and do a bit of damage is a good idea as a risk-reward mechanic. It maybe shouldn’t be imposed upon you because you literally have no other options.
Once you finally have the luxury of four Power gems however, you can start to utilise the entire array of battle mechanics, and your intelligence reaps rewards. It’s still not easy; having to remove the Guts to stab the Heart each time means that the momentum of battles shifts continually. Your enemies will cause your plans to go awry, but it feels fairer; your loss is more because of your mistakes than because the game cheated you of opportunities. I’m sure there will be speed-runners and better tacticians who will challenge themselves to defeat every boss with three Power gems. To me, having four Power gems is where the fun really began, and I often wished it had started there.
The game does try to alleviate your early suffering once the skill tree kicks in, handing out “Eureka” points for upgrading Dazzits when you win. This doesn’t mitigate the difficulty—the enemies’ effects become even more powerful, breaking your Dazzits, sapping your Power Gems, or directly damaging your Guts and Hearts—but the upgrades allow you to do more in those early turns. Still, the sheer power increase of the bosses makes the gains often feel minimal, and that whatever you achieve with three Power Gems is lucky. There is a brief period in chapter five and six where everything clicks and you can dispatch enemies very efficiently, but for me, most encounters kept me in a holding pattern for quite a while, waiting for my chance to strike.
However, that early struggle does illustrate how deadly these huge monsters can be, and especially in later fights, relying on the townsfolk support is essential, furthering the theme of cooperation. Whatever qualms I have, it does not dilute an overall engaging and ever-shifting system, or the sweetness of victory.
In a time where many fans were wishing Game Freak made Pokémon games harder, Little Town Hero’s battle system is a concentrated gauntlet run where the balance of power swings back and forth. With the game streamlined so that these encounters are at the fore, Game Freak has created a battle system that is both gruelling and exciting, where each momentary win whittling down enemy health is a rush of endorphins and adrenalin. At other times, you will absolutely find yourself making the calculation of which Dazzits can be destroyed with minimal wreckage. Little Town Hero’s fights are very often the epitome of losing the battle to win the war. The overall result is an immensely satisfying battle system where every fight is epic. On the strength of that, the game should absolutely be played.
In comparison to the showdowns at the end of each chapter, the way they are spaced out with short fetch quests or tracking down people for minor information feels superfluous. Not that padding is unique to Little Town Hero, and respite between big dramatic moments is at least as old as Shakespeare. Nor are any of the quests as annoyingly pointless as Flayn’s fishing trial in Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Seriously, what a total waste of time. I spent 111 hours with that game, needlessly grinding through random encounters, and I still rue the single hour I lost to catching a Teutates Herring for her). Yet with Little Town Hero’s marketing positioning the game as having “[c]ompact story progression designed with the busy gamer in mind,” the brevity of these quests push them almost into greater tedium because nothing has been achieved.
To its credit, Little Town Hero does eventually try to incorporate the battle system into these minor missions more often, turning them into puzzles where you have to use the correct sequence of Dazzits functions as brain teasers. I wish all of the quests had been like that. There are also a few optional boss fights throughout the game that are demanding. Furthermore, the interstitial gameplay is always paired with revealing character moments or lore, as are the “sub-quests”, so they aren’t a total waste of time. However, Little Town Hero could potentially make itself even more compact by stripping away the most rote gameplay, just preserving the dialogue moments and puzzles, and be all the more stronger for it. This is a minor quibble, because by the end of the game you will only recall how you brought down a giant skeletal centipede on the fifteenth turn by playing dangerously with your remaining Hearts.
You’ll almost want to replay such fights, if only to hear that haunting battle theme that mixes guitar riffs, funeral organs, and the odd faint slasher movie scream. The good news is, you can replay them! Doubling as a tool for improving your skills and testing your newly acquired Dazzits from the skill tree, you can replay boss fights almost at leisure.
I say almost, because I do have one last gripe with Little Town Hero’s gameplay: the game is so eager to shunt you along to the next story beat or battle that it regularly restricts where you can explore. Yes, the village is obviously little and that benefits the aforementioned fetch quests, but it’s claustrophobic with the game pointedly preventing you from straying from the predetermined path. It comes up with in-universe reasons—the guards are blocking the way, or you can’t cross the bridge because there is railroad maintenance—but sometimes it’s just your character’s internal monologue holding you back. In some ways, this palpably conveys the constraints your character lives under, and as the threats increase, you yourself will want to rush to the next story beat. Yet when you can see sweeping vistas in the distance, or massive structures over yonder, you want to be able to ignore your very loud conscience insisting that you should go and help at the farm, and run off with wild abandon. The quest list is very clearly and appealingly labelled in your itinerary. Sometimes there’s a reminder in the bottom corner of the screen. The locations are labelled. The important characters are distinctive and have speech bubbles above them. That should be enough. Let me roam a bit please and trust that I can find my own way back when I’m bored of running around aimlessly. As most children do.
Thus, on the gameplay front, Little Town Hero has a rock-solid foundation and structure covered in a thin layer of detritus. That foundation is so prominent and so elegantly crafted, however, that it could be Petra in Jordan. People always think about visiting Petra. And if you’re still playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses still, recruit Petra and make her an axe-wielding Wyvern Lord. Storm the maps quickly and then buy Little Town Hero.
Little Town Hero is a fable set in a fairy tale world, with giant monsters, an ever-benevolent king, and a protagonist who comes across a source of untold power. Like a fable, the game is succinct and has a strong message about the importance of cooperation. As a fairy tale, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is a “chosen one”, and the player should be able to peg the villains from the beginning. What really makes Little Town Hero effective, then, is how thematically potent it is, touching on a variety of ideas over the course of nine chapters: from immigration and isolationism to economic anxiety and technological arms races. It even has time to allude to the importance of discerning truth in information rather than just letting misinformation become part of the historical record, and discuss the causes of war. Although the game follows a hero’s journey structure, it services most characters with backstories that draw empathy even as it centres on a very personal journey of reconciliation with the past and loss. In that sense, it’s a little bit like Yoshihiro Togashi’s Yu Yu Hakusho or Hunter x Hunter, both of which follow the framework of shounen battle series, but succeed in some moving character development beyond archetypes.
First, however, we should probably discuss the setting of Little Town Hero. The unnamed village draws design inspiration from Nordic and Danelaw history—the shields adorning the walls, design patterns, and the stone structures are reminiscent of archaeological sites of Jorvik, now York, in Yorkshire, England. However, the game’s town reflects industrial age Yorkshire, where children and teenagers work in coal mines. Even more pertinently, it exposes the modern anxieties of living in a place where the industries are drying up.
Here I must reveal my own biases that may have predisposed me towards finding depth in Little Town Hero: the setting reminds me of my dad’s hometown in Yorkshire. Standing in the game and looking across over green pastures and hills towards the smoke billowing out of towers in the distance, I remembered the power plant stations near lush fields I’ve driven and walked by on countless occasions.
Like my dad’s home was for a while, the town of Little Town Hero is in decline. The town physically hasn’t changed much in decades. The coal mines don’t provide the livelihood they once did and certainly can’t sustain the local economy much longer. The cemetery has more gravestones than the village has people to tend them. There are few children and many ageing adults. And the children who live there dream of travelling elsewhere. But they can’t. Nobody ever leaves the town, for their protection against other countries, by decree of the king living in the adjacent opulent palace. The castle gates bar anyone from exiting, and so this little rural town sits isolated by unreachable cliffs.
Against this backdrop, the protagonist Axe, his friend Nelz, and his rival Matock are restless. We meet them on one of their multiple attempts trying to sneak into the castle to enlist as soldiers, so that they can travel while defending their tiny kingdom from potential invaders. Unsuccessful, they soon blackmail Angard—an old soldier the three catch drinking in the tavern while on duty—into training them. Just as Axe and company believe they are taking their first steps towards supposed freedom, a massive ogre monster attacks, and the boys quickly realise that their hometown needs just as much defending.
Axe aspires to be like his dad, Cole, who left to adventure in the outside world just after he was born, never to return (Game Freak really likes the absent father trope). That abandonment is the first inkling of themes that pervade the entire story: reconciling with loss and absence, and moreover, the desire for wholeness and completion. It informs Axe’s entire character. With that context, his attitude becomes much more understandable, because Axe is unrelentingly snippy towards nearly everyone in his life. The loss of his father is the root of his frustrations with his mother, Ember, who insists on remembering her husband fondly: in one raw confrontation, their emotional impasse is laid bare, with Axe exclaiming, “I don’t even remember his face!” Meanwhile, he never fails to be a prick towards his rival Matock whenever the opportunity arises, and privately relishes the many, many opportunities the game gives to beat him up, because he “could use the exercise”. But Matock often quotes his father’s wisdom, tracing Axe’s mild resentment beyond general annoyance of his opponent’s persistence.
Axe is not alone, however, in having emotional wounds caused by loss and absence. In a quiet early conversation, his childhood friend Pasmina says, “Sheep are my family”, because one of the few memories she has of her deceased mother was her sheep-rearing skills. Meanwhile, the restaurant owners, Currie and Korrie, describe having to seek asylum from war in the town; they lament that their home country no longer exists. Even the villains’ motivations are grounded in the idea of incompleteness. The real highlight of the script is that it transitions smoothly between whimsical levity and conveying the gravity of these problems with sparse language and subtext.
Axe’s single-mindedness about his pain therefore begins a process of gaining empathy towards others. There are small interactions along the way to illustrate this: Axe has to apologise when his typical brashness hurts the feelings of an ally, or his conversation with a foreigner forces him to adapt to their manner of speaking. Only by working together with his friends does Axe unravel the mysteries of the village and the monsters. As mentioned earlier, the gameplay forces you to rely on the townsfolk’s assistance during battle, and when their special abilities save you in a pinch, the affection the player feels for these rural inhabitants strengthens. Therein lies the notion that compassion leads to greater cooperation and that humanity is all the better for it; the town certainly is. This idea plays out on a more macro scale in the background with international war causing division, but for Axe, it’s a quest towards feeling whole, not necessarily by replacing what was lost or desiring what one doesn’t have, but by forging new bonds. The game promotes the idea that acceptance of the past, and then unity between people, is essential to one’s personal contentment. To underscore this, much of the game’s story revolves around preparing for a betrothal ceremony called the Gifting Rite: matrimony becomes the ultimate symbol of partnership.
For a game so focussed on partnership, Axe’s childhood friend, Pasmina, is often treated dismissively; this is unfortunate given her prominence in the story. While it certainly feeds into the certain machismo of teenage boys in battle shounen series or aloof male protagonists found in JRPGs, Axe’s internal refrain of Pasmina being “a nag” is something that doesn’t really bear out in the game, where she’s mainly just concerned for his well-being. While it is clear he does actually like her, even as he grows as a person and they come to understand each other, Axe doesn’t really ever treat her differently. Charitably, the game could just be adhering to characterisations: some of the minor female characters are openly appreciated for their contributions. There is also a small and funny scene where the boys discover that two of the girls have become close friends while they were off adventuring. So there’s a degree of knowingness to this rather than blatant misogyny. Yet Axe and Pasmina share a lot in common and so it is somewhat egregious that their relationship is quite static in a game that manages to have relative subtlety and progress elsewhere. However, Little Town Hero is on the whole a tautly-written story, giving time to flesh out the interior lives of its community, and in doing so exploring a wide breadth of ideas, and perhaps most importantly, capturing the emotion of the character’s experiences at every twist and turn.
The score, composed by Toby Fox (of Undertale fame) and arranged by Hitomi Sato, enriches that emotion. The soundtrack is distinctive and memorable, with each theme reflecting the tone and atmosphere of the scenes or characters perfectly. Axe’s theme is suitably mischievous-sounding, while the main town theme evokes wistfulness with its flutes and faint glockenspiel (perhaps even a lute?), and it changes depending on the area you’re walking. I’ve already mentioned the boss fight with the Castlevania-sounding theme, but the music overall is incredibly layered and varied, both in the styles and instrument choices. In my unlearned opinion, the music is aces.
Comparatively, the animation is quite limited. Some of the key cutscenes are well done with attention to small motions, and on the whole, the faces are more expressive than the blank stares of the 3D Pokémon games, but the effectiveness heavily relies on the often beautiful score and the script. On the other hand, I did notice that Axe kicks up flecks of dirt when running across the muddier parts of pastures and dust on pavements and in the coalmine. The boss enemies are a little static while in battle, only really moving when attacked, but one could reason that frenetic movement would break concentration too much. They do all get suitably bombastic introductions and defeat animations, however. The 3D modelling of the buildings and traversable areas are a little disappointing though. Understandably, the town is small, and this lends itself to efficiently moving around the overworld, but only a few buildings can be entered. Considering how often you visit the main streets, not having anything new to look at detracts from the appealing designs. Similarly, not being able to explore something like the caverns of the mine or actually enter parts of the castle seems like a missed opportunity to expand gameplay, and a casualty of cost-cutting. The attractive, vibrant cell-shading artstyle makes most of this tolerable, however.
The game could do with a little more polish generally. When I loaded the game from the start menu, there was a disconcerting lag between pressing “Continue” and the game actually moving to the loading screen. The game works fine, but it caused a bit of a worry initially. Similarly, if I went up to an NPC and pressed to talk while simultaneously running, or before a major cutscene, the game froze for slightly long enough to cause a minor panic that the game had crashed. There were a number of grammatical and spelling errors I noticed in the game’s script, and somewhat importantly the skill tree mislabelled the boost enhancement for the Idea “Tough Out” (it’s properly assigned in the battles). In the overworld, often the player avatar would start moving before the running animation kicked in. There were also a few noticeable dips in frame rate when in the areas of the town with the most buildings and objects.
These issues didn’t disrupt the pleasure of the storytelling—I felt true catharsis by the end—but they could needlessly diminish the immersiveness for some players. That would be a shame, because Little Town Hero is fundamentally excellent.
Masayuki Onoue, director of Game Freak’s Giga Wrecker, said in an interview to Videogame Chronicle, “We are always trying to create something that is equally exciting, or more exciting than Pokémon.” Congratulations, Game Freak, I believe you have succeeded. Moreover, I think this is their best game in a number of years and possibly their most affecting story ever. Little Town Hero may not be perfect, but it is worth your time if you’ve ever wanted every battle to feel like defeating the Elite Four and Champion in Pokémon. Director Masao Taya and the Gear Project team have devised a captivating and intricate combination of story and gameplay that work beautifully in symphony with each other, backed by a genuine treat of a score by ringer Toby Fox.
Furthermore, despite the insular story rationale for the battle system, there is so much potential for Game Freak to transplant Little Town Hero’s basic gameplay into a more wide-spanning adventure across a country, or even a globe. Little Town Hero has a bit of Dragon Quest’s whimsy, and it could benefit from a similar geographical scope. I sincerely hope that a sequel is produced, because Game Freak could easily be home to two popular monster-battling franchises one day if they develop and refine the idea further. In the meantime, Little Town Hero revives longstanding ideas about card gameplay, packaging them into a fresh, tense, and fulfilling game that I love with all my heart and guts.
Thank you to Rainy Frog for providing AniTAY with a review copy of the game.
Thank you as well to Reid Braaten for his comments and editing.
Declan Biswas-Hughes is a law student who distracts himself from the minutiae of legal write-ups with essays on the minutiae of anime and games. Feel free to get in touch with him on Twitter @fringence.