Need to know
What is it? An enjoyable brawler influenced by comic book iconography.
Expect to pay: $15/£11
Developer: Upstream Arcade
Publisher: Square Enix Collective
Reviewed on: Intel i7-5500U, 16Gb RAM, GeForce GTX 960
Multiplayer: Two-player co-op
Link: Official site
In a cel-shaded British '70s, charming and snappily dressed heroes struggle against a cabal of dastardly villains. Deadbeat Heroes' understated story acts as a reward for completing missions, and I had a chuckle at the frost villain’s pun-filled anecdotes about her ex-lovers, but this isn't a game you play for its detailed narrative or characters. This is an arcadey brawler where civilians requiring rescue are literally just timed wads of cash scattered around a level, worth 500 points if you save them.
It's the kind of pacey action game where it's important to know what each opponent can do at a glance. Goons come in different colors, and hold a range of weapons. Some can be engaged from any direction, while others, like those with cricket bats, swat away frontal assaults unless confused by a quick dash or wall run. Goons dressed in blue are tougher than those in white, so expect more bullets or a more punishing attack.
Powered villains appear in purple rings which also indicate their remaining hit points. They can’t be damaged except by a turbo attack powered by blue dots earned each time an opponent is hit. Sometimes this creates a situation where everyone in the room is down, except the villain. If I've used my turbo already, my only course of action is to run close and strike the villain ineffectually several times to power it up again.
You want a little fisticuffs?
The systems of Deadbeat Heroes initially felt counterintuitive. Sometimes I could see my rocket-glove punches weren’t connecting with goons I'd already stunned, but it wasn't until I unlocked a new move allowing them to do so that I understood what was happening, and why. I'm glad it didn't just let me play the way I thought I should be playing, though—the entire experience would have been undermined.
What it's trying to do is push you to stay mobile, making enemies invulnerable at certain times and making it a challenge to string together its substantial repertoire of button-pressing combo attacks. The way it teaches these things could have been a lot clearer though, and there are obviously other things being prioritized.
Like, for instance, its imaginative comic-book world, where characters are frozen mid-punch, bloodied or falling to the ground, and combos are set to ascending brass stings. BAM-POW comic book onomatopoeia pauses the action to emphasize a special attack or significant hit, but only during solo play. While I don’t want the action to be paused while I’m midway through executing a complicated manoeuvre because my partner used their glove, after spending time in single-player I still feet a little disoriented when the action doesn’t pause at that point. Its unusual playstyle is valued over intuitiveness and I appreciated this, once I knew what I was doing.
Rage... taking over
Inattention and "bad play" are punished sternly. Missions completed with a low grade will have to be replayed until you earn a higher one, but if there's any useful feedback about how grades work—especially with regard to how they're scored differently for solo and cooperative play—it went over my head.
When you fail a mission with every character, progress is lost on previously completed missions. Things can unravel very quickly when you're playing with a partner and one of you can't keep up. I like challenging games, but I honestly can't imagine a condition more conducive to rage-quitting in a social setting.
Despite my partner ditching me, I began to really enjoy some of Deadbeat Heroes' more innovative features, like the ability to steal a villain's superpower. After picking up a blue token, I suddenly realized the unrelenting snowballs, which had been transforming me into a vulnerable block of ice, were now mine. I could freeze the goons, halting their fire, then freeze the villain and smash her, despite her usual invulnerability. Using stolen superpowers can also render the player invulnerable, so I experimented with hopping around and exploding myself to deflect bullets in a way that was surprisingly effective.
There's no friendly-fire, even for area-of-effect abilities. Some items, however, have the potential to harm everyone within range. If a crate of explosives is hit by gunfire it will explode a few moments later, regardless of who set it off. It's also possible to use larger items, like desks, to distract opponents or take cover behind. It's fun to experiment with the physics of these objects, and necessary as chapters get more difficult. I would have enjoyed trying to manage friendly fire, but Deadbeat Heroes is probably chaotic enough—especially with two players.
Do I wish Deadbeat Heroes was simpler, more intuitive, or otherwise different? Not really. I enjoyed it once I understood how and why its systems work as they do. Deadbeat Heroes cares more about maintaining its level of difficulty and nailing its superhero aesthetic than it cares about being understood. If only my superpower was reading the designers' minds I think I'd have enjoyed it from Chapter 1, rather than having to wait until it opened up the complete moveset and became the game it's obviously meant to be.