"Why aren't there more platform games?" was not a thought I ever expected to have, but it came to me as I was trawling Steam for something to play last week. The issue was that I wanted a platform game about movement and jumping, and there's surprisingly few of those. Nearly everything I hadn't yet played was more about shooting, or roguelike mechanics, or crafting. I had all but resigned myself to playing Super Meat Boy again when a friend linked me to Flat Heroes [official site]. I was convinced to try it by a GIF, and it was love at first jump.
Here's the GIF:
— Flat Heroes ■ (@FlatHeroes) September 8, 2016
(Technically I guess that's a short video, not a GIF).
In Flat Heroes, you control a small square. The level is a larger square, normally with a few platforms dotted around, and in the game's central Waves mode you must avoid different kinds of projectiles for a set amount of time in order to complete that level. This is very simple.
Yet it feels, looks and sounds so good. Your square moves by rolling, little lines blurring off your back to convey speed. Your jump, the distance of which you control by how long you hold the button, can be redirected in the air just enough to allow for finesse as you dance around the dozens of deadly objects hurtling your way. You can also dash short distances while airborne, walljump, or cling indefinitely to vertical surfaces by pushing towards them. This last move is enhanced by your being a square, as your flat side meet satisfyingly flush against the flat sides of the level.
Lastly - in Waves mode, anyway - you can release an extremely short-distance pulse that destroys nearby projectiles. This is useful because of the variety of projectiles you're going to be avoiding: there are simple, Space Invaders-style bullets which form along the sides of the level and slide across; there are red, homing arrows which swim and swirl towards you; there are dots which only activate into homing missiles when you come near; and bubbles through which you can set off chain reactions by bursting one near the edge of a cluster. There are maybe a dozen others.
The game is smart in how it introduces these enemies. Waves is split up into worlds, with each world containing 15 levels, and each level introduces a new ability. Restarting after death is instant and so the game is free to throw something new at you in a level and let you learn through a quick couple of failures, and gradually each world ramps up the difficulty by throwing enemies at you in groups. The worlds then culminate in a boss fight, which often offers something completely different, for example an enemy which copies your movement but leaves a deadly snake tail behind itself. You destroy it by using your pulse to shatter weak points that appeal on the tail.
I don't know how to write about these games without sounding like a weird fetishist, picking at details which never fully convey the sum of the game. None of what I've just written properly conveys how good Flat Heroes feels in your hands, because that feeling resides at the nexus of weight, speed, stickiness, responsiveness...
You can also play Waves with up to three other people in local multiplayer, but I've been playing it alone and it is still great. There are other modes which are all designed for 2-4 players, though there is AI available. In Zones, in which you must stay within a randomly appearing area of the level to run down your opponent's clock; Battle, in which you must use your pulse ability to shatter your enemies; Runner, which lets you fire projectiles of your own in a squabble over an item that, when held, earns the holder points towards victory; and catch, in which a white object spawns randomly in the level and the first player to smash it earns the point.
I've put some time into each of the above modes, but the AI, while mostly competent, is a poor substitute for the jockeying and competition playing with friends might inspire. I say "mostly" competent because there are instances where the AI seems wholly inadequate and others where it is mega-adequate, and damn near impossible to beat. This seems to be based more on the level than the mode, so it's possible to restart if you get a particular Catch level, for example, where your opponent can see, move to and smash the object in under a second.
There might be other modes, but if there are I haven't unlocked them yet. The game's early access status also means that there is potential for more to be added, depending on what areas of the game the community most want expanded. Personally, I'm currently happy with what the game offers, as the Waves mode gets hard enough by World 4 that I've yet to reach worlds 5 and 6. There are some bugs I'd like fixed, mind you, including better support for PlayStation 4 controllers.
I know my happiness will expire as soon as I complete the Waves mode, however. Flat Heroes, like Super Meat Boy before it, is a masterclass in game-feel - and that's why there are so few games like it. There's Super Meat Boy, there's N++, and now there's this. It feels good enough that, unless it turns out to be infinite in singleplayer, I'm going to be back on Steam in a few years looking for another game like it.
Flat Heroes is currently in early access for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam, with 4-12 months of further development planned depending on feedback.