Games like this have us vibrating with excitement from the moment we glimpse the first bullet points of info. It's an action-oriented dungeon-crawler, with local and online four-player co-op. Squeeze that formula onto a handheld and suddenly you've got yourself something that's potentially magic. Role-playing games that have an addictive loot-loop are hard to put down once you find yourself hooked: when you're blessed with a portable version, it's rare that you'll have to.
Even though the formula seemed like a no-brainer, we're also very thankful that they haven't messed it up with slight twists that act like selling points but are really just gimmicky and cumbersome hurdles between the gamer and, well, the game. Heroes of Ruin is lacking in flair, but it still ticks all the boxes we wanted it to. The characters are all varied and fun, collecting loot feels suitably compulsive, the combat feels immediately punchy and the quests and story aren't bad either. If you've been holding out for a chunky dose of hack 'n' slash jollies, you're in for hours of fun. Add friends and/or an Internet connection and things verge on the fantastic.
There are four different classes to play as, with a decent amount of customisation for each. Once you've decided to opt for a bright blue skin and a light pink mohawk, it's time you start thinking about your abilities. You get a new skill point for very level, and each class has three skill trees to pick and choose from. Level requirements for unlocking new skills mean you'll tend to end up dipping into all three, rather than investing everything in one, but the same can't be said for investing stat points. When faced with the choice of spending new points to get Might, Vigor, or Soul, I never found any incentive not to pack everything into the one that boosts attack damage. But that's just me. Even before you start unlocking stuff, though, each character's basic combat skills are satisfying. The Vindicator relies on classic sword-swinging and can quickly charge and smash into any foes foolish enough to cross his path. He's the best guy for soaking up damage, while the Savage tends to focus on dealing it. A giant, beardy hulk of a man, the latter more than lives up to his ominous name, smashing foes in the face for massive damage and dragging them towards him with a hookshot attack. The Alchitect, meanwhile, combines long-range magic with blade-staff melee, but my favourite remains the nippy Gunslinger. Twin pistols hold foes back from a distance, and the blades attached to the barrel of each enable him to switch to close combat moves when enemies grow sufficiently near. He also starts off with a nifty spread-shot attack that looks rather like something you might see Neo laying down in The Matrix. Each character also has a different type of charge attack that you'll need to use regularly in order to break the guards of blocking enemies.
The face buttons trigger attacks and mapped skills, while the right shoulder button is mapped to both lock and dodge, depending on whether or not you're moving. The left shoulder button is used for interacting with stuff and picking up loot, which you're likely to spend quite a lot of time doing if you're any good at this game. You'll still get a kick out of finding some shiny treasure, but there isn't a huge degree of tactical choice here. Some gear is buffed with elemental threats, but these always feel like the cherry on top, rather than a vital aspect of the cake. Trying to use the menus to equip new gear is an inexplicably clunky process. You can only use the touchscreen or D-Pad to select stuff, and the menu systems are far too slow. Thankfully however, you'll have to use them only rarely. Stats of loot you've found will pop up on screen before you've even picked it up and tapping on the D-Pad offers two speedy options. Press up to equip it automatically (if it's better than your current items) or press down to convert it immediately into cash. Of course, you can sell your loot to any of the vendors in town, but I can't imagine why you'd choose to. Items can be sold straight from the equipment menu, giving no excuse not to take every single piece of junk that you find as you progress.
Playing online with strangers, I can already see this proving to be a problem. There's nothing stopping the people you're playing with from insta-selling every bit of gear that they find before you even had a chance to look at it. Gold and quest rewards are shared automatically, but everything else is pretty much a free-for-all. If you find that you are easily infuriated by rank idiocy and douchebaggery, I would recommend just playing with friends, for the sake of your sanity. Despite the lack of a system for sharing loot fairly, it's indeed the multiplayer aspects that make Heroes of Ruin shine. Drop-in/drop-out four-player co-op enables you to play with people both online and locally and also supports voice-chat. Sweet! Get a mixture of characters working together and the combat gets substantially spicier too, with enemies that you must distract and flank in order to hit those precious weak-spots. Most characters have skills that affect the other players around them too, making playing through the game with at least one other person a no-brainer. If you've got loot-treats that you think others might like, you can flag them for trade. The game alerts you to any incoming offers, and once both parties have come to an agreement, the goods are exchanged automatically.
Stuff like this is reassuring, but it's also fairly standard. The coolest stuff you'll see in Heroes of Ruin's co-op mode feels a whole lot more innovative. Playing with the same people for a period of time will level up your 'Alliance'. Earning XP together will unlock brand new bonuses, improving your chances of finding good gear and even enabling you to do more damage. The boosts you get from each Alliance will only apply when you're in a game with that specific person, offering a lovely reward for hardcore buddies. The game also makes great use of the Nintendo 3DS WiFi. StreetPass with another player and the coolest loot they've offloaded in their game will appear in a special shop in your world. SpotPass will sometimes earn you new items, and also unlock special in-game challenges and quests. Completing these weekly and even daily tasks will net you points that can only be spent in one special shop. It's filled to the brim with supremely nice gear, which should give the game some decent longevity.
The world and quests aren't much to write home about, but Heroes of Ruin isn't lacking in charm. Proper voice acting always makes us smile, but the faintly silly soundbites you encounter in this game prove particularly entertaining. Inconsistent framerates and texture qualiy make things look a bit ropey and the game is visually dull and figuratively (and literally) in two dimensions. Despite that, the use of 3D is excellent on the whole. It's a perfect fit for the isometric view, and really brings the world to life. When you're looking through beautiful, shimmering cobwebs at the detailed green detailed flora hidden below, it's often hard to believe that just two minutes ago you were wandering through a blurry brown smudge.
Swings between ugly and gorgeous feel jarring, but the aspects that matter mostly stay the same. All of the characters feel powerful and cool, the combat is fun, and the gameplay is massively addictive. Heroes of Ruin has far rougher edges than Square Enix fans may tolerate, but the mechanics that actually matter are fantastic. Overlook the iffy execution and Heroes of Ruin is a treat.