I played the demo for Heartbound on a drizzly Friday afternoon at home. I couldn’t ask for a better setting, with the rain beating down softly on the window, the heat permeating through to my soul as I had a blanket around me, and a feeling of contented optimism as I let the game’s soothing, embryonic music float through me. Before I’d even started a single second of gameplay, I was filled with an enormous sense of rightness. Right here with this game, Heartbound, was exactly where I needed to be at this moment in time. Then I hit start.
This game, an RPG reminiscent of the titles that made the genre famous in its 90s heyday, is styled in a familiar, warm, and nostalgic 16-bit style that will invite easy comparisons to Undertale for its usage of muted colours. Indeed, there looks to be a certain grey languor hanging over Heartbound, like its world wants to be happy but will never be truly cheerful – more on that later. Despite that, Heartbound has a great level of polish, not just for being indie, but in its pre-release state. I believe that it can and will do more with 16-bit, 2D graphics than Rockstar could do with 4K, 10 million colours, and a billion polygons on their future titles. It’s not just a matter of having good looks, but it’s using them well – without divulging too much, Heartbound makes heavy use of (what feels like) dream sequences, and this is where Pirate Software really get creative. They experiment with Lovecraftian visuals, inverted or just outright bizarre colour palettes, and amazing celestial backgrounds that juxtapose with the frightening ephemeral places you find yourself in. Heartbound, to that end, might be a dark horse contender for prettiest game of the year. It certainly looks to be one of the most visually striking.
Despite the air of lugubriousness that hangs over the game, there’s a spirit of grit and determination that is ever-present. We play as Lore, a cynical but spirited young boy buoyed by his best friend, Baron, a talking dog who is always cheerful and provides light into the greying environs. There’s an ever-present spirit of adventure and camaraderie despite the despair that made the demo resonate with titles such as Pokèmon and Kingdom Hearts. Why does that dark mood permeate a game that sounds like it should be a happy G-rated romp? The GameJolt pre-release page says that the game will discuss themes of sanity, and not only is that welcome, it covers a plethora of topics that the RPG has largely been afraid to touch. The demo implies that your father is an abrasive and abusive drunk, and the idea will definitely run through your mind that the monsters that Lore has to face, his journey into bravery and strength, is definitely metaphorical for trauma and recovery. Heartbound looks as if it will truly tap into the anxieties and private fears that occupy the minds of the public. That’s what makes the idea of this game so tantalising, that it may discuss mental health as a theme, in a time when the conversation has never been more relevant. Certainly, Heartbound looks to reach a level of allegory that Silent Hill 2 was masterful at; we’re going to get a game that means something deeper than the words being spoken and the setting simply shown to us.
It also will not be afraid to grab you by the throat – most RPGs are guilty of making you endure a serious pre-amble: you know, an opportunity to settle into the game, talk to the villagers, make small talk with your mother, pick some flowers, pitch woo at the local girls; that sort of thing. No, right away, Heartbound puts you in a chokehold; you wake up in your bedroom, get up to switch the light on, and the unit explodes and throws you into the back wall. Ten seconds in, and I was shocked, curious, and engrossed. This game had a tight grip on me that simply did not waver until the end of the demo, which is what makes the question of a full release so electrifying – it looks like the writing team at Heartbound will perform magic, keeping us interested through the duration, which is key considering not only how important this game will be, but simply how good it looks. The team is sitting on a time bomb and it’s a matter of time until said bomb goes off and everybody recognises this game.
The gameplay, like the rest of the title, looks as if it will not be scared to innovate either. Heartbound does away with the traditional RPG trappings in that there is no turn-based or active battle system. In fact, you “battle” by engaging in a series of frenetic and diverse mini-games that will challenge your memory and dexterity, which will only come as a welcome blessing: most will remember how leisurely any given Final Fantasy title can be, and Heartbound dispenses with that aspect, keeping you right on the edge of your seat, as failure in a mini-game will mean huge HP losses. That seems like the joy, the very essence of this game: it feels warm and familiar in that it takes on the form of a traditional RPG, but just continues to surprise in the most delightful and wonderful ways.
For the duration of the 40-minute demo, which took me from the family home with my abusive father, to the furthest reaches of the universe, I was dumbfounded and amazed. I got out of my seat, walked right across the hall, looked my roommate in the eye, and told him, “This demo I’ve just played has blown my cock off.” I had to talk to Pirate Software.
I was introduced to Jason Hall, also known as Thor. A seven-year veteran in gaming, formerly of Blizzard, Thor decided to step out on his own and form Pirate Software. I was granted an interview with him and Stijn van Wakeren, Heartbound’s composer.
BEN: What games inspired the artistic direction of your game?
THOR: Heartbound is a love letter to a ton of games I played on the SNES growing up as well as references to movies and literature I’ve consumed throughout my life. The best few games that come to mind for the artistic inspiration are Mother (Earthbound and others), Dungeons and Dragons, and Wario Ware. Mother 3 had such an incredible color pallet with such interesting and odd character designs. Dungeons and Dragons has thousands of monsters at your fingertips to mix, match, and modify. Wario Ware has wacky action and a carefree style that allows for silly weirdness.
BEN: Were there any other movies, books, or TV shows that inspired how Heartbound was made?
THOR: I’m a big movie nerd especially cult classics and oddities and that has definitely seeped into Heartbound’s design. The major ones for me at this stage of development would be Attack the Block, A Boy and His Dog (Not kid friendly, also where Fallout got Dogmeat), and ridiculous lame humor such as from The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.
BEN: People will make the obvious comparisons to Undertale and Earthbound, but through playing the demo, I found that the game resonated much more closely with Pokèmon and Kingdom Hearts, feeling like the lovechild of all four titles. Would you have taken notes from these titles?
THOR: The most I took from any of these titles was definitely Earthbound but not in the way people might think. Earthbound was extremely forward, wacky, and happy. Ness and friends were plunged into an insane world glossed over with fun colors and silly dialog. It was the joke that hid the nightmare at the core of that story. Heartbound in a lot of ways is opposite to this. Lore’s world is darkness, emotion, and intensity with brief moments of humor and silliness spotted throughout it.
Undertale was the last straw for me working in the Triple A industry. After playing through it I realized that if I didn’t take a chance on myself to make the games I wanted to make I never would. So I did. I didn’t take any narrative or artistic inspiration from Undertale but it was the last push I needed to strike out on my own.
BEN: Where did you get the idea or inspiration for the wonderful and fresh battle system?
THOR: I always found experience, leveling, and consumables to be pretty anti-fun mechanics in many games. Grinding out levels on slimes just isn’t that interesting to me and I am more likely to save my 99x potions for the fight where I think I might need them even if I’m fighting the final boss. In Heartbound I did away with these things in a number of ways. There are no random battles, combat action and defense happen simultaneously, every combat action is skill based, and there are no consumables. Wario Ware was a huge inspiration for this with its wacky skill-based mini-games that came at you lightning fast. I wanted to merge these two worlds and make something new.
BEN: What were the musical influences for the soundtrack? (to Stijn van Wakeren, composer)
STIJN: When writing music for Heartbound I find myself taking from many very different sources. Some songs need to make the player feel happy pieceful, so I’ll take inspiration from the Animal Crossing games. Other songs need to fill the player with dread, then something like a vintage horror film is a great base to work with.
Other sources would be things like the Legend of Zelda, but also jazz and romantic era ballet. In short: just a whole bunch of stuff.
BEN: This game is quite a departure from your previous title, Champions of Breakfast – did you find it difficult to transition into making a narrative-based game with RPG-style production?
THOR: Not at all, I actually wanted to make Heartbound as our first game and realized how foolish that would have been. We shelved Heartbound and made Champions of Breakfast as our first game to get our content pipeline down and understand the issues and setbacks associated with launching a title as an indie studio. We learned a ton and Heartbound is a better game for it. Many of the levels in Champions of Breakfast are actually rooms in Lore’s house in Heartbound. You can also spot Baron in the background of the Living Room level of Champions of Breakfast.
Putting Heartbound into a bit more context made us exponentially more excited for its release. Remember the name: you’ll be hearing a lot about it in the coming months from everyone, including The Deadbeat Critics. This game has a ways to go before it comes out, about 7 months at the time of writing. Yet at this stage I feel more than comfortable saying: welcome to the higher echelon, Heartbound – we’re not quite at release, but I feel confident enough to tell Pirate Software to take a seat right between Square Enix and Toby Fox; this game has all the makings of becoming the new classic.