Conveying emotion and making the player feel it is something that is difficult to do. It takes a balance of great storytelling and a sound that matches what is going on to get the player invested in what is going on. The most recent example of a game that I have played that nailed it from every angle would be Undertale. It was a game that rose to prominence despite being an independent title made almost solely by a single developer.
HEARTBEAT is a game that I randomly happened upon when looking at a reviewer’s other reviews after finding myself to like the points they made. It was a game they highly recommended, and from what I could tell from their reviews, we had similar taste. I decided to go ahead and spend the $15 on the game despite having never heard of the game. I didn’t even play the demo that I actually didn’t know existed until after I had made the purchase. Knowing now what I know of the game, I would’ve bought it anyway.
HEARTBEAT is a heartwarming tale that I feel demonstrates how to tell an emotional story and how to make the player feel something from it. The game was developed and published by Chumbosoft, a company I honestly couldn’t find any information about. Based on my research, it seems to be their first foray into making games as a company, though I have no doubt the people behind the game have worked on other projects.
Built in the RPG Maker engine, it is a testament to how great of a game you can create when using an engine that has a less than stellar reputation.
The story takes place in a fictional world with monster-like creatures named Mogwai and humans. The player takes control of the lead protagonist, Eve Staccato, as she travels with her partnered mogwai named Klein. Eve is an outgoing young conjurer tasked with protecting their town from feral mogwai. It is explained in the story that conjurers are paired with mogwai to combat feral mogwai to protect their town and that each town has a dedicated conjurer to it.
In the story Eve and Klein end up agreeing to help a series of people which results in them getting caught up in an overarching story that gives the player both backstory into how the world ended up the way it is and how it could potentially end up. The player meets a wide variety of different conjurers and mogwai that they team up with to accomplish different missions throughout the game.
Alongside the core story there are a number of optional side missions, optional enemies, and a slew of puzzles and mini-games to keep the player entertained. Each mogwai the player teams up with has their own special ability that can be used when exploring to solve puzzles and navigate areas. For example, Klein as a cat has the ability to fit through small holes and tunnels to get into areas none of the other characters can.
Whenever the player runs into a feral mogwai when exploring, it initiates a style of combat that is a staple to the JRPG genre. It is turn-based and both sides trade blows until only one team is left standing, or until the player successfully escapes from the battle. The battles are well designed giving players a lot of options for how they tackle the enemy whether it is head-on or through buffs, nerfs, or even status effects. It is reminiscent of Pokemon which offers a lot of different styles of moves and different types of moves, but HEARTBEAT goes the extra step to make things a bit more complex.
At the start of the game players are asked about their preference in difficulty. Choosing the difficulty is not a binding choice, but it does adjust the stats of the enemies the player meets. If a particular enemy is too challenging, the player can adjust the difficulty and continue on. If the game is becoming too easy, they can adjust it to make it more difficulty.
To me, combat just felt “right”. The animations during the combat felt great, combat felt rewarding, and it always felt like your team was getting stronger and stronger despite having many characters that would leave and join the party. It was easy to understand, but there was still an amount of depth where you could continue to improve your party.
Overall, the game is highly accessible and easy to play. The game gives the player the ability to save anywhere as long as they have control over their character in the game. This makes it easy to pick up and play. There is also a system in-game where characters can talk to each other, with the dialogue being directly relevant to the player’s next objective. This makes it easy to remember where you left off.
Visually I feel the game is stunning. While some games boast amazing 3D graphics, Chumbosoft decided to make this game in pixel art. The pixel art is stunning and really expressive of the tone they had set for the game. Often times it is either bright and radiant while other times it can be dark and desolate depending on what the environment and story call for. I can tell a lot of heart and soul was put into the artwork of the game.
Character portraits are well drawn and colored and really expressive of the personalities of the different characters in the game. Meeting a new character in the game introduced the character to a different personality that had their own things going on. It felt as though the characters in the game all had their own stuff going on and their stories just so happened to intersect, with a few being directly relevant to the destiny of the main character. The portraits and pixel art of those characters very much demonstrated that.
The music and sound design of the game was also a strong reason why I could not tear myself away from the game for hours at a time. Within six hours of playing the game I was committed to purchasing the soundtrack on Bandcamp. The music really sets the mood to each of the places your characters visit and the story that is being told on the screen. It is reminiscent of chiptune music and the soundtrack is quite varied. Admittedly, it appears that they did outsource the music to another company, but it is clear they worked together to ensure that everything fit in perfectly.
With all of that in mind, there are a number of issues that I have with the game that did take away from the experience a bit. First off, there are some quirks of the RPG maker system that can cause issues with users. For example, when using one of my controllers I ran into some control issues, but using an Xbox controller worked well enough. Keep in mind that the instructions of the game reference your keyboard regardless of if you’re using it or not. It would be nice to see them implement symbols for common controllers.
Twice during play I ran into an issue where the game froze visually, but was still running otherwise. Both times this was while I was doing something in the menu which caused me to try to remember how to save the game. Luckily I was able to save my game both times and exit to solve the issue, but at this time I am not entirely sure what causes the issue and haven’t experienced it in other games made with the same engine.
Finally, there is a dashing puzzle at one point in the game that can be frustrating for people due to the way that RPG Maker handles inputs. In particular, you have to dash to a series of switches with tight timing to be able to make it through doors that close. You essentially need to be mashing the dash button as soon as you hit the switch, otherwise there will be a delay in dashing. It seems to be a limit in how it handles input and I’ve seen some people online say that they haven’t had any issues, but it’s something a majority of players will face. Once you get used to it, the puzzle is actually really easy.
HEARTBEAT is a very emotional ride for JRPG fans that has a lot of variety in the scenes and the different activities that the player can engage in. If you’re a fan of JRPGs looking for something different, I would highly recommend playing the demo to see if its a game and aesthetic you will enjoy.
Official Website: https://shepple.itch.io/heartbeat
Steam Page: https://store.steampowered.com/app/984560/HEARTBEAT/