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Freeware Friday: Hero Core

Welcome to Freeware Friday, a weekly column showcasing excellent games that you can play free of charge!

Games with a modular style to them always seem to draw players in like nothing else. Games like Super Metroid, Castlevania, or Shadow Complex. There's even a name for the genre: Metroidvania. Daniel Remar has made one of the best ones with Iji, but he's not leaving the genre quite yet. His first game was Hero, and he's made a new game that improves on it in every way. That game is Hero Core, and if you can stomach the retro-styled graphics, it's one incredibly good game. Hard, for sure, but great. It's also playable on just about any computer, and takes up almost no space at all, which makes it great for playing on the go. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Hero Core is about Flip Hero. Once a robot under the command of Cruiser Tetron, he was tasked with destroying his former master and ending his threat to Earth once and for all. However, every time Cruiser Tetron is destroyed, his minions rebuild him, and the threat begins anew. Hero Core is the final step of this constant battle, as Flip Hero finally discovers the way to end things forever. While the story seems deep, it's really just a way to set the stage for your battles. The few places it could set itself apart, such as Flip Hero's reluctance to end his own life or Cruiser Tetron's regard for his former servant, are at best cursorily explored and then discarded. It's sort of a shame, too. Still, this is about gameplay, not necessarily story, and it delivers.

Despite its seeming simplicity, Hero Core has a much more detailed presentation than one might surmise at first glance. While the game only uses two colors, the complexity of some of the animations is considerable, and the visual effects (such as explosions or beam weapons) are definitely cool. The music is simple but catchy, as it should be for a game that is focused more around action than setting moods. While the color scheme will no doubt put people off, we find that it is an entertaining representation of space, with the white on black being reminiscent of stars on the inky blackness of the night sky.

Gameplay revolves around moving from room to room, zone to zone, killing enemies and finding your way through the game. The game has a roughly linear progression, with no real sequence breaking in terms of which bosses you can take on. However, the final boss (Cruiser Tetron) is available to fight from the very beginning of the game. He's relatively normal difficulty when you are fully upgraded, but if you go at it right at the start, the fight goes from being normal difficulty to incredibly hard. Those looking for a challenge might want to try beating Tetron with no upgrades. We don't recommend trying this until you've fought him once, however, as there are a number of moves in his arsenal that are just plain wicked.

Each area has a single boss for you to fight, and the bosses all have unique gimmicks. Some spawn enemies, while others hop around or can only be destroyed from the inside. Each boss does two things: increases your level, which increases damage resistance, and increases the power of one of your systems. You have three systems to be upgraded: shot, sword, and suit. As your shot increases in level, it gains more damage and nothing else. The sword gains a wider sweep, the ability to destroy certain walls, and the ability to deflect certain projectiles. The suit becomes resistant and finally immune to heat as it upgrades. There's also one function upgrade that gives you a circle shot for a cost of health, but it can only be retrieved when you get the best sword and you don't get it from a boss.

Once you tire of or finish normal mode, there's two new modes to complete. Each offers a totally new environment to progress through, which adds a considerable amount of replayability to the game. We very much like this. Imagine if Metroid had multiple difficulties, and each difficulty was a completely new game world. The two extra modes are Hard, which is roughly the same as Normal except with more difficulty enemy placement and map layout, and Impossible, which is a prequel mission that chews you up and spits you right back out. Two non-recorded modes include Boss Rush and Hero Forever, which are boss rush and randomly-generated map modes. You can also access maps once you finish the game, which helps you plan out speed-runs, if that's your sort of thing.

The one complaint you might encounter with the game is that there is little reason to fight the enemies. Enemies never drop anything, and normally act as little more than ways to delay your progress by damaging you or acting as the "key" to a door. This is especially prevalent when you are aiming for a speedrun kill of Tetron. Some reason to fight enemies would be nice, such as the dropping of health items or the increase of a score, but as is, there is absolutely no reason to waste your time with enemies. If it's in a room where you don't have to (there isn't a locked door), just ignore them. This is not true in Impossible, however, where the enemy patterns are such that attempting to just glide through most rooms leads to your death.

While the simplicity of the combat mechanics seems like a bad thing, and could possibly be a mark against Hero Core, we don't think so. The fact that combat is essential "point and shoot" means that the player can focus more on navigation and puzzle-solving than memorizing enemy patterns. There's only a few parts of the game that truly require the standard action-based twitch gaming, but for the most part, it's a relatively serene passage through a very dangerous asteroid. We're glad, since we love the sprite work done in the game.

Hero Core is an absolutely stellar game, both in the pun sense and the quality sense. It has a unique visual style, great sound, five well-design game modes, and a cool, if under-utilized, story. It's not quite the career-defining opus that was Iji, but it's certainly worth playing. You can expect to spend somewhere between 1 and 3 hours playing Hero Core, depending on your skill and completion rate, and some more time with the game modes is not ill-advised. The game is available from the developer's website, and requires an unzipping utility to play. Have fun blowing apart Cruiser Tetron for good!

For another look at freeware games, take a look at Joystiq's Free Game Club weekly feature!

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