The Hearts of Men

Grab your friends and prepare for the ultimate Hack n Slash throwback! Classic gameplay meets amazing graphics in this first release from super indie developer COLTRAN Studios. Button Mash your way through +10 levels of demonic mayhem and encounter epic boss battles sure to make your thumb bleed!

The Hearts of Men is a great name for a game or for when Gauntlet has to enter the witness protection program. Clearly inspired by the Atari arcade classic, The Hearts of Men is a 4-player hack-and-slash through 11 levels of overhead medieval bashing action. Four heroes must storm the castle, "a hulking, rotting shell... marked by crumbling stone walls and an ancient path -- a path that tells the story of those that have come before." The opening cinema continues, asking, "What were they seeking that drove them to enter such a dark place?" Yes, what are we seeking here beyond simply gathering a group of mixed class heroes for some Gauntlet-style fun? Despite the nice artwork and dramatic music accompanying the text, The Hearts of Men is a simple arcade title with no more story or depth in it beyond what Atari included when it created its own dungeon game 25 plus years ago. The opening cinema is the last I've seen the faces of these men character menu notwithstanding, their castle-entering amnesia presumably answered in an ending the game doesn't want anyone to see.

Coltran Studios' The Hearts of Men is the developer's first game and is a solid Xbox Indie effort. Players control either of four generic fantasy archetypes -- warrior, elf, warlock, and viking -- fighting their way through a series of mazes searching for the exit to the next level. Potions provide players with healing or special attacks while keys will open the gate to the next area or exit door. All the while, the chose character will be firing off weapons at the enemies which populate the castle halls. There appears to be little if any discernible difference among the different classes; the viking does appear to be stronger to me, and while each individual's strength, health, and firing rate does vary slightly, their damage per second should be about the same. Aside from any minute stat change, the four choices can all be viewed as essentially the same as far as their playing style as even the melee classes fire projectiles to attack their foes in true Gauntlet style. The Hearts of Men may be weak on innovation, but there's no harm in taking inspiration from a bonafide classic and doing it well. Gathering items and slaying evil from an overhead perspective has been done before, but if it plays well, at least it stands a good chance of being fun.

Fun in The Hearts of Men will likely come from its 4-player multi-player game. Up to four local players, each with a distinct class (no duplicates allowed -- too bad, elf-man) can play through The Hearts of Men, using their overwhelming combined firepower to slice the game to bits. A bit of spot testing indicated that the game doesn't alter itself in any way to account for the extra players, making the main game a cakewalk and the final boss beatable. In single player mode, most levels are pretty simple to fight through although that last boss puts up one cheap fight, throwing out fire balls, meteors, summing other enemies, healing, shielding, and otherwise hellbent on truly being the end of the line for anyone looking to overthrown him. Aside from a last minute difficulty curve in further need of banking, the game is too easy, too bland to contend as an heir apparent to Gauntlet despite looking the part. A big part of that is due to the weak level design which never changes, full of long, wide hallways and right angles, guarded by a handful of easily dispatched enemies compared to the mobs of demons which helped make Gauntlet famous. There are no diagonal paths, no interesting "shoot through the adjoining gap" techniques created when a player can push against the narrow part where two blocks joined at their corners meet, and no enemy spawn points to race to dispatch before being overwhelmed. Apart from a couple of distinct enemy types -- I do like the mages, who must be shot at while they attack lest they teleport elsewhere, and the archers, who can fire through walls, are as far as I recall new wrinkles to the formula -- The Hearts of Men lacks innovation, sleepwalking most of its way toward being a basic if still competent Gauntlet clone.

Although the overall design may be a bit on the lazy side, The Hearts of Men is a good looking game. I do love the character select screen, not for the cartoon-y but nice character portraits but rather for the background chains scrolling through the blue mist, an uncalled for but welcomed touch which gives the game a professional sheen. The in-game characters and enemies look nice, and while there's little to distinguish them beyond the kind of beating they can take, the ghosts, skeletons, knights, and others do look sharp and are fairly well animated. The level artwork is very good at times such as the gorgeous foliage in the first level and the excellent coloring on the castle walls. It did strike me as odd that the story went through great pains to describe this burning, terrible castle, yet it's not until the 9th stage, the first of two tough boss fights, when the game remotely conveys a kingdom in such a state. We do see open windows shining lights into the halls conceivably from the fires engulfing the castle, but the lights are too bright, too rainbow-y at times, and poorly contrasts with the dark outside levels early on and the general look of the game. Likewise, for a castle beset by creatures of the undead, the interior looks surprisingly sterile with its bright blue carpet and spotless walls. The graphics are fine, but the atmosphere is inconsistent; the artwork is well done, but it generally ill suits the game.

Some design choices are perplexing as well. The game tracks scores, but there is no scoreboard. Players earn one hit point per enemy defeated, but this bonus is mostly worthless given how it doesn't carry over from stage to stage (ideally to help single players challenge the difficult bosses). Potions do thankfully stay in inventory for the next level, but they are not saved should a player exit and resume the game from the stage select. The Hearts of Men offers "Casual" and "Classic" modes of play, each with their own charted stage progression, meaning that playing through the tougher classic mode will not unlock that stage in the easier difficulty. Likewise, the game tracks individual level progression for multi-player, forcing players to play through the game in its entirety depending upon the amount of people playing, which can be annoying for those looking to jump ahead to the tougher rounds when people are over. Worst, though, are the bugs which litter the game: pressing the D-pad with the pause menu open will crash the game everytime, and a "Magma Engine: Catched critical error: NullReferenceException" killed my game as I was finally about to do the same to the boss, telling me to alert Simon about the error. I found out via an e-mail to Jason Zielinski of Coltran Studios that he and Simon Jäger have submitted a patch for review which will fix several bugs and add content to the game. Loading menus indicate that the two developers are looking to support the game long term, and while that's great news for the future of The Hearts of Men, in its current version (1.1.3), thar still be game ending bugs to contend with at times, prospective warriors (and elves, warlocks, and vikings) be warned.

Despite the odd crippling glitch here and there, The Hearts of Men does a decent job at bringing Gauntlet gameplay to Xbox Indies. The game plays as well as can be, the artwork looks terrific, and it has a great fantasy soundtrack which make the game worth looking into, especially at just 80 points and moreso for those who have local friends to join in the action. However, just as in real life, The Hearts of Men is flawed, its good intentions not living up to gameplay expectations. I can think of many things I'd love to have seen such as better level design, random levels, an infinite mode, and so on and so forth, but for the time being, I'd rather The Hearts of Men focus on just fixing what it needs to fix to be the updated classic it so desparately wants to be.

March 15, 2011
March 4, 2011 | 80 points
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