Version tested: 3DS
Online gaming has never really been Nintendo's 'thing', has it? I sort of expect Miyamoto is still using dial-up at home. Even today, first-party support feels begrudging at best, most recently seen in the threadbare features of Mario Tennis Open.
It falls, then, to a third party to give 3DS' online gaming capabilities a proper workout. Heroes of Ruin is nothing if not ambitious. A co-production by n-Space and Square Enix London, it's a classic dungeon crawler with connected gaming woven into its medieval fabric from the start, rather than hastily stapled on at the end.
There's four-player co-op, voice chat, daily and weekly challenges, item trading in-game and via StreetPass and a dedicated website that tracks your stats and progress. (Or it will do at some point - that's the bit that isn't working yet. So close!)
As far as I'm aware, this is the first 3DS title to let you chinwag with randoms while playing. Check the box in the relevant menu then all you need do is hold down 'L' to broadcast yourself to anyone else in your game. Quality varies in practice: most of the time it's fine, on occasion it's unintelligibly fuzzy, and sometimes (well, only the once so far) it's a man in Spain who really wants you to hear his dog going berserk in the background.
While the development team has been bold in bringing this genre to 3DS as a properly connected experience, it has played it supremely safe with the game itself.
There are four classes available. Vindicator is a burly lion-man with a giant sword; Savage is a towering brute with powerful attacks; Gunslinger's dual pistols are better for ranged attacks; and the Alchitect uses magic at a distance or a staff up close. Each does feel sufficiently different for you to want to give them a whirl. And with an adventure that clocked in at six and a half hours for my first playthrough according to the in-game clock, with 91 percent completion, you'll want to spread yourself around.
Level structure and design is functional in the extreme. There's a hub area, Nexus, where you can do all your item bartering, pick-up side missions and travel to different parts of the world. Dungeons, meanwhile, follow a rigid template of branching paths, hidden rooms and boss fights, and objectives are typically of the "find five of such-and-such" variety, with the occasional puzzle to solve.
It sounds timid, generic and uninspired on paper. What makes it fun is the human factor, with four players rampaging through passages, smashing and grabbing everything in sight, and the sheer amount of tinkering you can do to your character's stats, with fresh loot rarely more than a few yards away.
What n-Space has created in essence is an enjoyably accessible dungeon crawler that showers the player in cash, health and loot like a vomiting slot machine. Such largesse ensures you're never quite overwhelmed by enemies, never short of kit to swap around, and always have a few quid spare to buy more.
But it's all a little too generous at times. With only the default difficulty setting, what challenge there is quickly evaporates once your level reaches the 20s. Similarly, I hit my wallet's limit well before I'd finished the story, easily flush enough to buy anything I fancied. With no scarcity, why would I bother with the trading mechanics?
The lack of balancing is the game's greatest flaw, and seems a strange oversight when minor tweaks could have extended engagement with the experience considerably - particularly for more seasoned adventurers.
Clearly the game would prefer you to play through it four times with four different classes, rather than endlessly grinding with one. It really depends on what you want out of the experience, but the lack of attention that's gone into the end-game - difficulty doesn't scale according to character level, defeated bosses don't respawn - is a bit of a shame given how much there is to admire elsewhere.
What this does do, however, is push you towards jumping into others' games rather than stomping back through your own. The online experience is certainly not flawless - loading times are excessive and it's buggy at times - but it's a clear step up from what we've come to expect from 3DS. Which is, in fairness, not a lot.
It won't win any awards for its artwork, but Heroes of Ruin is also extremely well-suited to stereoscopy, its top-down perspective improved enormously by the added depth. It's one of the few games I wouldn't dream of playing without the 3D whacked all the way up.
Frame rate fares less well, and with four players going hell-for-leather on screen, the game struggles to keep up and it's pretty hard to figure out who's clobbering what. Not that Heroes is particularly cerebral in its action. Certain enemies have weak points and blocks to overcome, and there are advantages to working as a team against bosses, but with a game that goes out of its way at every turn to keep you alive and keep you going, strategic genius is not required.
Right now, the lobbies are full of a healthy mix of replaying grinders and low-level first-timers, which means I can dip into whatever type of game I fancy, whether to gobble up items or offer a guiding hand. What's unclear at this stage is what happens when everyone's rattled through the story, and whether the daily and weekly challenges will be enough to keep me and others coming back.
As it stands, it's a pity more thought wasn't given to creating a decent challenge that suits different approaches. But while it may be more short-lived that it could have been, it's excellent fun while it lasts. The true strength of Heroes of Ruin is in the pleasing flexibility of the online experience - and it's a model Nintendo itself could learn a few things from.
7 / 10