Flat Heroes

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Parallel Circles for PC, Mac, Linux, and Switch, originally released in 2018.
Flat Heroes is a single-screen platformer that pits the player against ever-changing obstacles of increasing difficulty. The game focuses solely on gameplay and offeres only geometric shapes set in abstract environments. While there are countless games that offer visually simple presentations such as this, most such games are shallow and play poorly. Flat Heroes, on the other hand, is a highly technical experience that introduces simple concepts that are expanded upon and combined in clever ways to offer an escalating challenge, not unlike Jeppe Carlsen’s similarly abstract 140 and THOTH.

The game offers an incredibly simple control scheme that allows movement to the left or right, a high variable jump, the ability to jump up walls or stick to them, a multi-directional air dash, and a short-range melee attack. This limited skillset is tested to its limits across seven worlds and more than 100 levels in the main campaign, which may be played alone or with friends in up to 4P drop-in drop-out local co-op. The game also features several survival modes, most of which can also be played alone or with up to four players, as well as a few versus modes.

Levels in the main campaign are designed to be completed in a matter of seconds, although some levels will undoubtedly require multiple attempts. Since many enemy types and projectiles can appear out of thin air, players are often tasked with reacting quickly as the challenges unfold, but repeating the level gives them insight as to the actions required for survival. Memorization only gets the player so far, however, as some levels alter the player’s starting position when the stage is reset, and there are numerous enemy types that react to the player’s position and movement.

Each level consists of an outside border and simple horizontal and vertical lines representing platforms and walls. All levels are single screen, although some levels are larger than others with the camera pulled back to display the area. In some levels, one or more of the walls will kill you if you touch them, adding additional challenges as the player’s movement is restricted. The minimal visuals are made up of a limited color palette, and there are some occasions where the colors of regular borders appear similar to those of the insta-death variety.

Things start out simply, with the player dropped into a room consisting of a single platform. A series of projectiles appears along the top of the screen and they fire downward, forcing the player to take shelter beneath the platform to avoid being killed. As levels progress, the player must run, jump, and wall jump to get behind walls and platforms in order to avoid rows of projectiles coming from different sides of the room.

The challenge increases when homing projectiles are introduced. These appear along a straight line and slowly drift in the player’s direction. When he gets close, all of the nearby projectiles are activated and begin pursuit. Players need to keep their distance or get behind walls to avoid contact – or use their melee attack to temporarily push them back – and these projectiles explode after a few seconds. Later levels in the first world intermix straight-firing and heat-seeking projectiles for an added challenge.

World 2 introduces triangles that draw laser lines through the environment, and the player has a few seconds to move away from them before they are triggered. Sometimes these lasers appear in tight patterns leaving little room to move, and things grow more complex as players must dodge projectiles while avoiding lasers. This world also has enemies that appear in the shape of circles that dash quickly toward the player and split in two. The two smaller circles also dash toward the player and split into four, with the next hit destroying them altogether.

World 3 requires the player to use his melee strike to destroy boxes that form around him and to destroy bubble-like objects that slowly close in on his position, and which are destroyed in chain reactions with a melee attack. This world also has hexagonal shapes that emit a bunch of tiny triangle probes that seek you out. They will keep sending out these probes until you destroy the hexagons with an attack, and sometimes the primary challenge is simply reaching the hexagons as they may require multiple jumps, wall jumps, and midair dashes to reach. Later levels feature gun turrets, laser walls, explosives, and relentless heat-seeking arrows, and some dangers can be used to counteract one another.

Each world ends in a boss encounter, and these generally require unique strategies to overcome. The first boss is just a rampaging circle that dashes around the environment, requiring that you dodge around it and deliver three hits to destroy it. In the second world, the player faces off against an enemy that leaves a deadly trail behind it in the form of a line, so the player must lure the boss into striking this line and damaging itself.

Some bosses make use of lasers or explosives to keep the player on his toes, and each boss offers something new up until the final over-the-top encounter. The game also makes use of slow motion in some instances – often when causing damage to bosses or setting off large explosions – adding a bit of dramatic flair.

The level indicator on each screen has a circle around it, and this circle indicates the remaining number of enemies, giving the player an idea of how far he has made it into the level. In boss encounters, this acts as the boss’ life bar.

You are able to skip one level ahead, provided you completed the previous level, giving you a way out if you find yourself unable to overcome a particular challenge. Once all levels in a world have been completed, a speedrun mode opens, challenging you to beat 15 levels in succession. Since the time to complete a level is generally dependent upon the spawning of enemies and projectiles, the best way to achieve a low time is to avoid being killed. In this way, the challenge is more of a 1cc mode than a true speedrun, although skilled players can lure heat-seeking projectiles to destroy themselves more quickly, shaving precious seconds when seeking the top of the online leaderboards.

The game offers several survival modes as well, although most are locked and can only be completed by surviving for a long time in a previous challenge, or by replaying challenges to build a high cumulative score to unlock the next one. It is recommended that players attempt the main campaign before trying the survival modes so that they become familiar with how enemies and projectiles behave. That said, the survival modes aren’t any more engaging than the levels in the main campaign, as they are essentially endless versions of standard levels.

In the game’s tougher challenges, players must make use of advanced techniques, such as sticking to walls when pressing against them. Sometimes a vertical wall is the only safe space in a room, and players must cling to the wall, or jump from one wall to another in order to survive. Players can also dash in any direction by pressing the JUMP button in midair and pressing in the desired direction, or players can press the JUMP button without pressing a direction in order to hover for a moment. The player can only dash once in the air, but the dash maneuver resets when touching any platform or wall – even from below – allowing skilled players to make multiple jumps in succession.

The player’s melee strike must be used to destroy certain objects, and it can be used as a last-minute shield when cornered by projectiles. The attack has a cooldown period, so it can’t be used in rapid succession, but by luring projectiles to a single point of convergence, players can destroy several in one strike. These simple controls and advanced techniques give players the ability to pull off some impressive feats given the otherwise minimal design and tight restrictions, allowing skilled players to make their way further into the game, survive tough boss encounters, last longer in the survival modes, and take down their friends in versus modes.

Flat Heroes was developed by Parallel Circles, and this was the studio’s first release. Lucas Gonzalez is credited as programmer, artist, and fun researcher. Roger Valldeperas is credited as organic coder and physically based designer. Niklas Ström is credited as the audio magician, and he worked previously on Hyper Princess Pitch and Swords of Ditto. Music for the game was composed by Christian Björklund, who has also composed for numerous video games, including Little Nightmares, Mad Max, and Just Cause 2. Lucas and Roger previously worked together on a number of games in the LEGO universe.

The game was published by Deck 13, developer of The Surge and Venetica, and publisher of CrossCode and To Hell with Hell, among other titles.