Original ideas are hard to come by in game design, though the indie scene is a great place to look for said originality. Hero Among Us, a superhero-themed crisis manager developed by Fire Horse Studio, makes an attempt at innovating in this strategy sub-genre with limited success.
The game is set on modern day Earth as the player embodies an enigmatic scientist who grows superheroes in a secret lab orbiting the planet. On any given playthrough, the player will have to choose one of three archetypes to improve and defend the world. Oddly enough, there hasn’t been a superhero crisis manager game in recent memory, if at all. This concept is the game’s greatest strength, along with a neat comic book aesthetic style.
The three distinct heroes (Vigilante, Speedster, and Genius) are all well realized and stand apart both in their starting stats, active abilities, and their extensive skill trees. It’s quite clear that a lot of effort has been put into the skill trees with each superhero having legitimate differences in their progression and capabilities. Due to a level cap, it’s impossible to learn all skills and players will have to carefully decide how they want to use their hero. The strategic decision-making potential is solid.
One area of disappointment in character progression is the enhancement tree, which is essentially exactly the same for every archetype, except for the active ability upgrade. Clearly a missed opportunity to not only give each superhero their own gameplay identity, but also even more options for replayability.
Players will control their superhero by moving around the planet to different countries while establishing local improvements to the country, neutralizing increasingly difficult crises, and fighting a varied cast of villains. The control scheme is simple, which lets players focus on the tactical and strategic decision-making rather than figuring the game out.
Throughout a playthrough, timed random events will pop-up and require the players to respond from different options. These random events are really neat and spice up the game as there’s a mix of one-off events that can give various benefits or negatives, and even mini storylines where new villains can arrive. This system adds character to the game and certainly makes anyone feel like a superhero.
The overall objective is to improve the majority of the planet before it gets overrun by more and more severe crises. The goal and premise are simple enough, with a good pace that starts slow and then builds up to the point where the world will look like it’s flooded with villainy and problems. This makes the game quite challenging even on normal difficulty.
Unfortunately, Hero Among Us has some significant issues that dampen the novelty of its original concept. The first major issue is the game’s replayability. Aside from countering crises, which simply requires a hero to be stationed in the affected country, beating up villains, which happens automatically without player input, and levelling up, there really isn’t much else to do in the game.
Hero Among Us has three difficulty levels which have to be unlocked by playing through them in order. In effect, these levels count as separate playthroughs with each higher level throwing more crises and villains to overwhelm the player in increased quantity without fundamentally differentiating them with additional content or features. The fact that the difficulty levels were themselves unlockables felt like padding to hide the fact that the game has little meat on its bones. Each playthrough isn’t that long either, taking about an hour or so for you to reach victory.
The other major issue of Hero Among Us is balance, the interaction of improvements and crises and the speed stat and Speedster archetype in particular. These problems hamper the limited replayability of the game even further and also severely dampen the strategic depth and player choice.
Regarding improvements and crises, to commence construction and combat crises players simply need to station their hero in a country and the process begins automatically. The speed of construction and crisis response depends on the character’s enhancements and stats, with higher stats meaning quicker crisis response.
The issue is that improvements don’t appear to affect crises or villains in any meaningful way and that construction and crisis response happens simultaneously. This takes away any complexity of decision when choosing improvements in the skill tree and reduces decision-making opportunities as player’s just need to decide where to go, but they don’t get to decide what to do in the country their hero is visiting. Overall, this system seems too streamlined.
Similarly problematic, the speed stat is disproportionately more useful than the other stats and the Speedster character breaks the game. Speed in crisis management games in general is important; but it has way more impact than the other stats in the game. Speed doesn’t appear to have much limitation and seems to be always beneficial, unlike the others.
The Speedster character compounds the speed balance issue since they start with the highest speed stat, have lots of skills that improve speed even further, and an ability that breaks the game with no drawback, penalty or limitation. The Speedster’s active ability allows them to freeze time for a set amount of days and do everything they would normally do. In this state, they take no damage from villains or crises when normally they would — the ability simply goes on cooldown. This time freeze ability can even be upgraded further to have an increased duration.
The Speedster’s ability overshadows the other archetype’s abilities by several orders of magnitude and the character as a whole eclipses them in quality, making it pointless to be either a Genius or a Vigilante. Granted, the developers might be doing meta commentary here arguing that in any superhero universe speed-based characters are overpowered, but for the best experience, it’s vital to balance all available player options to increase the opportunity for strategic and tactical decision-making. The Speedster in Hero Among Us undermines this fundamental of strategy design.
Hero Among Us also has some minor issues on top of the major problems. The UI could do with some cleaning up during intense periods of crisis spawning, villain arrival, and random events as the notifications can obstruct one another and block vital information. Moreover, there are some typos and awkward phrasing in skill descriptions, but this is nowhere near as egregious as the previously-mentioned problems.
In terms of audio design, the music in the game is generic and repetitive with occasional sound effects highlighting pop-ups or villain appearances. The options menu is almost nonexistent and doesn’t provide much usability customization. I didn’t encounter any bugs or crashes and the game ran smoothly with no frame drops.
Though the review may sound negative, the experience itself was fun, yet empty. After completing a playthrough, I caught myself thinking, “is that it?”, especially after discovering the Speedster’s capabilities. This is a small-scale game so its short length isn’t inherently a significant critique, but the fact it’s unfulfilling can’t be ignored. Altogether, Hero Among Us doesn’t live up to the strength of its intriguing concept.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Though innovative in concept and boasting a great setting and aesthetic, a lack of content and glaring balance issues keep Hero Among Us from taking to the sky.
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