When something leans too heavily on nostalgia to entertain, it’s often a sign that it can’t stand on its own without praying on your sentimentality. The Last Hero of Nostalgaia, ironically, is at its best when it’s drumming up gags that are funny and clever even removed from its constantly referential concept. This colorfully pixelated world is filled to the brim with little nods to some of the most iconic games of all time in a way that manages to stay fresh through to the end. That makes actually playing The Last Hero of Nostalgaia much more fun than it would be, as its campaign is otherwise an inoffensive series of checkpoint hunts with combat that might pay a little too much of an homage to the Souls-family of games.
The land of Nostalgaia is a dense tapestry of video game callbacks, with its different regions falling into low-poly despondency because their heroes are no longer there to play out the various stories that keep the place alive. Your hero, a literal stick figure, must bring memories back to a world that is losing them all at a steady clip. That boils down to traveling to various points and killing world bosses called Great Ones, but there are many aesthetic choices that help spice this recognizable formula up. Checkpoint “bonfires” are called beacons here, and when you light them, the 8-bit, 2D spaces surrounding them become fully textured 3D environments. The same transformation happens to the iconic gear you power up as well, and these are always fun scenes that I never skipped.
Last Hero isn’t fundamentally different from any action game you’ve played attempting to do a From Software impression. The risk/reward relationship between attacking and defending yourself from enemies at the expense of your stamina meter still marries comfortably with the gamble of pushing deeper and deeper down dangerous dungeon corridors, putting progress and currency on the line in hopes that a glowing checkpoint is around the corner and not some gnarly beast lying in wait to steal it all. As a person who’s played a lot of these, it didn’t take very long for the process to feel routine and familiar, and I quickly found myself wishing Last Hero would change the formula up in some significant way. It was a wish that was never granted across the roughly 10-hour journey.
The monsters you’ll be fighting come in many forms that constantly challenge your gameplan. From pretty basic knife-wielding rogues to hulking armored knights to evasive little forest goblins that turn into cardboard animals to hide from you, every zone has a new problem to solve. With the exception of one creature in particular that resembled Toad but as a sword-handed centaur, no single regular monster felt oppressive in the ways some Souls mini-bosses can feel. Bosses, of which there are very few, were reasonably tough, requiring some time to properly learn their tricky attack patterns and figure out the right time to strike. They come in some memorable shapes and sizes too, like a giant marauding beast made out of corpses or a dancing Buddha-like creature.
The post-apocalyptic world of Nostalgaia also adds some character to this otherwise tried and true structure in interesting ways, using a cool mix of 3D and pixelated graphics. Each region is full of its own secret corners and winding routes that double back on themselves to reveal shortcuts and the like. But the regions themselves connect to each other through a labyrinth of paths that are presented like a backstage area for NPCs to stage themselves, complete with break rooms and “motivational” posters meant to remind monsters to be scary and that their job is to be chaff for aspiring heroes. It’s a well-dressed way to take some sting off of the immense amount of backtracking required to progress, but doesn’t replace the convenience of a fast travel system.
Much of the backtracking is standard locked-door-is-now-unlocked sort of stuff, but the weapons and armor you gather through your journey present another persistent temptation to retread old steps. Every piece of gear you find is in a diminished form, but if you take them to specific spots in the world, you can reignite them with the memories of their former owners and power them up, raising their stats and abilities. A leather suit of armor goes from looking like its made of construction paper to gaining a more supple texture, depth of color, and rounded form. A flat axe with a simple color scheme gains a metallic, light-reflecting sheen and appropriate heft. Last Hero wisely turns the trope of dumping cryptic lore onto an item’s description into a scavenger hunt too, with the story snippets being a clue to guide you to the right room or in front of a certain statue where a particular item’s upgrade point is located.
Cleverness aside, I found that much of my time spent solving these little riddles was for items that I never got much use out of afterwards. Sometimes it was simply because they relied on stats that were not consistent with my build – but just as often new weapons and armor would feel mechanically redundant with options I already had, making their looks alone the main distinguishing trait. Those aesthetics were definitely a motivating factor for some of my pursuits though, and weapon and armor sets are regularly loud and proud references to classic game gear like Cloud’s Buster Sword or the chicken mask from Hotline Miami.
Last Hero has a good sense of humor outside of the ubiquitous game references as well. While I don’t think I laughed out loud at any of its gags or one-liners, there is a consistently jokey tone to the characters you meet and situations you find yourself in that garnered plenty of inner chuckles. The Narrator, a disembodied voice who is constantly beside himself about how well you are doing, was a big source of funny moments early on. Besides negging you during your journey, he’ll actively intervene at points, making a bridge when there’s a gap too large to cross, or dropping enemies and obstacles in your way when he needs to prove that you’re worse than your progress would suggest.
The polygons and plentiful meta references are the scaffolding that hold the visual themes together, but Last Hero also does a great job at creating beautiful vistas and harrowing landscapes on its own merit that aren’t just outright calls to some other source material. I was particularly impressed with how creepy and unsettling some of the rooms, caves, and forests could be simply by using good lighting or some well placed low texture models. The Warlock Wilds are a highlight, cloaked in a deep darkness with paths illuminated by brilliant blue crystals, while endgame spaces play with perspective and space in very memorable ways.
That said, a few persistent technical issues do Last Hero no favors. The lock-on feature felt unwieldy during combat, seemingly targeting whomever it wanted regardless of who my camera was on and how close the enemy was to me or the last one slain. In tight spaces, the camera can be a real chore to compensate for, and has cemented a solid distrust of hallway fights in me. These aren’t gamebreaking issues, and you can learn to work around them, but they’re annoyances all the same.
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