Paving the way for the Action-Adventure Genre
Herobound Spirit Champion Review – I would venture to say that this is the first fully fleshed out game of it’s type to hit the Gear VR and is worth every penny. Oh wait I forgot it’s completely free! Spirit Champion shows that a full featured epic tale can be done right on mobile VR, and is currently one of the best titles available on the Samsung Gear VR.
Warning for Note 4 Gear VR Owners: The overheating is just as bad as in First Steps. About every 15 minutes you will have to remove the Gear VR to let it cool down from overheating. Removing the outer cover is almost mandatory as leaving it on could shorten that time to 10 minutes. If you want to go a step further, you can take the back portion of your phone off, but be careful the battery doesn’t fall out. I also found that enabling airplane mode on the Note 4 more than doubles the time I could play without it overheating. I also found that the speed at which the Note 4 overheats is affected by the area you are currently playing through. Places like the fire dungeon which had more going on in the background caused overheating to occur faster. Gunfire Games & Oculus did manage to make it less of an issue in Spirit Champion and the game is a bit more playable after the overheating notice appears.
I still can’t believe that I can pick up my Note 4 cell phone, plop it into my Samsung Gear VR, and play a game so grand on the go that fully sucks me into the world. Add to this it can be played anywhere. Played at home, check. Played in bathroom, check. Played on subway and almost got mugged, double check. Get this baby into the hands of Miyamoto and years later we will find ourselves with Nintendo VR DS or whatever they end up calling it. Herobound Spirit Champion is just that good. It’s a combination of the immersion, charming design, fair yet challenging puzzles, and an accessible battle system that makes Spirit Champion the must have game on the Gear VR.
First Steps gave us a taste of what was to come with two large dungeons and an end boss, but it was really just an appetizer to tide us over until the main course, Herobound Spirit Champion. The story is simple yet charming. One of the spirits of the four realms, the fire spirit, has been up to no good, and has imprisoned the other spirits out of jealousy. The spirit of life chooses you to swoop in and put an end to his shenanigans. It’s not going to win any awards but it’s simple enough to motivate you to keep going.
The visuals in Spirit Champion never cease to amaze me. Gunfire Games and Oculus are masters of taking the limited resources available using the Note 4 and pushing them to their limits. There’s nothing like complex shadowing here, but the art style and the presence of well done particle effects more than makes up for it. The first thing I noticed were the dandelion flowers and leaves flowing through the air. I wanted to just reach out and touch them. The sound is also superb, but is hampered by it’s lack of consistency during battle. Often times midway through the fight the battle music would stop and the normal dungeon music would kick back in.
In Herobound Spirit Champion, the player is provided with an isometric view of the action. This does little to detract from the sense of immersion, as you feel every bit as involved in the action and have the ability to look at the stunning environments that surround you. There are quite a few endearing things the hero does if you look closely. I loved the sound and animation that resulted from accidentally swinging the sword against a wall. I also found myself shooting an arrow towards my face for some mild amusement. I wish that they left in the part from First Steps where the hero would stare up at you when you came back to the action after you were inactive for a while. It was a quirky little thing that I really enjoyed about First Steps.
The first thing you will notice if you played First Steps is the addition of a hub town inhabited by a few friendly villagers. When speaking with some of the townsfolk be careful not to hit the action button on the gamepad or you will find yourself accidentally skipping through the dialogue. Once you skip through dialogue you will not have the opportunity to go back and read it again. At the house you begin the game in you can check your journal for your current journey progress. Most of the action takes place across four unique dungeons with designs and mechanics based on the elemental realm they exist in. In contrast to First Steps, Herobound Spirit Champion adds a host of outdoor areas to explore. This was a nice addition and brings a feeling of interconnection to the world. There is little in the way of side quests here, but it is the first game in mobile VR of it’s kind so I wasn’t really coming in expecting them. The enemies are unique to the realms they reside in and well varied. To avoid spoilers, I will let you be surprised when you encounter them. The combat is nothing new, and most of the fights come down to roll away and attack. The first realm of the four does not present much in the form of challenging combat, and acts as a way to ease you into Spirit Champion’s mechanics. Upon arriving at the water realm though, things get a bit challenging. You will find yourself starting the game with three hearts, and until the water realm each connected hit takes off roughly 1/4 to 1/2 of a heart. As soon as I hit the 2nd dungeon, I was getting a good chunk of my health knocked off each time I got hit. There are opportunities to increase your total health. Defeating the first boss increases your heart count by 1, and there is an alchemist you meet after clearing the first dungeon that let’s you extend your life beyond four hearts. I didn’t do this as the cost comes in at 4000 gems! There is a mix of easier monsters and ridiculously powerful ones that can easily take you out in one combo. Fortunately, Herobound Spirit Champion provides alternate weapons to make taking down different enemies types a bit easier to manage. You will pick up a huge hammer in the earth realm that takes a second or two to charge, but pretty much one shots anything you successfully execute an attack against, with one big downside. Charging it will open you up to enemy attacks, and even being attacked halfway through the animation will result in an interrupt.
The real challenge comes in scripted encounters that happen before grabbing a key or when entering areas for the first time. This is similar to the parts in First Steps where the platforms are falling into the lava while you clear the room of enemies. These are no joke. It took me multiple attempts to clear most of these. I learned to fear rooms with keys or opened gates.
There are two notable NPCs in town. A blacksmith provides upgrades to your swords damage, and a vendor in another part of town offers new skills that can be purchased using gems. In my impressions I stated that these skills would be quick to get. That could not have been farther from the truth. After completing the first dungeon 2 hours into my playthrough, I had gathered just enough gems for one sword damage upgrade and two of the abilities. By the time I had beaten the game, I was still missing a few skills and the heart upgrade. Each of the attacks are quite useful with the exception of bow charge and sword charge, which I rarely used. They take too long to charge up to really be effective in my opinion. Ones like the upward attack seemed to have a chance of instantly killing the monster after successfully executed. It also seemed particularly effective against enemies with shields and when used in combination with the jump attack. The abilities are as follows:
Each realm hosts one or more mini bosses and an end boss. The mini bosses can almost be as difficult as the main one, and one such mini boss encounter in the water realm is extremely entertaining. The main bosses require quite a bit of thought and can easily kill you if not careful. Some offer an epic feel to them that I still can’t believe is possible with the Note 4’s hardware. However, others have no build up to them at all. I would have no idea I was actually fighting the end boss until the spirit showed up to thank me for freeing it.
There was quite some attention to detail in the dungeon designs. In the water one, you feel like you are inside an aquarium, looking through glass windows for a view of the outside. The sky realm has beautiful vistas and takes place almost entirely outside. Many of the dungeons are inhabited by archer type enemies who will shoot at you while you melee down the close range mobs. You can use this to your advantage by positioning the hero between them and the ranged foes. The arrows/ice/fire balls will then damage the monsters close to you as you mow them down. There is also map that can be accessed at any time showing your rough location in each dungeon, highlighting the room you are currently in.
The new items gained upon defeating each boss (and sub bosses sometimes), are put to full use in Herobound Spirit Champion. After receiving each one, the game introduces you to the mechanics of it’s use before setting you off to use them in the proceeding puzzles. Some of these items can even be used against enemies, which I found to be really cool. These artifacts are continually used throughout most of the game.
Herobound Spirit Champion takes roughly 5-8 hours to beat, which is the longest game yet to appear on the Gear VR. Most of your time spent when not battling through mobs of enemies will be with the puzzles. Fortunately they are quite involving and require some thought to complete. You will find yourself doing things like pushing blocks, shooting crystal switches, and avoiding fireballs.
The puzzles can be frustrating as a lot of the rooms they exist in provide countless opportunities to stumble to your death. Dying sets you back at the beginning of the room, with the gem locations completely reset. I would often find myself attempting a puzzle, falling in the lava/water or getting hit by fireball, then going through more than a few additional attempts. Each time I would collect the same gems again and again. Then just when I had things figured out the overheating notification would appear. Fortunately the game auto saves when taking the headset off, so you can resume right where you left off after your Note 4 cools down.
Speaking of gems, there might be times when you want to spend them before attempting the dungeon boss. You’ll have to backtrack for upwards of 5 minutes through mostly empty rooms to get back to the statue that ports you back to town. This is a mild inconvenience, but had me wishing there was something akin to an escape spell to get out of dungeons quickly. You’ll really notice it before the last boss, and it’s a long ways to town and back.
There are quite a few uses of text boxes in Spirit Champion to introduce you to gameplay mechanics and for NPC dialogue. The text was big and easy to read, but I heard reports of some people with less than ideal vision having trouble with them. The one gripe I had with the text was when some of the tips would come up after gaining a new ability or item. These tips would appear towards the bottom, and often times be too long and blurry to be able to read the whole thing.
As with any game on a new platform with completely new technology like the Gear VR, Herobound Spirit Champion is not safe from bugs and glitches. I’ve experienced my fair share during my playthrough. Some are minor graphical glitches that don’t hinder gameplay such as enemies clipping through stairs and text dialog being skipped. Others can have players scratching their head for a bit before figuring out what to do. The boss of the air realm dungeon that has a bug concerning the sound that was immensely confusing. I had to go online to figure out a solution to the fight. There was also a certain room that seemingly had no way to proceed until I killed myself and ended up on the right side. Taking into account the grand scale of what the developers have been able to accomplish, these are not that big of a deal and I’m sure they will be patched out in the coming weeks.
A lot of the fight scenes are scripted and can only be done once, making it difficult for those wishing to grind for gems to get 100% completion, or those simply wanting to show their friends the cool fight they just experienced. Be sure to do everything you want to prior to the last boss. Upon finishing Herobound Spirit Champion, you will find there is no going back into the world and get the abilities you missed or revisit areas. Loading up your finished game will put you back at the end scene and credits. This was a bit of a let down.
Herobound Spirit Champion is an important first step for action-adventure games on the Gear VR. It shows a full featured game of this type can be done well. It is a great time indeed to be a mobile VR gamer.