Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption sees Quest For Glory designers Lori and Corey Cole return to gaming after a hiatus of nearly two decades. The new game is effectively a spiritual follow-up to the QFG series; the name can't be used as Activision owns the rights to it, but apparently that's all they own as Hero-U takes place in the QFG universe (Gloriana) and there are copious references to the events of the QFG series.
The gameplay is a little different, however. The QFG games took Sierra's adventure game engines of the time and managed to cobble RPG elements (like character statistics and combat) into them in a way that worked out pretty well. That's still the basic framework here, albeit just moved to an isometric perspective and with an extremely simplified interface. The QFG games always had some type of action-oriented combat, however; here it's entirely turn-based. A strong "time management" element has also been fused in, borrowed from a lineage of Japanese games of which the later Persona titles are probably the most familiar representatives.
Hero-U is planned to be an ongoing series (if all goes well), and the central conceit is students of various character classes going to this Hero University to learn their trade. Of course, Harry Potter immediately springs to mind, but this is actually based on the Coles' unusual social-media-ish experiment School of Heroes that was active in the mid-late aughts, directly incorporating some characters and concepts from it.
We start out with the Rogue class in this first entry, and instead of rolling and naming our own Teutonic Hero we play as a character named Shawn. Shawn is sort of a street urchin teenager who is trying to join the local Thieves' Guild, and the adventure starts in media res on his trial job for the guild, breaking into a house to pilfer a particular coin. On the way out, Shawn is confronted by a mysterious stranger and given a choice - attend Hero U at the behest of an unknown patron, or be turned in to the coppers.
The Rogue class is a sort of re-imagining of QFG's Thief class to make it more plausible within the university context. Rogues use all the thief tools and techniques, like lockpicking and dagger-throwing, but have a moral code and only use their powers for good. Thinking of it as a "spy" class isn't far off the mark.
So, once ensconced in the university (which we won't leave for the rest of the game), the Persona-QFG hybrid gameplay begins. Though some vague hints are dropped throughout about nefarious Old One activities lurking beneath the school, there is no real Big Evil to conquer here; Shawn's goal is to basically just make it through the 50-day semester without getting kicked out. The main overarching plot points are to learn more about Shawn's mysterious benefactor, and also to win the coveted Rogue of the Year (shouldn't it be semester?) award through your academic and personal excellence, but you can actually bumble through the entire game without doing either of those things particularly well. Various minor crises will pop up over the course of the semester, but if you just avoid the fallout and wait long enough, some classmate or another will take care of them. Of course, taking care of it yourself is the primary thing that leads to Rogue of the Year, and often in the course of these sidequests you learn more about Shawn's personal mysteries as well.
The game has a couple of Deals that it expects you to be aware of before you put your money down for it. It's a combination of two somewhat niche genres: old-school adventure games and time management sims, and you'll probably need to be an established fan of at least one of the above to get the most out of this title. Not only are each of these not to everyone's taste, the way they combine may not entirely work for fans of one but not the other. Adventure game fans may feel some consternation at the time management aspect, as it precludes free exploration and level-grinding. Time management fans may find the adventure game style of puzzle solutions a little too obtuse, making it difficult to optimize your routine. The design intention was to have the player play through multiple times to see everything available, so you have to be comfortable with all that being The Deal to really enjoy the game.
The university runs on a pretty intense schedule of six days of classes and one day off each week. The start of each day is automatically carved out for breakfast and mandatory rogue class, with you getting control of Shawn at 2 PM. You technically have until 1 AM each day to do stuff, but staying up past 11 puts you in "tired" status which lowers some stats the next day and can get you in trouble in class. You're also required to eat dinner from 6-7 PM, and you'll be automatically teleported to the dining hall at 6 if you're off doing something else.
Every action takes time, and some take quite a bit of time. Training in anything usually takes one hour, conversations can go from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the length, even transitioning between each room usually takes at least 5 minutes. However, other than a few periodic examinations that can get you kicked out if you fail them, there are no hard status checks to trip you up. Combat is almost completely optional (I only saw one battle very late in the game that appeared to be unavoidable), and most combat losses just end with you getting toted to the infirmary and losing a chunk of the current game day. The only combat deaths seem to be reserved for a few select "boss monsters" lurking way out of the way in the depths of the optional dungeons below the school.
Not being able to get to all the optional stuff due to not knowing what to train / where to go early in the game will no doubt be frustrating to some, but again, The Deal with this one is that it's meant to be replayed at least once to see everything. It would be nice if the game's marketing materials made this clearer, but then again the game was made on such a tight budget (barely making it to release through two Kickstarters and five years of development) I've seen little marketing of any kind to begin with. You're kind of just expected to know coming in that that's how the time management genre usually works.
Of course, the biggest contingent coming to this one will not be time management gamers, but QFG fans looking for a revival of the beloved series. To that end, this is about as good as you can hope for short of a full-fledged series revival. The writing and character design very much have that classic QFG feel to them, and Corey Cole reported on the official forum that there is actually about four times more dialogue in this game than in any other entry in the QFG series. The continuation of the Gloriana world and the references to previous games really help in this regard.
The combat is another Know The Deal sort of thing. If you play it like a standard turn-based JRPG, you're bound to find it grindy and over-difficult. If you pay attention to the in-game rogue lessons, however, you should at some point realize that you're not supposed to be just wading in and hacking it out with the enemies. To be fair, this is a bit of an oversight in design; the only combat areas are totally optional and usually take some time to find, so there's never really a natural opportunity for an in-game tutorial. But combat becomes much more enjoyable once you realize you're supposed to be making full use of your Roguely toolbox. The first and most important element is sneaking up and initiating combat before enemies see you, which allows you to move about the battlefield and lay various traps before actually beginning the fight. You also get a big damage bonus for striking an unaware enemy in the back. Again, combat is almost completely optional, but you'll have to come to grips with it to solve most of the major side quests that open up the entirety of the game.
As a longtime (and bigly) QFG fan, there were only a few big disappointments for me here. One was a not-great implementation of some puzzle solutions. There are multiple cases where you know you have to do something, and there are logical things you can try ... but the answer is you actually are supposed to just wait a few days for some other scripted development to happen before you're allowed to solve the quest. While irritating, these are also only really an issue on the first playthrough.
Another "first run only" issue is the fact that, outside of a couple of particular skills like lock-picking and stamina, levels really aren't that important. It actually turns out to be better to have a 50 in nearly everything than excel at any one or two particular things, as skill checks are never all that high even late in the game. You'll want to get your tool use as high as possible for some late-game tests and side quest doors, and high combat abilities are very useful for getting through all of the side quests, but with pretty much every other skill you can stop around 50 and not be locked out of anything.
I was disappointed in the music, too, given the pedigree of the series. It isn't bad, but it's that "generic symphonic ambient game score" approach that's become too common over the past decade or so. Most of the soundtrack was instantly forgettable, the only one that stuck with me was the little riff when you go to bed, and that's only because it sounds like it's about to break out into RHCP's Under The Bridge when it starts ("Under the catacombs / is where I drew some blood!") I felt this was a really big missed opportunity given the excellent QFG soundtrack history. I know it's a very long shot but I would have loved to see the return of Mark Seibert after being away from scoring games for nearly as long as the Coles were away from designing. Or Aubrey Hodges, who appears to still be working and whose unique combo of moody brass-heavy orchestra and wailing guitar rock would have been fitting for the Mordavia-esque gloomy castle setting.
All-in-all, though, this is a very solid return to the RPG/adventure world for the Coles that has more than enough going to please established QFG fans. Newer/younger gamers may be a harder sell, since the design philosophy is still rooted in the '90s in many ways, but the overall fairly well-done incorporation of time management elements should help to pique the interest of fans of JRPGs like Persona and Japanese dating sims. On a more personal note, I think gaming has sorely missed the writing of the Coles and it couldn't have come back at a better time. The gentleness, humanism and wisdom that gave the QFG series its personality seems more badly needed than ever in today's political and social climate.
A whole series is planned, with three more university games each covering the other QFG character classes, and then a final adventure that brings the four heroes together to battle some of your usual creeping horrors from beyond. Many of the rough edges that need to be filed here are directly the result of the tumultuous funding process; a better budget and backing would bring out the full potential that is on display with this first title.
* Gameplay Video