The adventuring lifestyle is fraught with peril: grues, deadly traps, curses, … and inventory management. Personally, I always got some satisfaction from finding that little more space by rearranging items to fit one more piece of loot. But if you want to play Tetris, you play Tetris.
Or why not find a happy marriage with both and play Backpack Hero? That’s what I would recommend, a fun twist on the roguelite formula with the heart of a deckbuilder. Easy to pick up and hard to put down (I feel like there’s a backpack analogy somewhere in there), though some repetitiveness, a few rough edges, and bugs or design decisions could use some polishing away.
Let’s start with Story Mode, though there’s also Quick Game (perhaps soon to be renamed?) that we’ll get to later. A tutorial guides you through the basic gameplay with the starting character Purse (of course): you have a limited space backpack you fill with items you can use in battles. Generally items cost some energy to play each turn, to do things like add block, attack an enemy, buff a weapon, and so on. And how you arrange items is not just to have what you want fit, but some items give bonuses to adjacent ones, or at a certain distance, or have different effects based on what is nearby, how many rows or columns there are, and so on. For example, a helmet gives you block each turn based on how many rows are beneath it. Battle rewards you with items and defeating enemies gives you experience, with level ups adding some spaces to your backpack, in places you choose rather than a set geometry.
Simple, and a good system to build up for all sorts of interesting strategies and essentially deckbuilding. Backpack filling?
The other element of Story Mode is some light town building. Each time you emerge from the dungeons you can sell or do research with the loot you bring back, which unlocks items and give you resources to rebuild the ruined town of Haversack Hill. These buildings in turn give you resources to further build the town, unlock more items and quests (starting loadouts and ways to unlock more), attract more inhabitant to town you can talk to, other characters to play as, and ultimately the story of your missing mother and what has happened to this world.
I haven’t gotten far enough in the story elements to have a definitive opinion, but so far the usual mystery of family member gone missing in the dungeon and trying to save your town after ruin. This is just through conversations in town and is quick enough to dismiss if you don’t need an excuse for more adventuring, no cutscenes or animations.
This mode serves as a ramping up set of new things to use and dungeons to visit, though I found it a bit of a too simple and slow start to the progression for the first several hours. This fits with one of my main complaints that I’ll return to later, places where the Backpack Hero feels too repetitive. Then again, I play a lot of these types of games, so I could see for someone newer this being a nice on-ramp.
Each dungeon run has a small map with some limited choices in where you can go or what order you can do things. There are a few branching corridors which will close off the other path, stores, free money and experience, upgrade stations, chance encounters (like rolling a dice for items or trading in an item for an unknown higher quality one), and all the usual stuff in the genre. After a few levels (3 as far as I saw in each area) you face a boss and get some rewards, either going on to a new area or back to town if it is the end of the run. All the early quests finish after one or two areas.
And if you die you can save an item, but otherwise it is back to town for you. Any time that passed does generate resources from the town buildings at least, so it is not a complete loss.
Depth and Replayability
The basic setup of the backpack opens up all sorts of avenues, through 5 different play styles (different characters) with all sorts of variations. For example, some of the first new kinds of items you’ll see in Story Mode, beyond the simple “use energy to block or attack” kind, are ones that use mana. Here you set up a “mana network” with items bordering one another with the conductive keyword. This allows mana to flow between them, say from a stone that stores mana to a wand that uses it to do damage, or from one that also will add mana back to the network. This can have other effects, like items that get a bonus or do something when mana goes through them in the network.
That whole concept is at the core of another character, CR-8 (get it??), who is a robot rodent. With them you build up a circuit of interconnecting parts to have energy flow around to block, attack, and so on, activating items each time energy passes through them. You may want to even use switches, items that change when too much energy has flowed through them (basic circuit flow control!), and even infinite loops. There’s a handy testing button to see where things go when you activate your circuit. So your strategy is mostly in what items to pick and where to put them, often not doing much during battle but running your build, so to speak.
It is cool stuff with lots of possibilities in each play style for what you want to do. Like pets? There’s one for you. Or prefer creating items on the fly in your backpack? That’s another. And of course the usual staples like using afflictions or cursed items as bonuses, all defense styles, and just tons of item interactions to discover.
I had one Story Mode quest where I started with a whetstone that adds to attack of items in the same row and column, with a bunch of 0 cost shivs. So I could just keep pumping them up to higher levels of damage over the course of a battle, expanding my backpack geometry to make the most use of it with a long row and column. It was a nice way to introduce some basic strategy to a player.
Over the course of playing the Story Mode you keep unlocking items and characters, building up the possible complexity. With 800+ items to unlock, there’s a lot to do.
Alternatively, there is “Quick Game” where you can select any character and play with all the items unlocked. In many games of this genre, this is where you end up after unlocking all the different cards, items, etc. from playing with a reduced set to begin with. That’s a lot to throw at someone if they are unfamiliar with these types of games, though characters include a quick tutorial for their special mechanics. It is a nice option to have for someone that doesn’t want to spend many hours in Story Mode, or care about the story and town building side which you’ll need to make progress at a decent pace. Instead of the quests with starting items and objectives of Story Mode, there are various challenges or gameplay tweaks you can select in Quick Game to also spice it up, like bonus items or reduced health.
Dying in Quick Game just sends you back to the menu; there’s no run summary or anything like that, which is unusual and unfortunate. You can retry though, and it seems you can always go back to the same area (before you died) from the “Continue Quick Game” option in the main menu.
There are also mods. I think these mostly add/change items so far, but looks like more extensive changes will be possible. If the mod scene takes off, that can be a huge boon for a game like this to keep it going.
Some Rough Spots
Like any backpack, this game is not perfect. And like most new bags, there are some spots that chaff, could be better designed, or … um, collect bugs from leftover crumbs? Let’s go with that since this is obviously the perfect analogy.
I haven’t hit any game breaking bugs exactly, though a quick perusal of the Steam discussions does find some reports. Definitely some little ones though, like when some items overlap and it is hard to select them or some items not interacting as you’d expect. Though on that last point it could be me, as I was confused sometimes in what something meant without trying it out and seeing it in action. For instance, not all items in a mana network will show you the connections when you hover over them which can lead to some guessing if things are going the way you’d expect.
Actually, that might be more of a design problem. Another example is with level up and end of battle item rewards, where I found it much too easy to accidentally skip them by bringing up the map or clicking on the wrong button. Frustratingly, I’ve lost valuable backpack space or an item I wanted because of this, which should always be clearly communicated when you are skipping (you do have to press a button to finish rewards, but it was possible to bypass this accidentally).
Likewise, the controller support is supposed to be complete but I found it a bit wonky. It was impossible for me to select from drop-down menus; once I got lucky by touching the screen, but only once. The d-pad by default doesn’t work in some (most?) menus, where the pointer goes can be a bit surprising, though with the Deck the trackpad gives you finer control to hover over elements for more info. Mostly. It can be hit or miss.
I wasn’t a fan of the more mouse-only community layouts on the Deck, and probably a hybrid one would work best (buttons to quickly do things, but easy mouse for fine control). But I didn’t get to making my own or customizing what’s out there yet, though my try at using mouse (trackpad) with controller layout didn’t work. That might indicate controller plus keyboard/mouse inputs can’t be used at the same time.
An actual bug I hit was when the game displayed at an odd resolution centered on the Deck display, but with the mouse and touchscreen unable to interact with anything. This happened after playing on my desktop, so some resolution setting was synced/got messed up? I had to go into the preferences file manually, at
~/.config/unity3d/TheJaspel/Backpack Hero/prefs and edit it. Deck’s desktop mode to the rescue.
Speaking of playing on different systems, saves did not want to sync for me (I played on the Linux native version). At least at first? It now seems to be syncing my progress in Story Mode and Quick Games, at least since I manually moved saves around with both on the native version.
Otherwise everything did run very smoothly on the Deck and desktop, both native or Proton (which is selected by default by Valve on the Deck). And this is one of those games that you can easily maximize your battery life: down to 3W at 60fps is pretty much as good as it can get for any game. Sadly the full native resolution at 800p is not an option though.
Finally, my last criticism is more fundamental to the current state of how the game is designed, but also could be fixed. I’ve found Story Mode to be on the repetitive side, at least in the earlier hours. The dungeon runs you can do are all the same area for 3 levels with pretty much the same stuff, until you unlock more items and areas. This is not like a huge “grind” as in other genres, but to me took away the early momentum you want in a game like this of continuing to open up neat possibilities and keep the player hooked with new mechanics and strategies to try out.
The music, which I enjoyed, is also pretty limited when you are doing the same few areas and in town. So while it is catchy, I noticed it in the wrong way almost immediately.
Even with more unlocked, or in Quick Game, you’ll be facing the same areas (with more choice) and enemies, to some degree. There are supposed to be 100+ enemies and repetition is part of this genre, but I think in Story Mode at least this could be better tuned in the opening hours. In good games of this genre the early sameness should melt away as you get better and spend more time in the later areas, but it needs to not get in the way of opening up the game to a new player. But, with Quick Game mode you can skip that and jump right into the sandbox.
It’s A Good One!
All that said, Backpack Hero has been drawing me in the more I play it. The variety of items and play styles is huge, the art style and music is fun (more music please!), and finding great backpack arrangements for more complicated builds is very satisfying.
I think a key strength here is in giving you difficult but fun choices all the time. This is difficult for most games, as it is so easy to annoy or make something cheesy (difficult in an unfair way), or lack enough balance to make it interesting to try out something new. Backpack Hero finds that sweet spot in its core gameplay design. Backpack space is always limited, so how do you want to pick items? What’s worth holding on to, or what’s better to ditch to transition to some new items? There are tradeoffs everywhere, from what you take and leave behind, where you put things…every choice feels meaningful and taking you that much closer to locking in a powerful run.
I think the rougher spots are easily fixed and the mod support is a nice plus. While I found the Story Mode a slower start, it might be just the thing for players newer to this genre. There’s so much to see and experiment with that it does help to have a way to introduce things bit by bit. Either way, Backpack Hero is fun and creative new addition to one of my favorite types of game in the past several years.
A more clever person than me would end with something about putting this on your Deck in your backpack for some meta-commentary about endless fun and backpacks. Too bad you are stuck with me, so I’ll just say I’m looking forward to spending a long time with this one! It will certainly be in my bag for my next trip.
Backpack Hero is out now on Steam for all platforms. A review key was provided by the publisher.