I grew up in a small town not unlike Axe's. There was a quaint main street, locals I knew only from how often I'd run into them, and childhood friends. We'd run around doing mischief, like how Axe tries to sneak into the town's shiny castle in the opening moments of Little Town Hero. Life was uncomplicated then; still young and naive. Like Axe, I too wanted to break out of my small town. But unlike Axe, I didn't discover a mysterious stone that gave me the power to fight giant threatening monsters through card-combat.
Little Town Hero, on paper, is utterly charming. It instantly reminds me of Level-5's PlayStation 2 JRPGs, games that thrived in what I consider to be an oft-forgotten golden era for the genre. In Little Town Hero, you play as the red-headed Axe, and like Game Freak's other major RPG series, you're frequently doing battle with your rival. The monster, character, and town design is consistently adorable and stand as a reminder of Game Freak's knack for memorable art direction. That's where the Pokemon similarities, and really anything pleasant about the game, end though.
What Little Town Hero lacks is a sense of adventure. The story, and writing in turn, is bland and forgettable. The compactness of its world is an interesting conceit, only the small town barely feels lived in. You see the same couple character model repeats as townspeople everywhere and do occasional side quests, but nothing ever amounts to anything. And counter to the usual quiet of small town life, its combat is feverishly complicated.
For instance, unlike most RPGs, there are no items. There is no progression in the traditional sense. There is an ability tree in "Eureka" points, but the only way you get points is through completing a fight. And battles only play out in the story, whether you're battling your rival for the 50th time, or a giant monster who is wreaking havoc on the town at the end of each chapter.
While built on a fascinating concept, the combat feels like it's been overdesigned. It's part deck builder, part board game (think like a Mario Party layout). It's a battle system that seems like it was conceived in a child's imagination, at once adorable and ludicrous. You have the cutely named "Izzits," ideas for moves that haven't materialized yet, and "Dazzits," what they turn into when you activate an Izzit. Activating an Izzit costs a certain amount of stones, and at the start of every match, you have just three of 'em. After three turns, that number goes up to four, until it eventually caps out at six action points you can spend per turn on your Izzits. Your cards are split into three categories; red is attack, yellow is defense, and blue is some sweeping perk, whether it boosts all your cards or attacks the enemy's.
You would think that losing all your cards, which exist in your "headspace," would spell game over. But no, Little Town Hero's fail state comes in an entirely separate form: in your "body" damage, shown through three hearts at the bottom of the screen, sometimes with a bonus "Guts" shield that you can upgrade to be stronger in your Eureka points. It's here where battles become tedious and unrewarding.
The cards that get pulled per match are random. In a lot of cases, I'd find myself with hardly any cards to use that would inflict damage on the enemy's cards. In a no-win scenario (as there's no ability to stall or skip a turn), I would have to use Axe's "Struggle" move—struggle doesn't use a card, has a 50% chance of inflicting just one point in damage, and always inflicts body damage on Axe himself. In other words, it gets you closer to that fail state, all because you don't have a card to use at the moment.
The risk and reward factor could be appealing, as it is in so many other games that proudly wear their difficulty on their sleeve, but Little Town Hero flubs it. It presents itself as any other Game Freak game: charming to its core, with even Toby Fox music soundtracking it. It gets lost in its convoluted battle system, which only gets more complex when you're fighting a boss.
It's easy to see the areas where Little Town Hero's deep combat goes awry. The divorced body damage system, for example, makes every boss fight last an hour or longer. You're not just strategizing what cards to use on any given turn to take out their full set; you need to do so to wipe out their Dazzits because it's the only way to leave them vulnerable for a hit on their body meter, a.k.a. the only way to take them down and end the battle. The big issue is: you can only inflict that vulnerable hit if you have a red Dazzit activated as you make your final move on their set with a separate card. If you don't, you only get a "BP" point that you can use to swap cards or refresh your card inventory. Getting to a point where you take out all of an enemy's cards is rare on its own, usually only coming at the end of a battle when you have a full six-actions backing you.
As I said before, this makes every boss battle last a long time. The other night, I spent well over an hour slowly chipping away at a giant plant monster that decided to wreak havoc on Main Street. With the board game system that's enabled during boss fights, I did my best to utilize my supports—which are characters who stand at certain spots on the map and offer perks, like a man who gives curry that introduces the ability to mix two same-colored cards together to make one extra strong card—while moving Axe to different spots on the screen with dice rolls. There are "gimmicks" on these board game spaces too, like cannons that can be set off to enact body damage to the boss if you have a particular card in play. When everything aligns, it all feels cool for a moment. Like you're playing smart for once.
It's the loop of the battles that grinds its own cleverness down. It's the time and time again realizing you thought a turn would last just a hair longer than it actually did, and you miss out on a key move needed to take out an enemy's last Dazzit to make them vulnerable. It's making one small misstep and realizing that the only way to get through the rest of the turn is to sacrifice yourself even though you have just one heart of life left, and then it's back to retry the battle all over again. It all adds up into something that's too much, all the time, and hardly is satisfying.
For a game about small town shenanigans, Little Town Hero feels at odds with its own vibe. You can walk around shops, like a cheese shop where you can practically smell the gouda radiating off the screen, but you can't buy anything there. You can only engage the shopkeeper in a forgettable, one-line conversation. You can do side quests, but you get nothing out of it. The unique mix of deck building and board game movement could have made for something special, but instead it just feels like getting bad ice cream from an ice cream truck. Little Town Hero, for how sweet and simple as it presents itself to be, is unfortunately anything but.
Aside from its cute art direction, there's not much joy to be found in Game Freak's Little Town Hero. Its battle system has a glimmer of potential, but finds itself muddled in system after system, making what should be its standout boss battles a tedious affair. Even for a budget price, this is a town you probably won't want to visit for more than a day.