Good party games are hard to come by these days. As online play, voice chat, and service-based games become increasingly ubiquitous in today's console ecosystem, terms like "split-screen" and "couch play" have slowly faded into obscurity. Every now and again, though, a local multiplayer title hits the market that rekindles that special feeling of playing alongside one another.
Heave Ho is the latest title to carry that torch. Developed by Le Cartel Studio and published by Devolver Digital, Heave Ho is a frenetic 2D platformer that tasks players with navigating a series of Ninja Warrior-esque environments, either alone or with up to three friends.
With its unique premise and simple yet challenging gameplay, Heave Ho is an easy recommendation for those looking for their next party hit. The solo campaign is a bit underwhelming, and the game could have benefitted from a few additional features for added replayability, but it's hard to complain about the final product, especially at its reasonable $10 price point.
Heave Ho's premise is not just novel, but also extremely straightforward. You and up to three others play as an adorable race of legless monsters. Your goal: to make your way over to a checkered flag at the end of various bite-sized levels... using only your hands.
Right off the bat, this leads to some interesting gameplay ramifications. Without the means to walk, let alone run, to the objective, players must work together (often literally) to scale obstacles, swing across precarious pits and traps, and catch those who lose their grip.
While the initial learning curve can be a bit daunting, the controls in Heave Ho are surprisingly simple. Gameplay relies on three main inputs: the left joystick and both triggers. Moving the joystick moves the player character's arms. Meanwhile, pulling either trigger causes the character to grab - either on to a piece of the environment or the body of a nearby character - with the respective hand. Controlling one's arms is a bit unwieldy - an intentional choice, I have to assume, given Heave Ho's wacky premise - but the action of grabbing is snappy and responsive. After a trial-and-error period of about 15 minutes of me and my friends flailing wildly to get our bearings, Heave Ho's gameplay felt right at home.
Of course, though the controls and objective may be simple, the challenge certainly is not. Over the course of Heave Ho, players will run through a gauntlet of small-scale levels across nine unique worlds, each reminiscent of a high-intensity obstacle course. One world may require swinging across vines to reach the goal, while another may force players to make their way towards the flag in near-pitch darkness. Upon completion of these worlds, another set of harder worlds crop up (signified by a menacing skull icon) to really test players' mettle.
Couple these varied worlds with Heave Ho's tough yet fair gameplay, and the result is a fast-paced, often unpredictable game that will leave your fingers sore, your sides splitting, and your friendships (depending on how well you do) teetering on the brink of collapse.
Keeping things interesting is Heave Ho's surprisingly robust character creator. Before jumping into a world, players are prompted to customize their legless gremlins, including everything from eyeglasses and shirts to skin color and facial hair. While these alterations are purely cosmetic, the creation aspect goes a long way towards giving Heave Ho its own distinct personality - particularly important in a party setting.
These cosmetics also play into Heave Ho's gameplay (albeit indirectly) in the form of a collectable coin currency. When playing with friends, each level has a coin - usually tucked away in an inconvenient location - that players can collaborate to recover and bring with them to the goal flag. In doing so, players are able to trade in the coins they collect for new costumes for their characters.
Unfortunately, these costumes aren't quite as fun as the aforementioned clothing options available within the character builder. Whereas the base creation items can be mixed and matched to the heart's content, unlockable costumes are essentially one-pieces that lack the same flexibility. It's a small nitpick, to be sure, but I would have loved being able to obtain new accessories and hair styles to mess around with, as opposed to just simple skins.
Coins are also obtainable by way of several mini-games that pop up periodically while playing. Occasionally, a golden rope descends somewhere within the current level; by pulling said rope, players are whisked away momentarily for a quick side event. These events, which range from shooting basketballs to striking dance poses, serve as a nice distraction from the main campaign. It's a shame, then, that these mini-games are needlessly locked behind playing the campaign. Compared to games like Snipperclips that make all of its levels and modes easily accessible from the get-go, Heave Ho feels surprisingly behind-the-curve.
You'll notice that I haven't said much when it comes to Heave Ho's single-player offering. While the game does in fact have a solo campaign, it feels like an unfortunate afterthought to the co-operative action. The worlds in solo play are generally identical to those found in 2-4 player play - only smaller, to accommodate the fact that players are playing without the aid of their friends. Moreover, given that those playing alone will only have two hands with which to make their way to the goal flag, coins are not present in the mode outside of stumbling upon the occasional mini-game - a bummer, frankly, as there's no guarantee that those playing Heave Ho will always have a friend or three at their beck and call.
Ultimately, while Heave Ho's single player offers the same fundamental thrills and gameplay goodness as its multiplayer counterpart, going it alone simply isn't as fun. Granted, that's to be expected, given the theme of the game, but it's nonetheless disappointing that Le Cartel couldn't have provided a slightly more catered single-player experience.
Despite the lackluster single player and small other foibles I have with some of Heave Ho's design choices, you're still getting a ton of great bang for your buck here, especially at the $10 asking price. From the scores of levels available to the player, to the sheer variety of the different worlds and to the simple unpredictability of being dropped by a friend that you thought had your back since preschool, Heave Ho is a fantastic experience that'll make for a killer additional to any player's party-game collection. Just make sure you bring a few (trusted) friends along for the ride.