MythForce review

We can thank Ronald Regan, America’s 40th president, for MythForce – albeit in a roundabout way. In the early ‘80s, the Regan administration deregulated advertising, meaning companies could market directly to children through cartoons and other mediums. If you’ve ever wondered why the ‘80s gave us so much wild stuff that’s still ingrained in pop culture today – from a long succession of memorable cartoons to licensed breakfast cereals – this is why. The impact of this decision is still being felt, with a plethora of licensed products intended to evoke nostalgia for adults that grew up with the likes of He-Man, Transformers, She-Ra, Thundercats, and G.I Joe.

This brings us to MythForce, a randomised first-person co-op battler of the swords ‘n spells variety, based on a faux ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon. It cribs from Thundercats and He-Man the most, set in a medieval fantasy world with beast men, skeletal warriors, and arcane magic. It even uses a few familiar sound effects from ‘80s cartoons, and best of all, it has an animated intro with a purposely cheesy soundtrack. This energy and passion carry into the main game, which uses a bright and bold colour palette with cartoon-like textures and cel-shading. It’s very pleasing to the eye.

Four plucky heroes are at our beck and call: Rico, Maggie, Victoria, and Hawkins- each with unique skills and categorised with a ‘difficulty’ level. Victoria and Hawkins are, allegedly, easier to master than Rico and Maggie. Every character has both a melee and a ranged weapon, a handful of abilities on brief cooldowns, and an ‘ultimate’ skill that takes a long time to recharge. Most abilities are fun to use, such as a vortex that inhales nearby enemies before exploding, and the ability to throw a shield that bounces off foes, a la Captain America. The rest feel more like supercharged attacks, such as an arrow shot that’s merely glitzier and more powerful than the standard.

Carrying on the cartoon theme, the story comprises of nine episodes lasting around 30 minutes that either end with a boss battle or a minor scuffle – with plenty of easily dismissed threats and corny one liners uttered throughout. Our heroes are out to stop the vampiric Daedalus, located at The Castle of Evil, with his lowly and beastly sidekicks to deal with beforehand. Stages are randomised and see you defeating remarkably varied waves of enemies and acquiring a new perk before entering the next area. The idea is to pick perks proficiently, stacking upgrades to max out potential damage and defence. Weapons can be infused with poison, fire, and ice – and it’s also possible to inherit some vampire traits, such as HP leeching. Elsewhere, health can be restored by finding potions – which can be scarce – or by discovering magical alters. Once an area is clear, you’re free to mop up gold and items before entering the upgrade room and into the next battle. There’s no rush.

While stages are randomised, they never feel truly unique – the first episode, for instance, is formed of only a dozen or so different rooms, leading to a sense of déjà vu. Later stages are more set-piece orientated, including things such as traps and pressure plates, and boss levels have been specially designed battle arenas.

Let’s rewind back to the 30 minute (approx.) playtime of each stage. If that seems lengthy for a relatively straightforward online co-op dungeon crawler, that’s because it is. The pacing here is oddly slow – characters walk at a leisurely pace – which diminishes the sense of urgency – enemies are slow to emerge from their hidey holes, and trying to locate the last enemy standing within larger areas can be a drag. Enemies only attack a few at a time – it’s quite rare to see more than five foes on screen at once – and lining up headshots with a bow and arrow can be a slow process, with most enemies requiring multiple hits. If you’re expecting to wipe out hordes of skeletons in one fell swoop and dash quickly through stages, you may need to dial back expectations.  

The difficulty can be altered before starting an episode, and it’s possible to play solo with fewer enemies to deal with. Playing on higher difficulties earns more rewards, with gold, shards, and runes required to unlock more weapons and upgrade the merchant’s stores within the menu driven hub. Things in the hub aren’t particularly well explained, and it does help matters that the presentation – including the overwhelming text-based tutorial – often has a slight ‘placeholder’ look. It’s also peculiar that acquired gold is tied to each character – so you may find yourself sticking to a single hero rather than experimenting with all four. So much for sharing the wealth.

As early as the second world – a catacomb of underground crypts – I found myself dying after taking just a few hits, and all because I’d overlooked a ‘constellation’ screen where stats can be incrementally improved by assigning crystal shards. Worsening the swiftly increasing difficulty, reviving fallen players takes far too long, leaving you open to attack, and as the game is oddly quiet it can be difficult to hear enemies creeping up from behind. The first world is also littered with explosives – and both other players and fire-breathing enemies can set off chain reactions, killing you (and any other party members) without warning.

I hoped to jump into MythForce and play each episode one after the other, gradually improving and upgrading skills along the way. Sure, I expected it to be reasonably challenging, but I never expected something this bright and breezy to be quite so punishing. If you succumb to a boss all progress is lost – there are no checkpoints and no retries. This issue is worsened when playing solo as there are no AI players to revive you. The solution here isn’t to simply ‘get good’ but rather to grind – with each passing episode, enemies become stronger and more aggressive, meaning you need to unlock better weapons and improve stats to keep up. While this does make the experience longer lasting, forcing you to play through past episodes on higher difficulties, this ultimately harms the sense of progression. In the space of a couple of hours, it went from being an enjoyable co-op skeleton basher to an arderous slog.

MythForce has been in early access for a while, and there is evidence that some elements have been refined following player feedback. Regardless, Version 1.0 (which has just hit consoles) still feels like it needs additional work, especially when it comes to balancing the difficulty and making sure players feel like they’re being rewarded for their efforts. In its current state, it’s more TigerSharks than Thundercats. But it could be worse – it could be SilverHawks.

Developed by Beamdog, MythForce is out now on all formats. Published by Aspyr.