Pixel Heroes: Byte & Magic Review

By Jonathan Barnes,
If you're anything like me — and who's to say you're not — your memories of gaming in late 80's and early 90's melt into an 8-bit blur that vacillates between Italian plumbers jumping on turtles, intergalactic bounty hunters rolling into balls, and heroes on quests to slay dragons and free blighted lands of the darkness that plagues them. Modern gaming has evolved all of these genres and while their progenitors still exist (albeit on other platforms), the 8-bit, turn-based RPG is still an itch that defies scratching.

Pixel Heroes: Byte & Magic aims to scratch that itch and then some. By blending the turn-based action of (the original) Dragon Warrior/Quest and Final Fantasy and merging it with the modern aesthetic of a perma-death roguelike, Pixel Heroes largely succeeds on satisfying nostalgic yearnings but still leaves a few things to be desired.

Review 3Nostalgia, ho!

Unlike its influences, Pixel Heroes doesn't have much of a story to speak of — you begin the adventure in a tavern where you're tasked to assemble a party of three adventurers from seven classes. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses and plays off of the standard RPG tropes of Strength, Dexterity, Faith, Life, and Intelligence. Furthermore, each class has two specific skills that can turn the tide of any battle. One of the nice touches is a large pool of characters from which to pick. While your options are initially limited to a handful, through the course of play you'll unlock 30 unique characters, each with their own skills, strengths, and weaknesses. This massive amount of variety and options are a huge bonus to the game's replayability...

...and replay you will... a lot.

Pixel Heroes features three different adventures that get progressively more difficult. Within each adventure, you'll be tasked with running six randomized dungeons. After completing six dungeons, you'll be tasked with taking down a "final" dungeon for the adventure. Beating the final dungeon will unlock the next adventure difficulty.

Review 2Traveling to and from dungeons provides a chuckle or two.

Each dungeon has its own style and learning how to exploit a dungeon's weaknesses while buffing against its strengths is a task that will take some time... or a guide... which I highly recommend. There are 16 different status effects and four different elements at play within Pixel Heroes, not to mention the overarching classes of magical versus physical defense and attack. Knowing the weakness and strengths of each dungeon and being able to defend and attack against those is the biggest challenge within the game.

Being able to spec-out your party is the most important part of the game, which leads to the first knock; there is no "stash" to keep items. As you move on from dungeon to dungeon, you'll almost certainly have to re-spec your party from scratch with either found loot or items and spells purchased in town between dungeons. There are few things more frustrating in Pixel Heroes than to discard an especially awesome piece of equipment (because it won't be effective in the next dungeon), procure a new piece of equipment, and then discover your next dungeon requires the first one again... which is now long-gone. Some kind of a player stash is sorely needed.

Review 5The UI is as user-friendly as a piece of IKEA furniture without an instruction manual.

Given the importance of equipment and loot, the second knock on Pixel Heroes is its maddeningly-poor user interface. The game features no instructions on how to use it and it took me at least 30 minutes to get a rudimentary understanding on how to equip and unequip items. This frustration reached a new level when I was overburdened with items and couldn't figure out how to trash ones that I didn't want. Since you're not allowed to advance to the next room in the dungeon if you're overburdened, I was stuck at the menu screen for almost 20 minutes before a boss battle. The poor execution of the UI is heightened by the inexplicable failure to use all of the buttons on the controller. So many of the UI problems could have been cleared up with a simple menu/tutorial and the assigning of unused buttons to commonly-used features like trashing items, comparing items, or scrolling between menu portions.

Once you get beyond the terrible UI, the simplistic combat feels almost as good as original, 8-bit RPGs. At the outset of every battle your three heroes stack up against three enemies. Only one hero and one enemy may act each turn. After the hero/enemy acts, they must then rest the next turn. This creates a wonderful, tactical experience: Do you have your damage-dealer attack or do you have your healer remove curses from the team? The downside of combat is that it isn't very deep. Each hero is limited to two attack actions and two special skills that have cooldowns that can last for multiple battles. These limited options put a further emphasis on making sure your team is specialized for each dungeon.

Review 4Do you strike with the assassin or heal with the witch?

When a hero dies in battle, their ghost follows along for the remainder of the dungeon. If you successfully complete the dungeon and get back to town, you'll have the option to resurrect your fallen heroes. If all of your heroes die in a dungeon, your adventure ends, and your heroes get buried in the Graveyard, which you're able to visit from the main menu.

On the achievement front, Pixel Heroes is a game you'll be playing for a long, LONG time if you want a completion, if only to unlock the lose 100 times, finishing an adventure with each character, and finish the final campaign without a hero dying achievements. Those three aside, there is a really nice balance of achievements that will come through natural play, as well as ones you'll need to intentionally set out to unlock, like finishing an adventure with a specific groups of heroes and reaching 500 HP with a character. The biggest, current downside to the achievements is a bug that prevents them from occasionally unlocking at a system level. This bug can be worked around by doing the soft reset of your Xbox One, but is frustrating nonetheless.

Review 1Where's. My. Pop!?


Summary

At a certain point, games like Pixel Heroes have a ceiling. They'll never be as good as the games some of us may remember from the 80's and 90's, because we're all subject to our own rose-tinted nostalgia. What works in Pixel Heroes is a successful blending of that classic, turn-based RPG gameplay with a modern, rogue-like twist. The shoddy UI, lack of a "stash" feature, and general lack of polish hold it back from being a resounding recommendation, but those who look back fondly on the realms of Alefgard and Corneria should definitely check it out.
7 / 10
Pixel Heroes: Byte & Magic
Positives
  • Good, 8-Bit RPG throwback
  • Humor... it has it
  • Tremendous replayability
Negatives
  • Poor UI
  • Missing some "quality of life" features
  • Buggy achievements
  • Long completion
Ethics
The reviewer spent over 17 hours indulging his flights of nostalgia, chuckling, and occasionally swearing as he slayed pixelated baddies. Through the course of his many adventures, he unlocked 25 of the game's 55 achievements. An Xbox One copy of this game was provided by the ID@Xbox team for the purpose of this review.
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.