During the golden age of adventure gaming, designers Lori and Corey Cole made a name for themselves at Sierra with the Quest for Glory series of hybrid adventure-RPGs, still fondly remembered by many to this day. Now, twenty years since the last installment in that venerable franchise and two successful Kickstarter campaigns later, the Coles have returned to the saddle with Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, a spiritual sequel to Quest for Glory that, by and large, proves they haven’t missed a step in all this time. The game does show a few noticeable chinks in its armor from time to time, but many of these are carried over from their earlier series, so veterans will likely be expecting them.
A minor deviation from QfG is evident as soon as the game opens, in the reveal of the playable character. Traditionally, the older games centered around a hero created and customized by the player for visiting far-away lands, experiencing adventure and besting evil. Hero-U instead shifts focus to an original protagonist; here players take on the role of Shawn O’Conner, a young man who is caught by a mysterious stranger while attempting to steal an artifact in order to be accepted into his local Thieves Guild. Confronted by the stranger, Shawn is given the choice of being handed to the city guards to rot away in prison or getting a second chance by enrolling at Hero University, an academy developing latent heroic talents of youths eager to leave their mark on the world. Obviously, Shawn chooses the latter option.
Evoking a more-than-passing resemblance to something from the Harry Potter universe, Hero-U takes place in and around the eponymous academy, an ancient castle overlooking the town of Caligari, on the island of Sardonia. The unfamiliar setting is not surprising; each successive entry in the Coles’ previous series always presented a new backdrop for its narrative, though copious references to locations and creatures from throughout the Quest for Glory franchise place Sardonia within the same world as the others, while still working perfectly fine as a standalone story.
Upon reaching the school in the dead of night, Shawn is enrolled in the course for Rogues – or “Disbarred Bards” as the game prefers to call them. This time around, players have no choice in the matter of what class to play; as the irritable school caretaker Mortimer Terk points out, Shawn is too unskilled to be a Warrior, not smart or magical enough to be a Wizard, not good enough to be a Paladin, and lacking the musical or acting talent to become a Bard.
While this seems like it might be more restrictive, Hero-U still keeps the same element of gameplay flexibility that its predecessors were so well known for. Shawn is immediately given a multiple-choice aptitude test, with your responses translating into stat points assigned to a list of skills and abilities he can increase over the course of the game. This mechanic, which goes a long way toward pushing Hero-U into RPG territory, means that almost everything you do throughout the game, including simply traveling up and down stairs or sneaking quietly through the school halls, gradually furthers Shawn’s development. The daily classes Shawn attends also frequently focus on teaching and furthering his talents in a specific Rogue-ish skill, like lockpicking and disarming traps.
The title Hero-U doesn’t just describe its setting; much of the actual flow of the gameplay revolves around Shawn’s daily school life. First thing out of bed every morning, Shawn must attend Rogue class, which requires actually paying attention to a short lecture each session, with the occasional multiple-choice exam testing the content covered during lessons. As the semester progresses, Shawn is also given the chance to take an elective course – this is where players can augment their Rogue skills with those of other character classes, receiving training in magic use, brewing of potions, or construction of gadgets, just to name a few. Of course, you can simply opt out of the electives altogether, and showing up on time each day is your responsibility (an on-screen clock helps keep track of your daily duties as a student).
Though attending class sounds tedious, it represents only a brief segment of each day, and really helps deepen the game’s role-playing element without being overbearing. Still, there’s an unavoidable “daily grind” element – wake up, go to class, practice, have dinner, go to sleep. This works in favor of immersion the majority of the time, but does get slightly cumbersome considering the semester lasts for fifty days (taking roughly 30-plus hours to reach the credits). At least Shawn doesn’t have to go it alone, as a big part of being a Rogue is the relationships one forms with peers. Hero-U features a reputation system to keep track of Shawn’s social standing with classmates and school personnel, whether you want to become the teacher’s pet, romance a fellow student, or antagonize the class bully.
Apart from Shawn and the university staff, his six classmates in the Rogues course make up the entire visible school population. There are supposedly other students in other courses, but we never see them (the game cleverly explaining this by noting that Rogues prefer to keep hours disagreeable to other character classes). This concentraton on a small set of characters really fleshes them out in a more interesting way. It’s nice that they are more than simply window-dressing: they participate in class lectures, have personalities and opinions, and many of them may be hiding a secret or two that could get unraveled as the game progresses, depending on your choices of dialog and actions.
As days pass and Shawn makes discoveries around the campus, certain quests and tasks become available. Most of your classmates have a particular quest that they will play a big part in, if you choose to undertake it (or simply stumble upon it through sheer luck). Shawn himself has a vested interest in uncovering the truth about his father’s mysterious death many years ago, as well as the identity of the unknown stranger who sent him to Hero-U in the first place. Dialog (even when it’s cheekily overheard through a closed door) offers some guidance as to what plotlines are in progress, and the looming threat of the game clock certainly gives the game a greater sense of urgency. The students’ stories are only available for limited windows of time, however, and will progress with or without you taking an active role in them. Ultimately, it’s up to you to search for and follow up on clues or to let these quests pass you by. It’s Shawn’s storyline that will see the game to its conclusion; others are optional.
In my experience, a typical play session with Hero-U started with a loose end or two carried over from last time, like finding a way into a locked dungeon room or needing to earn a few lyra to buy a magical weapon from the school store. But before long, events had a way of linking from one to the next, and before I knew it a whole week of in-game time had flown by. This is due to some very smart writing. After an early-game bump where you are more or less thrown into the open-ended world without much guidance on how to proceed, the game does a great job of coaxing you into the right direction with carefully placed lines of dialog. Being observant and using common sense will usually keep at least one obvious way forward available to you at all times. In one particularly memorable moment of intuitive writing near the end, I was asked to choose who would be the best choice for Rogue of the Year. After careful consideration, I made my choice; Shawn then explained my decision in his own words, echoing each point of my thought process perfectly.Continued on the next page...