The couch co-op comeback. It’s practically a cornerstone of indie gaming’s rise to prominence in recent years. There’s just something that can’t be beat when it comes to playing with friends, surrounded by copious amounts of pizza and soda, bringing back fond memories of the parties held during your youth, when you’d team up or take turns trying to conquer the likes of Streets of Rage or going head-to-head in Dr. Mario. But it’s not enough to merely capture that feeling. You also have to add something new to it, innovating in some way or providing a new twist on classic games. And now Le Cartel Studio is taking another shot at conquering this part of gaming with Heave Ho, a colorful and quirky platformer about climbing through insane obstacle courses as a group.
The titular part of Heave Ho comes from how you climb through all of these courses in such a way that requires perfect timing and patterns, much like sailors or workers using the classic exclamation. Playing as various characters that only exist as heads with arms attached to them, you use said arms to grab on to whatever you can to advance, latching on with one hand, then swinging over and latching on with the other free hand, either on your own, as part of a chain, as someone climbing up and down a chain of other players, et cetera. So all you have to do is get everyone to the finish line, which won’t be easy with all of the walls, spikes, gaps and bottomless pits in you way, among other things.
I’m not going to lie, Heave Ho may have been one of the hardest games I’ve had to review in quite a while. Not because of it being too difficult or due to issues in finding extra players to work with (though the lack of online play didn’t help). No, this was due to something else. I mentioned back in my preview from earlier this year that “genius in its simplicity” was the key to Heave Ho’s success. But as I was playing more of it, I realized the gameplay was so perfectly simple yet fun that…well, I honestly have some trouble figuring out how to elaborate on it any further.
Pretty much all of the praise I had back then applies to the entire game as a whole, to the point where you could probably copy and paste it. I should point out that this isn’t a flaw, though. Instead, it simply means that every part of the game which was insanely fun back then is still insanely fun in every portion throughout the experience. The controls? Still easy to figure out, and still a simple system that only requires two buttons and a joystick. The core gameplay? Once you get a good rhythm going, climbing and swinging around is fun to pull off, especially when it comes to the more death-defying maneuvers and jumps, and moving around your body with only your arms can be a bit awkward at first, but there’s joy to be had in mastering it.
The cute sense of humor? Also still present, and same as it was before, with bright, colorful characters with wacky faces that can emote at the push of a button, adorned in clever costumes that you can mix and match for some nicely insane mash-ups. The multiplayer? An absolute blast that both encourages co-operation and rewards players for operating as a unit and encourages absolute anarchy by allowing your friends to plummet to the ground below with a colorful splat of color that then shoots up and paints the field, right before they instantly drop from the sky and pop back in.
That last point is easily the key to Heave Ho’s success, as it was before. It’s hard to stress the sheer enjoyability that comes from the chaos that ensues when several players fumble about frantically up until the eureka moment where they all get on the same wavelength needed to make it to the end. It truly is a perfect game for parties, the type you whip out when you want to have some fun, be it just screwing around and trying to see how far you can fling yourselves or actually trying to set new records. The little emotes you can pull off to tease or congratulate others are just the cherry on top. It’s something that deserves to be placed alongside the Overcooked games as a grade-A indie multiplayer game.
But none of this mayhem would be possible if the actual courses you climb through weren’t designed to be as enjoyable as possible and that would be another area where Heave Ho truly shines. The levels are divided into runs, each run being a set of stages with specific themes and hazards. It starts out simple, with jungle levels that involve swinging on vines, and cave levels with spotlights that follow you around and limited lighting overall. But the true fun is with later stages, which include carnivals where platforms twirl about when you grab on them, construction areas with deadly voltage that flows through areas in set patterns and Japanese landscapes that require you to roll huge boulders. Oh, and there’s the farting alpaca that can temporarily cloud up stages at times. Because of course.
Aside from once again being simple yet beautiful in the graphics area, all these different obstacles make for a terrific variety of challenges, meaning everyone playing has to be ready to adapt to any new twist. Thankfully, failure only means the failing player getting sent back to the start ASAP or to the nearest checkpoint when it comes to the longer stages. The carnival levels are a particular highlight, with players easily able to zip and loop around at insane speeds, launching themselves into other twirling platforms and basically just having a blast with the physics.
Said physics can make a few jumps annoying at times, admittedly, but it still feels like a triumph when you can pull them off. But for those having large amounts of difficulty, Heave Ho does produce the occasional optional assistance rope at times, which makes some poles appear that you can cling to to help give you a boost. The poles tend to provide just enough help to make sure you still have to properly climb and navigate certain hazards, which makes them a nice touch.
In fact, Heave Ho also gives players another assistance option in allowing players to have a pair of red and blue gloves marked “L” and “R” for those who still want to get used to the controls at times, especially if they need to remember what hand to grab with after being twisted around at times. While I never used them myself, but it’s still a welcome touch, adding an extra bit of accessibility. It’s one of many customization options when it comes to designing a character, which even throws in costumes based on other Devolver Digital games, meaning you can actually have your favorite characters from the indie publisher team up if you’re lucky.
So really, in every aspect, Heave Ho is easily one of the year’s best multiplayer games. And now to be one of the year’s best games overall, all it has to do is wow us exactly just as much with its single-player mode as well!
The sad part is that Heave Ho comes so, soooo close to becoming one of the holy grails of multiplayer games: one where the single-player mode is just as enjoyable and rewarding as the multiplayer modes. The gameplay is still as enjoyable and easy to get used to as before. The levels are still designed perfectly, adjusted and able to suit solo players just as well (the mountain levels no longer require carrying an egg to the end, for one). The challenge level is as perfectly fine as it was before.
Granted, it does lose a bit of the charm you would gain with friends alongside you, especially in levels like those with the invisible blocks that get painted with the blood you spew out after falling, which seem to have been designed with multiple players tumbling down in mind, revealing more of the map in the process (ironically, it feels a bit easier in single-player now, since you have more time to concentrate and figure out the layout). But it never loses enough that it stops being enjoyable at any point. So what exactly is the issue?
Well, unfortunately, a key gameplay component has been removed from the single-player portion of the game. In the multiplayer levels, there’s a coin included in every stage outside of the tutorial. If you’re able to bring it to the finish with you, it goes towards a total amount of coins that you can spend on a prize machine to earn new costumes and customization options. Doing this, however, requires two or more players to use free hands to grab on to the coin and then either grab on to opposite ends and make it part of a chain, or throw it to one another or whatever it takes. But as such maneuvers can’t be done with one player on their own, instead the coins are just M.I.A.
Now, Le Cartel wasn’t foolish enough to not provide a way for lone players to earn coins, though the method provided isn’t the best. Basically, at certain points in both single and multiplayer stages, a golden rope may appear, and once pulled by anyone, it takes all the players into a mini-game. These range from basketball games where you have to grab onto balls and chuck them into a hoop, Simon Says-style dancing games where you move your arms to make a correct pose in time, miniature levels where you have to cram into a highlighted area as quickly as possible, and more. The problem isn’t with the mini-games themselves. In fact, they’re actually another highlight, providing fun breaks that put new twists on the gameplay.
The issue that when I say “at certain points,” I mean “on rare occasions.” Through my whole run of all of the regular levels, the mini-game rope only appeared three times and only in cases where I was in a level for several minutes. Oh, and you still only have a limited time to reach it or else it’s gone. I’m not sure if it only appears after a certain while, but given that the game puts a lot of focus on making it to end as fast as possible, having to wait around feels contradictory. Heck, one time, the rope didn’t appear until I was literally at the end of the course. In fact, be it single or multiplayer, the wait feels like an annoyance. In my opinion, the better option would have been to have mini-games appear at the end of a run or as a random break between stages, especially for those on their own.
“Hold on a minute, are you seriously docking the game points simply because it’s harder to unlock costumes on your own?” I imagine the hypothetical commenter say. Well, I realize it seems ludicrous, but aside from the annoyances in accessing mini-games (you can’t even access them after playing them from a menu or anything, you have to wait for that rope), the colorful costumes and ways you can dress up your character are still a part of the game’s charm and humor, and the challenge of retrieving the coins adds to the game’s replayability. So yes, even if playing Heave Ho on your own is still fun, the experience is still hampered a bit, preventing the game from achieving true greatness.
One last thing to note: Le Cartel have been heavily suggesting that Heave Ho should be played with Parsec, a downloadable app that allows players to stream and access video games anywhere, and allows players to essentially enter local co-op games online with others, which is important because as mentioned earlier, Heave Ho is couch co-op only. Now, I did indeed give the PC version of Heave Ho a try with Parsec as well, and actually found it to work fine, and it made for a fun experience…but if you’re relying on a separate program that players have to download to allow for online play and you promote that instead of implementing online play in the game on its own, I do have to mark as a flaw, even if it’s a really minor one. But do consider checking out Parsec.
Be it alone or with friends (though the latter is the more recommended option), Heave Ho is still a truly unique and challenging platforming adventure with a ton of charm. The cute character designs, humor and costumes are likely to draw you in, but it’s the immaculate level design and a variety of obstacles to conquer that will keep you addicted. It’s a twisted game of mountaineering where the climb is a wacky delight that will easily have you willingly plummeting back down to the beginning when it’s done, ready for more. It makes for a brutal couch co-op party, but an enjoyable one.