Game review: Clicker Heroes for Steam

Last month, I was having some brain issues. Weather shifts and constant up and down cycling of the temperature made it hard for me to think, so much so that even playing a video game seemed beyond me. I stumbled across a story about Clicker Heroes on Eurogamer and after reading their take on it, I thought, Well here’s a game so simple, I won’t need to use my brain to play it. One month later, I find this to be mostly true, since I don’t have to play it at all. It plays itself, and I’m occasionally invited to add input before walking away again. But I did use some advanced math while watching it play itself, so it did at least get me to use my brain creatively.

If I had based my review on only the first 90 to 100 levels, it would have been far more positive because the initial pattern of monetary growth and buying upgrades was engaging enough, and the game is graphically charming. The music and sound effects…can be turned off, freeing me to put on my music and jam out to something less repetitive.

The game is simple in story and design. You are a wandering monster slayer who clicks on monsters to kill them. After you do this a few times, the eponymous heroes will notice your quest and join your party if you can afford to hire them. The first hero, Cid, only upgrades the amount of damage your clicks do, but after her, every new hero will bring their own amount of damage per second to the party, and once you’ve hired the first of many, Treebeast, you don’t ever have to click again. In fact, there’s absolutely no point to you doing it.

Don’t believe me? Okay, hire just one hero after upgrading Cid a bit. Go up a few levels so the monsters have higher hit points and allow for a more objective time frame to count with. (I did this with a stopwatch, but you don’t need to.) First, click the mouse as fast as you possibly can. (For me this is apparently seven clicks per second.) Now slow down and click it once per second. Then just stop clicking. Now level up Cid a few times to improve your click damage without leveling up Treebeast and repeat this experiment. What you’ll notice is, regardless of your click damage upgrades, the enemy hit bar’s movement NEVER changes. Congratulations, you are the most ineffectual member of your party of three. And from that first hire on, your clicks will almost never matter.

“But Zoe, there’s a range of trophies to earn for clicks, right?” you ask. Yep, and you don’t have to click to get them either. Bwa? You see, with enough level upgrades, Cid unlocks a special hot bar ability that you press to unleash a “clickstorm.” The game will count these ten clicks a second for thirty seconds as your input, even if you do nothing. It is possible to earn a trophy for X number of clicks without clicking at all. The game plays itself with minimal input from you.

This is not to say I never clicked. Oh, I click the fuck out of that mouse sometimes. This is because you can unlock other hot bar abilities as you hire heroes, and sometimes clickstorm is on cooldown and you have to do some clicking to take advantage of whatever power you unlocked. The hot bar powers can also be stacked, leading to a point where you can do a lot of extra damage for a 30 second burst, double the amount of gold enemies drop, and get extra gold dropped for every click that clickstorm does. So then for that 30 second window, your clicks mean something. But you can only do this once an hour, so it’s only marginally useful.

This brings me to the bees and the fish. The bwa-whawha? Yeah, see, to keep you from walking away, the game will randomly pop up a goldfish on the lower portion of the screen, or on the upper portion, a bee will fly slowly under the levels bar. The fish will always drop coins based on your highest completed level, and will sometimes also drop a more vital currency, rubies (more on both in a bit), while the bee will randomly unlock one of the special abilities without invoking a cooldown, even for powers you haven’t unlocked yet. Again, during the first 100 levels, these are very enticing incentives to keep plugged into your seat, watching for these little boosters to show up.

(By the way, the drop rate on rubies seems to work like this: if you have 1-9 rubies, the fish will drop a ruby on every two to three appearances. If you have 18 rubies and are close to being able to use them, they will drop a ruby once a week…I may be exaggerating slightly on that formula.)

So, let’s recap: you’re a mass murdering serial killer who’s got a cult of like minded psychopaths killing defenseless animals (who all look like they escaped from some cutesy Japanese or Chinese MMORPG) who never fight back and stealing any gold they drop to afford the expenses to upgrade your current army and hire on new recruits. The first hundred and ten levels sets up a pattern of fast upgrades and new hires, always giving you something to do even if it isn’t clicking the monsters themselves.

And then you get to Dread Knight. Let me explain. With every new hero you hire, there’s a price pattern involved. No wait, I need to back up further. When you earn gold, to keep the money bar numbers from overflowing, you never see anything over 100,000. The game adds a letter to the end and goes back down to 100. So first it’s 100M, then 100B, then 100T. My mind converted these early numbers to Million, Billion, and Trillion, even if I knew they weren’t accurately reflecting what I was making. After this, though, the letters become 100s, and then 100S, which means absolutely nothing to me.

Okay, but so when you get new heroes most of the time, the increase in price is like this: 500s for this one, and 5,000s for the next, 1,000S for this one, and 10,000S for the next. But after Frostsleaf’s relatively reasonable price, Dread Knight comes along with a price of 10,000U.

“U?” I asked when I initially saw it, and then I checked the damage to see it did N damage. I even wrote to Clicker Heroes on Twitter to ask, “Is that some kind of typo?” (I got no answer, by the way, and I suspect the account is just a bot to spam ads and news with no human monitoring it.) The first time I got to this point, I just said fuck it and reset the game using another special hero ability, Ascension. This brought me back to the fun early bits, but oh how it nagged at me that I didn’t know how much U was, or if it was just around the next bend in the money upgrades. So I played up to level 159 and found out that no, the next pay raise after 99,999S is to 100O, and I hit reset again.

This is the point at which my stubbornness kicked in, and I said, “Well god damn it, I can’t do a proper review if I don’t know how many pay raises up from S that U is. So even if it sucks, I’m going to find out how much time it takes to hire Dread Knight.”

And the answer to that question is two and a half weeks, as you need to play through O, N, and d levels of cash before you will finally see U. I should also note that your own time can be much longer depending on how you play, but it likely cannot be much shorter unless you can sit for many, many hours clicking on fish to get extra gold. I will also note that in this lengthy waiting time, I began to actively hate the game for making everything so god damn slow that I might play a few minutes before thinking of other things I could be doing. I would be watching the screen tick numbers up with the pace of paint drying and think, “I could clean the cat box.” When I would rather mine for cat shit than farm for gold in your game, you know that’s not a good time. It doesn’t help that the design on the level platforms begins to repeat along with the enemies, so there’s no reason to keep watching for anything new. It’s all the same after you get past a certain point.

But so let me get back to those goldfish. The way I was playing was to push for the highest possible level, where monsters take around two minutes each to kill, and this means that finding one fish would drop more gold than I might make in two to three hours of monster slaying. Then I would back down a few levels until dropping their health bar felt less dull to watch. This tactic makes finding the fish extremely lucrative, and in the times I was sitting at my PC, I often began the fish summoning chant that goes, “Fishy fishy fishy fish,” repeated four times with heavy emphasis on the final fish. (This works one time out of five, but since it did work that one time, I’m now locked into the pattern.) This is not, I should add, enough incentive to keep me from walking away for many hours at a time. But when I was sitting here doing nothing, it was at least a way to make the game less boring.

As I said before, fish also randomly drop rubies, and rubies buy one of three items in the shop. The first item is cheapest and the most important in my opinion. For 20 rubies, you fast forward time 8 hours and get gold equivalent to your current DPS and your highest level completed. You also unlock all of your special abilities, including THE DARK RITUAL, which is the only ability which does not burn out in 30 seconds, and which has a cooldown of 8 hours. What this does is add a damage multiplier to all your heroes, and while at first that paltry sum might not seem worth it, once you get past level 200, every little tick of it is a freaking godsend of added whoopass. The added money also helps you upgrade heroes, who become ungodly expensive past level 200, when their own personal damage multipliers start to kick in. And their damage multipliers are way, WAY better than THE DARK RITUAL. (Say it in a deep booming voice. Go on, try it. It just feels right. I can say that all day. “I’M GOING TO INVOKE THE DARK RITUAL.”)

(Having said that, the cost of certain heroes is way out of whack to do later upgrades. For instance, King Midas now requires more gold for one level than my highest level heroes, and his damage is still lagging way behind everyone else. His rate of upgrades is so expensive that every time I scroll past him and see his current damage level I say, “Fuck you, King Midas.” Which is quite cathartic, actually.)

The next highest ruby-purchased item is to unlock three gilded heroes for 30 rubies, which changes the heroes’ avatars to something “cooler” (actually lamer in most cases, but not all of them) and upgrades their damage by 50%. These upgrades can be duplicates, but the effect stacks and getting an added damage boost to the same hero takes the sting out of getting duplicates. It should be noted that you unlock one gilded hero every ten levels after level one hundred, so there’s actually no point to this upgrade. Sure, you can use it, but the fast forward is more useful in my opinion.

The last item is 50 rubies for an “easy” ascension along with a number of hero souls based on your highest level. Hero souls can be used to summon Ancients, but I have yet to find any ancient that didn’t seem pretty useless, and summoning them reduces the damage that heroes do by 10% for each Ancient in play, making the grinding process even slower. I also noticed that spending souls to reroll for ancients lowered the amount of gold I got for fast forwards, so it didn’t appeal to me to explore this after a few rerolls. Since it’s relatively easy to reach the Ascension ability without using up rubies, I don’t see a point to this purchase, either.

The thing is, none of these upgrades are going to do much for you for a long, long time. You might need to wait several days to eke past a boss and crawl up a few more levels before having to stop and build more gold and upgrade all your people before you can handle another boss. (And by the way, bosses don’t hit back either. They just have a 30 second timer. If you beat them before the timer counts down, a new boss shows up and the counter resets. In the early levels, this is a great way to pick up fuck tons of easy gold.)

“Well duh, Zoe, it’s a free to play game,” you say, “so you should expect that at a certain point your progress would push you into buying something for real money.”

And that might be a valid point, faceless straw man, except you can’t buy your way past this hurdle. If you go to the shop right after Dread Knight appears and paid $99.99 to get 1,300 rubies, and then you spent a bunch of time buying the 8 hour fast forwards for all that gold, you would still not be able to afford Dread Knight’s price. In fact, you could grind for a solid week, pay the $100 “best value” and still not get anywhere close to this one hero’s price. And this to me is the craziest thing about the shift in the pattern. Because there is nothing to do once you reach this point except walk away and do other stuff. You can’t even use real cash to overcome the hurdle unless you were willing to spend $1,000, and keep in mind, Dread Knight isn’t even the last hero to unlock. Nay nay, there are 8 more to unlock after that, and the next, Atlas, costs 10,000$ (What the fuck does that even mean?!) So let’s say you were theoretically stupid enough to spend all that money on one hero. Right after that is another requiring the same outlay of cash simply to avoid another 2-3 week wait for the next unlock.

The real insult about this change in the pattern is that once you unlock Dread Knight, he’s fucking useless. Up until this point, every hero unlock makes the enemies’ damage bars plummet to a half second flash, giving you this momentary sense of being overpowered before you progress up through the next few levels and hit another hurdle. But Dread Knight doesn’t change the speed of the damage bar whether you’re on a lower level or up at the highest possible level. It’s like “Here’s your reward for two and a half weeks of grinding, a hero who doesn’t even give a solitary second of a feeling of accomplishment.” It doesn’t help that just buying his first upgrade costs 100D, meaning you have to earn past 99,999U without buying anything else. That’s another fucking week of grinding with nothing to do in the meantime. Oh joy. And right after you unlock Dread Knight, here is another hero with a mystery number of levels to unlock before you can find out how equally useless he is.

So this is where I shut off the game and do my review, knowing that while I’m gone, the heroes will continue to play the game without me. Maybe I’ll come back in six months, buy all the remaining heroes, and then reset the game to get back to the part that at least pretended to need me. Or maybe I’ll just let them play by themselves, earning infinite money for murdering defenseless animals in their own digital circle of hell. I don’t know yet.

But I do know this: from a design standpoint, the levels after 100 are a complete failure for dragging out the grinding process and stripping away any sense of reward or accomplishment. Instead of offering a a hero at every new level of currency, the game stretches the rewards out while simultaneously lowering the amount of money one can earn for level upgrades. Even bosses begin to feel chintzy with the gold they drop. This change in the pattern takes something that was fun in a casual kind of way and makes it so dull and tedious that I would rather sift for cat shit than actually play the game. And for a free to play game to offer no viable way past the grind using real cash, it’s a failure of the basic free to play model as well. It is however, a great math tutor, because trying to solve various math questions over the course of the game had me suddenly realizing at the weirdest times, “Wait, did I really just use algebra while playing a game?” Yes, yes I did.

This is probably a longer review than you were expecting for a nothing of a game, but I’m nothing if not thorough. I’m going to give Clicker Heroes 3 stars. It’s not broken in any way, so it doesn’t deserve a 2. But its initial fun quickly gives way to tedium of the worst sort, and even in the best of times, it never requires me to be in the room. So I can only recommend this to people who are looking for a game that encourages them to do chores. Which, while that may be a good thing for the state of my house, is pretty damning commentary for a game.