Her Name Was Fire has no fat on it. There’s no preamble. No cutscenes. It’s just you and a wave of seemingly endless foes. For some players that’s ideal, because you get straight to the action without any fuss. But this can be difficult for a game to pull off, as there’s only one hook with which to draw in the player: gameplay. With fast-paced combat, constant boosts, and shifting objectives, Her Name Was Fire uses the heck out of its one hook.
A twin stick roguelike, the game’s mix of genres are well chosen for their ability to suck players in. I pick a few things at the start of a run: My primary mode of attack and one vital modifier. Initially, I choose to cast fireballs, as it seems the most thematically relevant considering the game’s title. I’m also happy to stack the deck in my favor with a modifier that grants me a little extra health. With those two decisions made, I start the run with the click of a button.
This is the first indication that there is actually something happening under the surface. The word “Denial” flashes briefly on the screen before I begin wading through a deadly mob. I won’t get the significance until I make it to the next level, but it was obviously important. Then, the black blobs attack and there’s no more time to ponder.
If you’ve played a twin stick shooter before, you’ll feel right at home here. A never-ceasing horde of dark shapes begin to swarm as I shoot magic globs of blue fire. I’m glad there’s no stamina or MP bar to hamper the chaotic flow of the fight. However, I do have a meter above my head to watch out for. It fills as I pick up orbs dropped by incinerated creatures, and when it’s full, a trio of tarot cards appear. The game pauses as I get to choose which boost I’d like to continue with. Some offer speed increases, others extra damage, and one of my favorites grants a little planet-like friend that orbits you and deals damage if it collides with an enemy.
Occasionally, a warning will appear telling me a server has popped up in the area. Following the provided compass, it becomes my job to bring it down while avoiding the fireballs it lobs my way. Not a simple task while the gaggle of grunts is still after me. There’s always something new happening on screen, whether it’s simply staying one step ahead of the horde, taking down servers, or racing towards a boss.
Before getting to a new level, I face off against a large enemy in a specially closed-off room. This gives me a temporary respite from the common enemies, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. My first major opponent is The Hierophant (a common figure in tarot cards), which takes the from a squid-like beast bearing a staff. Defeating it not only unbars the way to the next stage, but also produces a set of particularly powerful power-up choices. I pick the card the shares its name with the foe I just cut down and find I now have a 15% chance to throw ink puddles down which will slow and damage attackers. To top it off, these inky pools get shot out by floating squids and that’s just fun to see.
Descending into the next level another word appears briefly: Anger. I don’t last long in this stage. The typical enemies from the last stage are joined by a larger, hardier adversary that do a number on me. When I die, I see a message that says you’ve succumbed to Anger. And having just died, I have have some time to recall that Denial and Anger are thematically connected in my brain. That’s because these are the first two stages of grief, with bargaining, depression, and acceptance following behind. So, while Her Name Was Fire seems to lack narrative, something is happening under the surface. Where the game goes with this and how it shapes the experience, I don’t know. But it makes for a sneaky second hook to make me want to go back to find out.
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