I’ll admit, I’m one of the few people who have had Dawn of Heroes on their radars. Its publisher, Majesco, is most well known for DS titles such as Cooking Mama, and counts quite a few quality games to its credit. This is the company that published Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts and the brimming-with-potential Advent Rising. It also published Away: Shuffle Dungeon, Mistwalker’s unique DS dungeon crawler. Because of this, I was intrigued when I saw Dawn of Heroes slowly creep across the release dates map, until it finally debuted on 9/9. So, what have the Montreal-based Wicked Studios crafted for Majesco? A product that would be a great fit… as an iPhone game. Dawn of Heroes just feels too shallow and lacks the polish needed to be a top-flight title.
That’s not to say that Dawn of Heroes is without its merits, however, because there is a lot to like about the game. For example, it has its tongue firmly in-cheek, following a group of “chosen ones” as they quest to defeat six evil barons – and the woman who hired you initially and never paid you – all because a floating belt told them they were destined to do so. Unfortunately, the characters are all generic tropes who couldn’t develop unique identities if they tried. It’s not like in Final Fantasy VII, where even when you renamed Barrett to Mr. T (and you know you did), he retained his unique characteristics (of being a direct clone of Mr. T). I couldn’t tell you what the characters’ original names were, as the game allows you to change them. Dawn of Heroes’ characters don’t have any memorable traits or lines of dialogue, they’re simply there to be goofy. From the priest that’s excited to be a chosen one to the jaded warrior to a magic user who never even had any defining features beyond being a magic user, none of the characters are at all reasonably developed.
The plot itself exists simply to string players along from mission to mission and involves dialogue exchanges that are usually no more than 20 lines in length. It would be perfectly acceptable for a mobile title, but not for a full-priced DS game. To be completely fair, it was obvious that Dawn of Heroes wasn’t supposed to keep players enthralled by its characters or story: it’s supposed to be a parody, plain and simple. However, unlike many of the recent retro-parody games such as 3D Dot Game Heroes, Half-Minute Hero, or Cladun: This is an RPG, the plot doesn’t feel like genuine parody, but rather like some sort of story put together by a group of high school students making a weekend Dungeons and Dragons game.
Now, this would be forgivable if the game’s depth kept me wanting more, taking mission after mission, devouring levels and twinking out characters, but that’s not the case. It’s apt to make a comparison here to Disgaea, which in the overall scheme of things, feels very much like Dawn of Heroes. Players are granted almost complete control over creating their own parties from a ton of different classes, given wide-open battlefields, and told to kill everything on the screen. The main difference, however, is customization, and on that point the two games diverge completely. Dawn of Heroes lets me customize the color of my party’s clothes, their equipment, and what classes I bring to battle with my five characters. Disgaea allows me to customize my items through the item world, change my characters’ classes, and spend a great deal of time making sure my party feels like my own. Dawn of Heroes lacks any sort of customizable progression system. All characters share an experience system, will always be of equal level, and will always gain skills at preset points. The only customization that significantly affects gameplay is changing equipment, and that system is incredibly shallow.
Equipment drops like it does in your favorite MMORPG – at the end of every battle, you’ll gain equipment of different tiers, which are for specific character classes. However, Wicked Studios focused on accessibility rather than depth for Dawn of Heroes, so the equipment system is just as linear as the character development. Sure, there is an adjective-based attribute modifier, such as in Diablo or World of Warcraft, but most of the time the effect is a throw-away and the attack, defense, or hit point number is the only thing that matters. Sure, certain equipment gives increased defense against a certain type of attack (there are three), but it’s almost always obvious what piece of equipment is best. Equipment is also available in shops, although I found that it was easier simply to buy equipment for characters that didn’t have any yet, rather that deal with actual upgrades there.
Combat itself is similar to the other aspects of the game in that it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough there. It’s a fairly standard grid-based combat system, so anyone familiar with strategy-RPGs will find it to be familiar territory. Players control their characters using the bottom screen and watch the animation play out on the top screen. Each character has a handful of abilities that it can use, modified by some static passive abilities learn at various levels. The game uses a lot of buffs and debuffs as well, many of which don’t make a lot of sense. Specifically, one such buff allows your healer to have a much more powerful heal spell, but he has to physically attack an enemy. Another allows a magic user to be able to attack anywhere on the map, but it makes her incapable of movement over the next turn. Both of these, because they are passive abilities, cannot be turned off. I would much rather have had a mobile magic user with less range, but it wasn’t possible with that particular class.
There’s really not much more that’s positive about combat, but there are some elements which are frustrating. Most specifically, any enemy or ally can only be attacked two times in a single turn. This is both frustrating and intriguing, as the concept is to keep players from simply ganging up on a single enemy and vice versa. However, the implementation makes combat more frustrating than it should be, as there were instances when there were two full-strength enemies on the field, and one of my five characters was unable to attack. There are also disease debuffs that will spread amongst your party – a novel concept that makes you spread out your characters. However, there was a point where I had all of my characters in a small area, and the infection animations seemed to be never-ending, as each character that was diseased would infect every other character, regardless of whether or not they had already been affected. It’s a small annoyance, certainly, but with the lack of depth in gameplay, it becomes a more noticeable frustration.
The one saving grace for Dawn of Heroes is the control scheme; the game is controlled almost entirely with the touch screen (although the D-pad can be used to shift the map around.) Movement is accomplished by simply dragging your character’s icon to another square, selecting an icon from the bottom of the screen, and targeting an enemy. Once the character has been moved and the ability selected, players tap the check box and the command is executed. What makes this so good is not only the ease and quickness of it, but also that I could select the type of ability I wanted to use and drag my character across the map, seeing both its attack range and movement range. Once I found the place I wanted to be, I could drop him, tap the enemy and check box, and go. It was an incredibly useful mechanic and I applaud the developer’s ingenuity here, even if that ingenuity didn’t carry over to much else.
I’m sad to say it, but despite having lots of potential and a touch-based control scheme with many elements other games should take notice of, Dawn of Heroes feels watered-down and generic. While Wicked Studios set out to make an accessible game, they wound up with a title that was overly simplistic and shallow. Add to that graphics which are not particularly pretty, some awful music, sound effects, and animations, and a story which, despite its “humorous” tone, leaves much to be desired, and you have a game that I would pay $10 for on my iPhone, but not $30 for on my DS. It just doesn’t stack up to the intricacies found in many other DS strategy-RPGs such as Disgaea DS, Final Fantasy Tactics A2, or Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. While Dawn of Heroes is a stalwart effort by the developers, and I can’t say that there’s anything truly wrong with the game, it simply underwhelms in every single aspect.