When Justice League Heroes was released a few years ago, the most logical game to compare it to for many gamers (including me) was X-Men Legends. Both were action RPGs featuring well-known comic book characters, and I remember that my initial reaction to JLH was to see it as a sad attempt to cash in on the success of its Marvel cousin. However, the developers had a good pedigree and experience making quality games in the genre, so I gave it a shot anyway. Besides, how could I resist playing a game that featured some of my favorite DC characters?
Justice League Heroes’ story is one of the more logical tales I can remember in an action RPG, and it stays very true to its comic book roots. Worker robots mysteriously begin attacking Metropolis, and with problems cropping up all over the city, the team is forced to split up to take care of things. Of course, they discover that a supervillain is behind the robotic uprising, and as more and more things go wrong, the Justice League members stay separated as they fight their way across the planet, space, Mars, and even another dimension or two in their pursuit of the true enemy. Throughout the game, you play as two characters at a time, and these divisions not only make sense in context, but explain why you are restricted thus. At least one of the big plot twists is pretty easy to figure out ahead of time, but it’s hard to hold that against the writers given the overall story quality. I don’t know every one of the characters involved in the game very well, but those that I am familiar with seem to stay true to themselves.
Despite their ostensibly shared genre, JLH is a very different kind of game from X-Men Legends. It has more in common with games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (which makes sense, given the fact that Snowblind developed it). You play as two heroes at a time, directly controlling one and being assisted by a very capable AI partner. The press of a button will instantly change which of the two you are controlling, but it is gratifying to know that you will not be forced to do so just to keep your partner alive. It’s even better to know that they’ll actually help you and are able to judge pretty well which enemies to focus on.
Every character in the game has four or five special abilities/superpowers, as well as stats for attack power, energy, health, and recovery, all of which can be leveled up a maximum of five times. Every time a character levels up, you are given two points to improve those abilities or stats, and it can be a challenge at times to decide whether to buff up powers or stats. What you choose will likely depend on whether you feel that you’re having a harder time surviving or dealing enough damage. In addition to these points, your powers and stats can be improved by using buffs that your enemies occasionally drop. These buffs do things like make a power cost less energy to use, cause more damage, or even have a greater range of effect. You can slot one buff for each point that you’ve invested into a given power, and the buffs can make a huge difference in how a character plays. For example, I loved Superman’s heat vision, so I gave that power both an efficiency buff to let me use it more often and a damage buff to make it hit harder whenever I did.
As you play through the game, you will also collect Shields, which are found in preset locations throughout levels and are also dropped by certain kinds of enemies. Although you start out with a stable of seven heroes, Shields can be used to unlock up to a total of fifteen Justice League members, as well as costumes for existing heroes. Costumes alter characters’ stats as well as altering their appearance, but don’t have the same strong impact that they do in later games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance.
Probably the only thing I found really silly in the game’s design is related to these unlockables: the Green Lantern John Stewart is among the characters you have access to from the beginning of the game, but his fellow Green Lanterns Kyle Rayner and Hal Jordan are both among the unlockable characters. All three GLs are identical except in their looks, making the inclusion of Kyle and Hal feel like a waste of roster space and unlocking them feel like a waste of Shields. If you really love Green Lantern, unlocking at least one of them allows you to play through the game as a team of two GLs, but I just can’t see why you’d want to… and I wear a custom-made Green Lantern ring in real life. Really. Also somewhat strange is the inclusion of Supergirl, who is identical to Superman except for the fact that she does not have his power to become temporarily more resistant to damage.
The above-mentioned exceptions aside, the heroes available to you for use in Justice League Heroes are a great group, and their abilities vary quite a bit, making it a very different experience to play as Batman and Flash vs. playing as Superman and Green Lantern, which really helps the replay value. Sadly, there is a very significant portion of the game where you are forced to use specific heroes. Heroes only gain experience when they’re on the active team, and you can’t change the characters on your team during a mission, so multiple playthroughs are required if you intend to get much use out of all of the unlockable characters. Fortunately, after you’ve beaten the game, you can start over (on a new difficulty level, if you want) with all of the characters from your previous playthrough at the same level where you left them.
Within the game, the difficulty level has a nice balance. You will frequently be challenged to use all of your skills as a player to stay alive, but there are few moments where you’ll feel that you’ve been treated unfairly. Those few moments occur during a boss fight or two and within one or two of the missions where you are forced to use two specific characters. Still, JLH manages to avoid two of the major sins that some games commit by allowing you to skip cutscenes and by not putting these frustrating battles at the end of long sequences that you’ll have to play over just to have the chance to get killed again. Also, as befits super-powered characters, you neither pick up nor purchase health or mana potions in the game. You simply regenerate your HP and energy after a few seconds of not sustaining damage. This means that even if you’re in deep trouble, steering clear of things for just a bit will usually allow you to rejoin the fight.
Justice League Heroes’ graphics are solid. The environments vary quite a bit, including both small tunnels and wide-open plains, and the enemies in each area are different (as opposed to a bunch of pallet-swapped clones). Most of the characters’ powers are accompanied by some kind of graphical effect, and some of the environments include things like falling rain, and yet I do not recall a single time that I had framerate issues. You can turn on a semi-transparent map, but there’s no option to move it over into a corner, which can make it distracting at times. If the map is on, it includes arrows showing the position of both of your heroes, and each hero has their own color of arrow, meaning that you’ll never get confused as to which is which.
As someone who plays most of my games on the go, I’m a gamer who usually plays with the sound turned off. I frequently broke that habit for this game, though. The music is neither bad nor special, but the sound effects are done well, as is the voice acting. Some characters are played by people you’ll recognize instantly, like Batman’s Ron Perlman, who happily avoids the more recent trend of trying to make the Dark Knight sound like a chain-smoker who gargles with rusty nails every morning. The dialogue is well-written during cutscenes, and characters make relevant comments from time to time as you play. As mentioned above, they stay true to themselves, and at least one character stayed on my roster almost as much for his funny remarks as he did for his usefulness. The only dark spot is that there are occasional glitches in the sound, where you’ll hear a second’s worth of static when coming out of a loading screen or the like.
Controls are generally easy to remember, and powers that do similar things have been helpfully mapped to the same button (all of which are accessed by pressing L). For example, Superman’s aforementioned ability to become more resistant to damage uses the same button as Flash’s power to move more quickly. Characters have both a strong and a weak attack, which can be chained together in certain orders to create combos. Unfortunately, there are all too many occasions where you’ll find yourself punching next to an enemy rather than actually hitting them. This is especially problematic when your character is flying. It doesn’t happen enough to create a huge problem or break the game, but it happens enough to be annoying.
As I discussed in an editorial here on RPGFan, the superhero RPG is a sub-genre that I see as a particularly logical fit of two things that tend to appeal to the same people. It’s one that has not seen a lot of entries, but at least the few that exist are good games. Such is certainly the case with Justice League Heroes, a game that isn’t perfect, but is a lot of fun and features a pretty nice amount of replay value. I played it twice when I first bought it, and although I really didn’t need to, I played it again from start to finish for this review, and then started to play a fourth time before realizing that I have other games I need to play. If you like comic books and action RPGs, I can easily recommend that you purchase this game.