In the last few weeks, I personally discovered a brilliant little gem. Of course, in the same moment that I discover it, I come to find that a whole bunch of other people, including game critics, have already discovered what’s so special about this game. So I’m a little late to the party. Forgive me.
Before getting to the heart of this DS title, I think it’s important to ask the following question:
What happened to my beloved Might and Magic franchise?
New World Computing’s “Might and Magic” franchise is well loved by many RPG Fans. Whether it was the first-person dungeon-crawling of the original “Might and Magic” games or the isometric strategy-centric “Heroes of Might and Magic,” many people have fond memories of these games. It seems that M&M left off at part 9, whereas HoM&M only had 5 parts (with rumors of a 6th now circulating across the Internet).
Perhaps as a way of gauging interest in the present and future marketability of the franchise, Ubisoft decided to work with a new company, Capybara Games, to develop something in the Might and Magic universe. What they got was something so wholly different from anything else in the series, even initial screens seemed to ostracize long-time fans of the series. Reason being, they wanted more of the same, but what they would be getting was something that seems to cater to a *gulp* “casual market.”
Capybara’s previous game, the highly addictive “Critter Crunch” (on PSN and a variety of portable devices), seemed to put them in the right place for the game. So what exactly is Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes? It’s a complete Turn-Based Strategy RPG with a “puzzle” element (that is, emphasis on rows and columns, much like the classic game Columns). But before you turn up your nose, long-time M&M and/or HoM&M fans, read on to learn what this game is all about.
48 squares to freedom
A solid 90% of this game takes place in a combat screen. And that’s a good thing, because the game excels most in its incredibly fresh and fun combat.
Here’s how it all comes together. Your team (bottom screen of the DS) has a certain number of units, spread across 48 squares (8 wide, 6 tall). All troops start in an “idle” state, meaning they are in no way prepared to attack or defend. Basic, or “core,” units take up one square on your overall grid, and three core units of the same color form offensive formations in columns and defensive formations in rows. In fact, those created rows turn into walls. Once a formation has been made, it is pushed to the front (walls take precedence over charging formations, and idle units stay in the back).
Each turn comes with a standard 3 moves, and the only “moves” that can be made are changing the columns that the furthest-back unit in a row is in, or removing a unit (from any row, any column). Making multiple formations in one move can lead to bonuses in the form of additional moves allowed within a turn. Also, once units have been expended (either deleted, or used up as walls or formations), their stock number goes back into a reserve that can be unleashed at any time (though, again, it costs one move to do this).
Alongside the core units, which take up one square, there are elite units (which take up two squares vertically) and champion units (which take up four squares, 2×2 formation). These units start idle, but can be charged by putting core units of matching color behind them. Both elite and champion units are of finite number in your party. If they get hit while idle, or if their HP is expended while charging, or if you choose to delete one, your total pool of that unit is decreased. However, if the unit survives its rounds and is “used” by charging an attack and then attacking, they are not expended, and are replenished in the pool.
Generally, the goal is not to wipe out all the troops on the enemy’s side, but to break past the enemy lines and hit the back row, like in Pong. This does damage to the enemy commander. In some special fights, your target place to hit might only be in certain columns, or might even be mobile from turn to turn.
Capybara’s greatest success as a developer is in the control department. Too often, a DS game will force the player to use only the traditional face-button input, or else use only the touch screen. In Clash of Heroes, you can use both interchangeably, or just go ahead and use one exclusively however you please. Both operate flawlessly. Few DS games are capable of making such a boast.
As you win battles, you gain experience (plus gold and some raw materials to purchase elite and champion units). The game is split into five chapters, each one starting you with a new hero character. Each hero character has a level cap of 10, and all units have a level cap of 5. Core units reach level cap without problem, but because you can only equip two elite/champion units (out of five per character) at a time, capping those units takes work. Level up for the hero determines HP, wall strength, and max number of units allowed on the field at any given time. Unit level determines base HP and attack strength.
There are some optional fights, including “puzzle battles” (one turn to take out all troops on the opposing side) and bounties. And, in certain areas of the map, you can end up in random encounters (though they can easily be skipped if you don’t want to fight them). In the 30+ hours I put into this game, I found that the “optional” fights are really mandatory to take out the boss at the end of each chapter. That, or, fight a bunch of random encounters. The scripted fights along the way are challenging, but the boss fights are nearly impossible without maxing out character and unit levels.
Who are the real heroes?
I was shocked by the game’s plot and character development. The game opens in a fantasy world where most of the races actually get along. Humans, elves, and wizards (presumably a separate race in the M&M universe) all respect each other. In the opening scene, monarchs and nobles from these three races meet at an elf encampment to discuss the upcoming lunar eclipse, which holds the possibility of a demon summoning from Sheogh (read: hell). Things go awry when, days before the eclipse, demons somehow manage to show up, and the set fire to the elf camp. Many key leaders of each nation die in this assault, though their children (who were all present as well) manage to escape via a portal put in place by one of the wizards.
These children become the five heroes of the game. First, there is Anwen, the daughter of the elves. Then, there are the three children of human knight Edric: Godric, Fiona, and Aidan. Finally, there is Nadia, the daughter of the head wizard in the Silver Cities. As each child steps through the portal, they end up in different places. As a result, each hero will learn to lead a different set of troops. Anwen, Godric and Nadia lead their own kind (elf, human and wizard, respectively). Fiona will learn the art of Necromancy due to her, um, “circumstances,” and lead the undead. Aidan, thanks to the all-powerful Blade of Binding, learns to control the demon enemy themselves.
The pacing of the plot and the writing of the dialogue struck me as first-class. The opening sequence demonstrates that the races do indeed trust each other, but mistrust breeds easily when the demons arrive. The surprises, the twists, and even the betrayals that take place during the course of the game are kept few and far between; they all left a distinct impression on me.
Clash of heroes, but not aesthetics
The audio and visual design for Clash of Heroes is top notch. Visually, everything is kept strictly 2D. Hand-drawn character portraits and simple sprites against simple, functional map backgrounds are all you’ll find in this game. The portraits are fantastic. At the beginning and end of each chapter, and once or twice throughout the chapters, there are special “cut scenes” with hand-drawn stills taking up one or both screens. This still art is a great way to tell a story while keeping a relatively low budget. I really like the art style. That said, the game could stand to have improved battle animation. It doesn’t look bad, but I have seen better in other DS games.
The music is fantastic. There isn’t a lot in terms of quantity. But what is found is great. The composer from Capybara Games borrowed some themes from HoM&M V, but he also wrote some great original music. The standard battle theme, which you’re bound to hear more than any other song, has a catchy hook embedded in it. It’s been a few days since I last played the game, but that song is still in my head.
Beyond the campaign
The “bonus” material to the game, including quick battle and multiplayer modes, will keep you entertained beyond the 30 hour campaign, should you choose to keep playing. With each chapter completed, you unlock the usage of the key NPCs that follow each of your five heroes. Those characters get their own specialty magic attacks that differ from the five heroes. So there are a total of ten playable characters. “Quick battle” allows you to set up a battle against the AI, with difficulty and handicaps set however you see fit. Multiplayer can be done with one or two cartridges, and it’s certainly a great way to hone your skills to maximum effect for the game. I highly recommend playing this game multiplayer if you get the chance.
The entire game was a satisfying and downright addictive experience. I couldn’t put this game down. Each and every battle forced me to get a little more creative in how I chose to set up my troops. There are, however, some limitations that I didn’t like: for example, there was never an opportunity to mix and match the core/elite/champion troops among the races. But hey, there’s room to do that in a sequel, right?
Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes comes highly recommended, whether or not you’ve played any other games in the M&M franchise. This is not a bastardization of the series. If anything, Clash of Heroes may become the catalyst to resurrect a franchise that was once on its last legs.