I have a confession to make. I loved the premise of Puzzle Quest (and it’s successors) but simply couldn’t get into the game. I respect the innovation of combining RPG elements with match-3 gameplay, but for some reason Puzzle Quest just didn’t hold my attention. When I dove into Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes when it first released at the end of 2009 on the DS, I was afraid that my reaction would be identical: love for the concept, but disinterest in the gameplay. Instead I was left with but one, simple thought: Clash of Heroes is exactly the experience I wanted, but never got, from Puzzle Quest.
Now, with the release of Clash of Heroes on the PSN and XBLA, home console gamers get a chance to visit the world of Ashan and get hooked with all of the original content, an HD upgrade, and a few tweaks. All of this makes for a compelling package that will keep you busy both offline and online for hours.
Immediately upon starting the campaign, players are treated to stirring music, a well-voiced narration, and attractive visuals designed to look like a pop-up book. These stylings are revisited throughout the game between each chapter. Dialog is handled via text boxes while in game, but the impact is only slightly lessened due to a well-written story. The little touches given to each of the five heroes and the main villains help craft individual characters with their own motives and personalities.
The story is one of intrigue, death, and demons, spanning five nations that are home to five different factions. At the outset, five teenagers are left to spread the word about a pending invasion after tragedy strikes. Without giving too much away, I appreciated the care put into the story and the dialog.
Gameplay is split between exploration on the larger map and the battlefield. While in exploration mode, you’ll move your character and any named companions from node to node, speaking to NPCs, collecting resources, collecting new units, and triggering battles. Once you encounter an enemy, the fun really begins. The battlefield is split into two halves, with your army on the bottom and the enemy units on the top. For each encounter, you’ll take up to five different units into battle: three standard units, and two elites or champions. Standard units come in three colors, with elites and champions taking one of those colors at random when they appear. The combat blends match-3, classic solitaire, and a touch of Magic: the Gathering to create a tense, mind-bending experience.
As you create columns of three standard units that match color and type, an attack will begin to charge. As turns pass and the formation gets closer to attacking, its attack power, which also serves as its HP, will increase. This allows the grouping to take some damage without forfeiting the attack. However, when it finally triggers, it won’t have the impact of a full-health/charge assault. Additionally, your opponent can stack idle enemies or opposing, stronger formations in your way (remember that Magic: the Gathering reference?). Idle enemies are destroyed immediately upon contact, which isn’t usually a problem until Elite and Champion units enter the mix. In addition to your three types of standard troops, these come in limited quantities. These charge up in special ways and each have a unique additional ability. For Elites, you need to stack up two same-colored standard units behind. For Champions, which occupy two columns, you need to stack up four same-colored standard units. It’s tricky, but worth the effort. It definitely stings when one of these pricey units gets obliterated by an enemy attack or, worse, when you’re in a position with no choice but to dismiss the unit from the field, which also eliminates it from your supply.
Defensively, standard units can be arrayed in a line to create a wall. Each race has a unique wall ability. Sylvan walls regain health with each turn, Necromancers have the advantage of defeated skeletons creating and reinforcing walls, etc.
In addition to all of this, there are hero spells, artifacts, links, and fusions. It’s a lot to remember and keep track of. Thankfully, Clash of Heroes’ tutorial is masterful. In each short concept introduction, the game holds your hand through a scenario and then lets you practice. In no time, you’ll be pulling off more complex arrangements. The challenge ramps up very quickly, but failing a combat encounter merely sends you back to your immediate last position with no penalty so you can try again.
Clash of Heroes keeps players interested by varying the win conditions. While most encounters are simply a matter of wearing your opponent down before they can reduce your HP to zero, others require you to precisely time attacks, hit moving targets, or avoid landing a hit on defenseless friendly units moving behind enemy lines. There is even a stealth section on the exploration map that ends up being another puzzle type. The game keeps mixing things up to avoid getting stale.
At the end of each battle, your hero is awarded experience points which translate into increased wall strength, hit points, and army size. The unit classes you took into battle also gain XP. Increased levels mean a bump to attack and defense ratings.
Throughout the five chapters, you’ll control each of the five races, find artifacts that provide a variety of different bonuses, and locate secret units to bolster your forces. I particularly enjoyed the asymmetrical nature of the forces. Playing one race requires a distinctly different strategy than bringing the others into battle. Throw in different unit combinations and you’ve got strategies that further evoke the collectible card game metaphor.
Once you feel comfortable with the game mechanics, it’s time to take your game online or to a buddy’s couch. Clash of Heroes features an impressive slate of options for both local and XBox Live/PSN competition. Players can go head-to-head or form teams of two, using their offline artifacts and secret units. While you can’t move your partner’s units in the 2v2 play, which makes its first appearance in the HD upgrade, you can mark units for movement/deletion, to aid in communicating future strategies and moves without giving them away to opponents.
I did run into one snag with the otherwise gorgeous visuals. Some units, like the Sylvan Deer, are mostly white with a few splashes of color. I had a very hard time determining which color they were supposed to be. I imagine my colorblind friends will have significant difficulty playing with those units. Thankfully, you can bring up a grid over the battlefield that calls out the color, HP, and other stats. It’s nice to see that some thought was given to make the game as accessible as possible.
I enjoyed my time with Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes in both its original DS incarnation and this new downloadable release. For fans of the Might & Magic series, puzzle lovers, and those enamored of Puzzle Quest (in concept, gameplay, or both), I strongly recommend picking this up. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes won’t disappoint.
Review copy provided by publisher.