When someone introduces a new game for a new platform by a new developer in a totally unrelated genre with a familiar name, most fans of the original feel that it is likely someone is trying to cash in by attaching a familiar name to a mediocre game. The Might & Magic franchise has seen both sides of this: the most recent addition to the Heroes of Might & Magic franchise is the best in years, but the promising but mediocre action game ‘Dark Messiah Might & Magic’ from 2006 had no reason for a franchise attachment. Might & Magic Clash of Heroes is the latest entry, and appears as a puzzle game for the Nintendo DS. So does it do the franchise proud? Read on and find out!
Your journey in the world of Might and Magic will be punctuated with riddles, extraordinary encounters and epic battles against creatures searching for some fresh hero blood. Your hero will travel thanks to a node system, so watch your step as some of these nodes might trigger special actions, hide terrifying traps or even legendary treasures such as forgotten artifacts or secret units.
To stand a chance against your enemies, your hero will have to equip magical artifacts and build up the most powerful army. Your army will be composed of Core, Elite and Champion units, each of them having specific sizes, strengths and abilities. Its up to you to choose wisely each of these units combined to the appropriate artifact and work out the best strategy to wipe out your enemies.
You will be confronted with many challenges such as defeating the enemy heroes by crossing their armies in standard battles or launching into special challenges and Boss fights where your strategic skills will be put to a severe test. Finally, you can solve puzzle battles and get powerful rewards by finding the right combination and wipe-out the enemy in a limited number of turns.
Technically Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is very well done in a style that melds classic jRPG sliding character portraits, a fairly standard puzzle game combat board look similar to Puzzle Quest, and some very well done battle animations. The artwork itself is very well done. Each sprite on the combat field is distinct, and the main characters and enemies are all expressive and very detailed in their characterizations. Controls are simple and nicely overloaded: anything you need to do can be done with either the buttons or touchscreen. The music is pretty typical fantasy realm stuff, and works very well. I had the volume turned to low on my DS for the entire time I played, but never muted.
The story is fairly decent for a game of this type, involving a shaky alliance of different fantasy realm races that is tested when the one artifact said to keep demons at bay goes missing and quickly there are attacks against all of the races made to look like they were perpetrated by another race. This pits race against race, and anyone who sees the underlying truth is quickly cast out as an enemy and forced to work to regain the trust and loyalty of their own race. The game puts you in the role of various characters from different races, and you need to complete each of their stories in turn to reach the end of the game.
Movement around the world is on a top-down map where your character steps from space to space on predefined paths. As you move you will encounter new areas to explore, hidden caves, folks to battle or trade with or gain new missions from, and they will all have corresponding icons over their heads. You will also encounter special spots that allow you to replenish your Elite or Champion troops using the currency and elements you gather around the world or gain in battles. When in travel mode, information about your character is displayed on the top screen, including your level and experience, resources, and currently equipped units. You can also see your location on the map as well as the location of your next main quest encounter.
The menu system is a thing of beauty. It pops in or out using the X button (or tapping on the unobtrusive upper-right icon), and offers you a view of your party, quests, equipped items, as well as offering the ability to save at any time outside of combat. It seems a minor point, but it quickly becomes second nature to save after every battle and to check the status of your party and items and make sure you’re headed in the right direction. Too many games make this stuff a chore, so I was thrilled that it was trivial to do in Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. The combat menu is also excellent, as I will describe shortly.
In terms of your party, you get five slots in which to spread up to eight unit types. There are three ‘base’ units and three ‘base’ slots, but you don’t have to allocate one unit per slot: if you want an all archer front line, that is your tactical decision. There are also three ‘elite’ units you can unlock and two ‘champion’ units. These units are much more powerful than the base units, but they also take longer to strike, have no defensive potential and when they are defeated or removed from the field they are gone for good. However, if they successfully attack or just sit unused they are safe.
But the real star of the show is the combat system. You are on the bottom screen and your opponent is on the top screen. Attacks are made in vertical columns, and any attack that breaches enemy defenses and reaches your opponents takes away from their health points. When their health reaches zero you are victorious – but conversely when your health reaches zero you are defeated. Each side gets loaded up with troops of types selected in the ‘party setup’ screen as mentioned previously, arranged randomly. Depending on enemy level and type, either you or the enemy moves first, and you get three ‘moves’ per ‘turn’, and each side gets one turn per round.
Your basic move consists of trying to build a stack of three same colored base units: if the stack is vertical then you form an attack unit, if it is horizontal you for a defensive wall unit. Because the units are stacked vertically facing the middle of the screen, you can only directly move the last unit in a column. Fortunately, when you make a stack it goes as far towards the middle as possible and any ‘free’ units come to the top of the column. Other than moving units you can also eliminate them strategically: for example, picture having three blue swordsman with a brown archer in between. You highlight the brown unit and press the B button and it is removed, and the three blue units form a stack in what I call a ‘drop stack’ move.
The great thing about doing a ‘drop stack’ is that it gains you back a move for that turn. These added moves can add up – I had one time that removing a single unit resulted in the formation of simultaneous horizontal and vertical stacks, and when they repositioned it resulted in another stack formation, for a total of three extra moves from a single removal. To make a stack for an Elite unit you add two same-colored base units; for Champion units, they take up two columns, so you need to add two same-colored units on top of the Champion in each column.
So what happens to these removed units – and what about the units used up in attacks by you or your enemy? As mentioned, Elite and Champion units that are defeated or removed disappear entirely. Base units and successful Elite and Champion units go back to the ‘available unit pool’. It you view the bottom screen from left to right, you have your character portrait and health bar, special skill status, remaining moves for this round, and available units waiting to be deployed. Tapping that icon or pressing the L or R buttons when it is your turn drops all available units randomly on the field. Naturally that counts as a move, and it seemed unusually rare that I ever got a drop that made a stack for me.
Vertical stacks of base units take up three vertical spaces, whereas Elite and Champion units only take up the space of the main unit. However, if you add a second stack of same-colored base units to an existing stack they combine and create a formidable attack unit that activates as soon as the original stack was planned to be ready and only occupies three slots. Wall units are also able to stack to form even stronger walls before needing to expand into a second row.
Once you make a vertical stack, you will notice numbers on the top middle and lower right of a bar that forms on the stack. The top number is the number of rounds until that unit is activated for attack. You will see that more powerful units take longer to ‘charge up’, but they are definitely worth the wait! The lower number is your health (which is also your attack strength), and you will notice that it charges up over time until the unit becomes active. When your units attack, they need to make it all the way to the enemy in order to be effective. They pass through every friendly unit without issue, but then need to break down any enemy walls and defeat enemy units before reaching the main enemy.
For example, imagine we have an Elite Knight that has just come ready with an attack strength of 24. He moves into enemy territory and has to break down a single-stack wall (strength 6), then defeat a normal swordsman unit (strength 9), then defeat two ‘free’ base units (strength 3 each), leaving him free to attack the main enemy with a remaining strength of … 3. Had the knight been aligned in an empty enemy row he would have destroyed a Level 3 Guard in a single attack, for example. That shows how proper attack and defense strategy can make all the difference in the world in a battle.
The entire time you are making moves and stacks and attacks, you will notice that your special skill icon is charging up. Each character has a different skill that can be critical to success in battle. For example, Godric has a ‘Holy Shield’ that provides a nice barrier in front of him. Deploying that when the enemy has an Elite unit ready to attack an open row can make a huge difference in combat.
After you defeat the enemy, you and all of your surviving units gain experience, and you gain a variety of resources. If any of your Elite or Champion units were depleted in combat, they will not advance until your replenish their numbers AND equip them again. All units in your party (but not the main characters) have a maximum level of 5, but stronger units take longer to reach maximum level. Unit level is as important as character level in determining outcomes of battles, so make sure you keep an eye on your special units!
A few final thoughts on the combat system: first, there is no pretending that there isn’t an element of luck involved. I have been perfectly matched with an enemy many times and seen the entirety of a battle determined by what each of us was able to do in the opening turn. Yet unlike what many claimed with Puzzle Quest, I have never seen signs of ‘cheating’ by the game. Also, when approaching an enemy it isn’t possible to tell their level until you are in battle with them. I remember once being Level 3 and entering battle with a Level 7 enemy whose units were all Level 5 … I think it lasted three rounds, or until her first units cam ready and utterly decimated me.
Finally, the punishment system is a bit strange: if you run from a battle there is a penalty in terms of lost resources, but if you fall in combat and choose ‘continue’ all you lose is the time it took for the battle. Occasionally when facing certain defeat at the hands of a much stronger enemy I chose the ‘third path’ of just shutting down and restarting the game, which on my DSi took all of thirty seconds.
The swapping of characters is the biggest issue I had with this game – particularly the first time it happened! From your first to second character you change from a character who has gained loads of powerful champions and offensive strategies, and suddenly you are back to level one with a character who is more defensively postured but has stronger base units. That transition was the harshest of all, but once you get going with your second character the rest of the game progresses smoothly.
The other obvious concern is the use of the franchise name: have I mentioned a single thing that seems to attach it to the franchise, or the gameplay in any of the prior games? Not at all – there are elements that are used in the story that connect the game to the Might & Magic universe, but they could have easily been changed slightly and the game simply called Clash of Heroes. But unlike ‘Dark Messiah Might & Magic’, I have noticed something: folks on DS message boards are enjoying this game immensely and are seeking out earlier games in the franchise. The obvious beneficiary of much of this is ‘Heroes of Might & Magic V’, especially since it was on a Steam sale soon after this game was released. But in my opinion, if they can take an otherwise dead franchise, release a very good game with the name and draw in interest to the main franchise games … I am all for it.
The main campaign took me about 30 or so hours, including hunting for a few secrets and doing a bit of ‘level grinding’ with Godric so I could complete a couple of his Bounty Hunt missions. Once I was done with all of that I was able to challenge my kids to some multiplayer matches – I got myself an extra copy as well as my review copy, and the kids have been enjoying the game quite a bit. Theer are two possible modes – Quick Play and Multiplayer skirmishes, and you can play limited multiplayer with single card or the full version with multiple cards. In each of these modes you have access to all five main characters as well as the companions you have unlocked in the single player campaign. Each side gets a character at the maximum level of 10, with all units set to level 5. There is obviously no advancement or other RPG elements involved, but it is still loads of fun for a quick battle outside of the main game – but make no mistake, single player is the reason to grab this game.
And in case I haven’t made it clear enough yet, I strongly recommend this game. I definitely consider it one of the best DS games of 2009, which is saying quite a bit given the amazing release list the platform saw last year. I also see it as the best game in the puzzle-RPG genre since the original Puzzle Quest, besting the original in many ways while staying away from delivering the sort of ‘me too’ design that so many others have fallen on (including Puzzle Quest Galactrix!). Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes delivers an amazing diversity of gameplay for such a seemingly simple combat system – as I have said, the transition between characters is a stunning reminder of how quickly you become ingrained with the tactics and strategies required for one character. If you like challenging puzzle-RPG games with a decent story and loads of combat depth, this game is a must-have.
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
What I Like:
+ Excellent puzzle game mechanic.
+ Nice integration of story
+ Starting each character at Level 1 involves you in their story
+ Bounty Hunts are a nice added element
What Needs Improvement:
– Restarting each character at Level 1 can be frustrating
Developer: Capybara Games
Genre(s): Role-Playing Game, Puzzle, Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10 and Older)
Release Date: December 1, 2009
Source: review copy provided by publisher. Originally reviewed for VGBlogger