After Orcs Must Die’s bloody spin on traditional tower defense, Robot Entertainment’s talent for creating stylish fantasy titles reviewed well with the release of Hero Academy on iOS platforms. The caricatured take on chess seized board game masters and casual iPhone gamers with its deceiving amount of replay value and support of multiple matches at once, but PC owners missed out on the wave of hype while Android users remain lost at sea. At least the developers have appeased one of those groups. Now on Steam and featuring asynchronous play between PCs and Apple devices, Hero Academy is one school all players should enroll in.
Chess crossed with cartoon visuals simplifies Hero Academy’s appeal. In reality, there lurks an immeasurable gameplay depth below the surface. Players exchange turns attempting to wipe their opponents’ armies off the board or damage their immovable crystals, but as they collide for the grid’s control – equipping shields, casting fireballs, reviving allies, healing the wounded, moving units, or signaling pawns to attack in the meantime – gamers draw upon their action points. With five moves per turn, how you spend those actions is purely preference.
You do not begin with units on the field, however. Players must summon their warriors, healers, archers, mages, and super units from a hand of six randomly dealt items/heroes. Even then the developers endow competitors with tactical freedom. Not happy with the selection of units you've been served? Shuffle them back into the pile. This ploy costs one action point per character, but challengers better their chances of obtaining that tide-turning unit. Once contenders drain the pool of 20-something reinforcements, it becomes their responsibility to lifeguard any surviving pieces.
Hero Academy does not run in full-screen mode. The better to minimize it with.
And because the five factions function independent of one another, players will need to reshuffle to make effective use of their classes’ strengths. The Council plays it basic. Archers inflict massive injuries from long range; the Wizard’s lightning spell arcs through adjacent enemies. The Dark Elves thrive off their leech-life effect. The group’s Impaler snares victims with her harpoon, pulling them closer as the Necromancer creates fragile Phantoms from K.O.’d opponents. The Dwarves do so love their explosions and frothy brews, too. Their Grenadiers, Gunners, and Annihilators all deal area-of-effect damage. Lastly, the orcish Tribe favors sacrifice above all else. While the Shaman chain heals through multiple allies, the Witch can denounce unconscious units and detonate their bodies.
The exclusive TF2 army plays quite different from their fantasy colleagues, at least, lacking permanent item upgrades to their attack strength and armor. Instead, like the shooter they stem from, the seven other characters bank on the support ability of the Medic to heal friendlies and pop UberCharges while the Engineer improves their weapons.
Like chess, the movements of Hero Academy’s units never change. Players maneuver their heroes horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, abiding by the capture and movement restrictions for each minion (usually two squares at a time). This makes the consideration behind every action point spent all the more crucial. More often than not, you must choose between arranging pawns, buffing the team, or knocking out an adversary’s piece, stomping the body and removing them from the game. Contrary to chess and its no-takeback rule, players can experiment with their units before committing to a turn. Make an error by attacking the wrong hero? Move that piece into a disadvantageous position? Equip a unit with the incorrect power-up? Every folly can be undone, and the game redistributes points spent every time you rewind an action. There is no penalization, no harm in thinking a plan through before clicking the submit button. Hero Academy does not obligate players to conduct their next phase immediately after their opponent.
Team Fortress 2 fans should recognize the inspiration for this map.
There is, of course, more to Hero Academy than knowing its characters. The symmetrical arenas house a resplendent crystal – sometimes two, maybe three – that represents the game’s king. After you checkmate (destroy) the enemy’s crystal(s), the match ends, but eliminating all the rival pieces also notches a win on your belt. To facilitate that victory, every board contains premium squares that increase the inhabiting unit’s attack power, defensive strength, or the damage their team administers to crystals.
Unfortunately, a fundamental flaw resides in Hero Academy’s plan: griefers. Games rely on a constant back and forth wager between opponents, but it’s all too easy for players to refuse their next move once their crystal’s health begins dropping or their super unit is slain. I encountered one of these malcontents every five matches or so. Beyond throwing the game or forfeiting, players cannot quit. To the other 80 percent of reputable competitors indulging in their turns despite evidence of their eventual demise, I thank you.
When you have 30 concurrent matches demanding your attention, however, it remains rather easy to ignore the poor sports roosting at the bottom of the list. Not only can newcomers challenge Steam and Twitter friends, they can pair up with random faces, too. Since Hero Academy lacks any sort of AI component, the game hinges upon on its matchmaking. Although there are no shortage of players eager to slay orcs, humans, and elves while Hero Academy remains fresh and exciting in their minds, those feelings of indifference come swift. Remember Omgpop’s Draw Something?
If you're the extravagant type, you can spend the extra dollar for different uniform colors.
Hero Academy also makes a for a terrible sit-down-and-play PC title. iOS users may continue to go about their day-to-day business, suspending all activity to check their Hero Academy status amid lunch breaks and bathroom routines. PC players, conversely, will sit hunched over their keyboards, twiddling their thumbs waiting on their friends. I logged more than 30 hours on my Steam account, but I had minimized Hero Academy at least half that time. On the off chance that you do find another human being to trade blows with on a minute-to-minute basis, cherish the fun. You may be waiting upwards of several hours before one of three dozen opponents submits their next turn. And Without a proper single-player mode, the only solo offerings to tide players over arrive in the form of team-specific challenges.
The asynchronous play between PCs and iOS devices works flawlessly, thankfully. Wi-fi connections tend to update players’ moves faster than their cellular services, yet the difference can be measured in seconds. If you happen to own a computer and iPhone, you can take Hero Academy on-the-go after logging into your Robot Entertainment account. Just don’t blame me when the boss catches you sneaking some human-on-orc action.
Because of my Android phone, the initial Hero Academy craze swept over me. But the Steam version gave me a chance to recline in my office chair and bring my previous chess skills out of retirement, which time atrophied a fair bit. Hero Academy masters will learn to compensate for their opponent’s next moves, even when the units in one’s hand remain hidden from view. And with the ability to resume matches from any iDevice or PC, Robot Entertainment understands the appeal of portability. $4.99 on Steam nets you the Council and TF2 team for asynchronous play, whereas an extra ten buys all five factions. $15 pushes the limit of what most people deem acceptable for an original iOS title, but if you need a sharp decline in productivity, Hero Academy will steal your free time as the developers laugh their way to the bank.
Publisher: Robot Entertainment
Developer: Robot Entertainment
Release Date: August 10, 2012 (PC); January 11, 2012 (iOS)
Number of Players: 2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), iPhone, iPad