I managed to miss several high-definition ports of Clash of Heroes since the game’s 2009 release. As a clear tactical gem on the Nintendo DS, I remained eager to name this Might and Magic spin-off the best strategy title on the App Store. The animated visuals and spirited fantasy setting merge into a beautifully crisp world thanks to Apple’s Retina display, while the addictive match-three puzzle battles and RPG qualities urged me to ignore any irritable low battery warnings. Minimal changes outside the touch controls and asynchronous multiplayer keep the game’s heart and soul alive too, but ten hours in I realized the errors of brash thinking. The onset of technical bugs brands this iOS adaptation as the most inferior version of the lot – the others being more responsive on larger screens as well – yet the most miserly of buyers will be eating those words as they immerse themselves in the cunning turn-based combat and douse the smoldering holes that the premium $4.99 price has burned in their pockets.
For anyone not accustomed to the Might and Magic name, Clash of Heroes does not look the part of Ubisoft’s core releases. This offshoot deviated from the series’ conventional 3D art to compensate for prior system limitations. 2D animations and scrolling text advance the gameplay and narrative instead, and what a difference the graphical shift makes. Among the hand-painted character models influenced by children’s cartoons, Clash of Heroes constantly astonishes due to the sharp environments and intricate mythological units. An invisible breeze ruffles an opaque griffin's opaque fur; reapers hover silently above the ground, their fluttering patchwork robes obscuring unseen faces; and brilliant, white auras surround hostile angels, signaling their forthcoming attacks.
When not in battle, players navigate the world using stationary nodes.
The lively characters aside, Clash of Heroes borrows more than just art designs from Saturday morning cartoons. The campaign narrates a familiar fantasy fable better suited to a weekly television program than a taxing role-playing game. Following the demise of their parents, five young heroes muster their courage and save the world from the demons upsetting the peaceful balance between the elves, humans, mages, and necromancers that govern Ashan. The Blade of Binding holds the key to ending the invasion, yet no being – living or dead – will sate Lord Bloodcrown’s wrath until he attains godlike power. Although the writers skillfully worked a self-contained adventure into Might and Magic’s existing canon that requires no previous knowledge to enjoy, the linear storytelling will not win over anyone expecting underhanded twists and moral complexities.
Nither do the protagonists participate in battles directly. The heroes act as the player's health source, who must drag units of different colors around the screen, exploiting openings to exhaust the enemy’s life points. Each faction contains its share of melee, magic, or ranged support – such as elven archers, undead skeletons, or arcane golems – though the real genius behind Clash of Heroes grants players three moves per turn to execute their plans. Vertically aligning three units of the same color produces an attack formation, while establishing a row of three individuals or more creates a defensive wall.
Clash of Heroes dedicates half the battlefield display to each army, a problem on the iPhone's smaller screen.
The balance between offense and defense gives the game its strategic structure. Neglecting to construct blockades for your idle allies leaves them vulnerable. On the other hand, failing to gain an aggressive start could endanger your health as formations gather their strength over several turns. Because units do not attack outright, enemies can launch their own assaults during this time, weakening the power of your forces, destroying them completely, or inflicting direct hits on your life bar. As units leave the playing field – either unharmed or in a body bag – they return to your pool of reinforcements, introducing another layer of thought processes to the combat.
Throwing reinforcements into this delicate juggling act creates matches more abstract than an ordinary round of chess. Units rejoin the fight at the backs of random columns. That means, although the game always displays each person's pawns in stand-by, neither of you will be able to account for every possible outcome. Gaps offering a straight shot at the rival commander one moment could be filled the next. You must learn to adapt like the AI, splitting moves between bolstering a row's weak links or assailing any unguarded columns. Together, the unpredictability and growing difficulty assure the skirmishes stay fresh through the story's entirety.
Players have the option of fleeing before or during a battle (which costs resources).
That's not to say there are no other ways of increasing your chances of victory. Players can delete bottle-necking units to form attacks or barricades indirectly, which does not cost a movement point. And generating new formations through links and fusions boosts their power significantly. Identically colored units that attack on the same turn become linked, while a column of similarly painted platoons condenses into a single regiment, fuses its attack strength, and speeds up their charge times. Although optional, these techniques fortify one’s units and encourage players to think before they act. Creating links and fusions often initiates a thoroughly rewarding chain reaction, paying dividends by obliterating the opponent’s HP.
The possibilities refuse to stop there. The developers build on the risk-reward system via a limited supply of “elites” and “champions.” These super units occupy more grid spaces, require additional sacrifices, and disappear from your party permanently (or until you buy more) if attacked when idle. But a fully charged griffin, angel, or emerald dragon can single-handedly wipe out the adversary’s health, and their special abilities make that risk worth taking. The angel restores the damage done to friendly units, and the emerald dragon coats the enemy playing field in acid for one turn.
Bosses always face your forces head-on.
Most battles end when you deplete the enemy’s life points, netting your character and units extra experience. Avatar experience bestows players with increased HP and more reinforcements on the battlefield, and upgraded units deal and withstand more damage. The developers did an admirable job of varying the objectives in battle too, as crushing your opponent’s army may not always be the goal. Skirmishes may demand you strike a pair of levers on the same turn to free captive knights, or protect a hostage as he darts between his kidnapper's formations. Bosses refuse to remain in position for long, forcing gamers to organize their strikes preemptively and adjust to the creature's unique capabilities. One particularly grotesque being transforms idle soldiers into cupcakes, devouring them to enhance his attacks.
But when players need a break from liberating the tainted lands of Ashan, bounty missions provide financial resources, battle puzzles challenge one's intellect, and the semi-linear locales stow away artifacts in treasure chests. Artifacts reinforce your play style through health or unit bonuses, though you may only equip one per character. Unfortunately, several encounters extinguished my progress until I selected a certain artifact or army composition, simply because the antagonists inflicted too many casualties too frequently.
Those enemy archers will only stay exposed for so long. Score a direct hit before they cower behind the pillars again.
Finding artifacts in the campaign unlocks them for use in multiplayer, which contains both Pass and Play and Face to Face options for local competitions. Online, challengers trade blows in asynchronous battles similar to Hero Academy, though this mode includes a modicum of bugs that encumber the experience – the outstanding issue being poor server performance. In several cases, I found myself unable to delete units until I quit to the match selection screen, while other matches refused to load my opponents’ turns, preventing me from manipulating my army entirely. And notifying me of my next turn through a reverie of trumpets as the iPad wakes from sleep mode, with no actual opportunity to shut this feature off in-game, does Clash of Heroes no favors.
Even the single-player succumbs to the rare glitch or two. The game presented the wrong cutscene after an important story quest, and triple-tapping the screen to pull up battle stats during a boss fight crashed the app. The touch controls could use some refining as well. The current setup prohibits players from erasing past moves, leading to instances of misplaced units, and at least on the iPad, Clash of Heroes becomes susceptible to low frame rates.
The iOS port of Clash of Heroes may not be the definitive version worth owning, though this adaptation remains the most affordable, with a handful of in-app purchases limited purely to secondary commanders and artifacts for multiplayer. The aforementioned glitches certainly harm the online entertainment, but 30 hours of RPG indulgence, five unique campaigns, a vibrant visual presence, and unpredictable gameplay strategies make any single-player problems an afterthought.
Developer: Tag Games
Release Date: January 24, 2013 (iOS); 2011 (XBLA, PSN, PC); 2009 (DS)
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: iOS (Reviewed), XBLA, PSN, PC, DS