Might & Magic Clash of Heroes Review
The strength and endurance of the cult following Clash of Heroes has developed since launching on DS last year has plagued me with worry that I underrated that game in my original mixed review. This rebalanced, up-rezzed port for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network presented a perfect opportunity for me to revisit the title and give it another shot to win me over. As glad as I am to not feel the need to eat any crow right now, I'm simultaneously disappointed that my earlier judgment holds.
Clash of Heroes has about as much to do with the Might & Magic that I grew up with as Dissidia does with early Final Fantasy games. This match-three adversarial puzzler lays a thin veneer of anime-styled kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon fantasy heroics over its excellent core gameplay. The story is as stupid as ever and the presentation is still lo-fi despite the upscaled graphics, but it's a puzzle game. What more do you really need?
Your playing field consists of three colors of 1x1 core troops that you can match in two basic ways through either moving the bottom unit of a column to another or deleting a unit to collapse a column together. Three of a kind in a column start charging an attack (the speed and strength of which is determined by the troops' type and level), while three or more in a row metamorphose into immobile defensive walls. This simple ruleset takes on new dimensions when you start taking advantage of links, where same-colored attacks that fire off on the same turn get a bonus, and fusions, where stacking another attack formation on top of an identical one fuses them together for a double-strength shot. Add in champion and elite units, which are larger troops (2x1 and 2x2, respectively) that require basic troops stacked behind them to start charging and have significant special effects like life drains or shield spells, and you've got a rich tactical environment to play in.
The overall effect is more like chess than Puzzle Quest. Because you have full control of your own board, you can (and should) plan out several moves in advance. Concocting multiple-point attacks and setting up complex chains that bring overwhelming force to bear before your opponent can react is deeply satisfying. Effectively leveraging your army's strengths while mitigating your opponent's is a constant challenge. Though luck plays more of a role than I'd like – more on that later – Clash of Heroes is easily in the better class of puzzle/strategy designs.
Meanwhile, your opponent is doing the same thing on his turns. You've got to protect your life from unblocked attacks while stringing together complex attack combos and getting your super-units charging. One strong strike from a champion can often decide the game on its own, so burning a few turns just to get a single Angel or Treant set up is often well worth it. At the same time, trying to be too cute with links and fusions can be harshly punished by an aggressive opponent. Most matches are over within five or ten minutes, and they move along at a good clip despite being turn-based.
Learning how to take advantage of the simple but engaging rules is a great ride. Unfortunately, the single-player campaign starts to suck immediately thereafter. Goofy setups like having to hit randomly-moving targets with attacks (which charge for multiple turns before firing) highlight the imprecision of the match-three gameplay while ignoring the strategic depth the mechanics so painstakingly build up. Going back to level one core units with no Champions or Elites at the start of each race's campaign segment is lame. Oftentimes, you're forced to fight enemy troops that you have no way of knowing the capabilities of – it is not a great feeling to lose a match because you didn't know that Unicorns magically shield adjacent columns from attacks while they charge, for example. The price of failure is hardly steep (provided you remember to save after each battle), but that doesn't make it any more fun.
The one in five or so matches whose outcome is determined entirely by the randomly generated starting board layout is an unacceptably high proportion. The best strategy in the world is still going to get stomped to a first-turn triple-link archer assault or Angel charge, and those unbeatable setups happen way too often. This isn't a crippling failure since matches are over quickly – it's not like you're slogging through twenty hours of an unfair Civilization map or anything – but it is irritating to lose the game before you've made your first move.
Most of these complaints are moot in multiplayer, which has solid 1v1 and 2v2 modes for both online and offline play. Digging deep into the excellent mechanics is the best part of this game, and evenly matched multiplayer games are the best way to do it. The one dumb thing is that you have to beat the crappy campaign to unlock the various armies and characters for multiplayer, so you're sentenced to dealing with a dozen or so hours of stupid scenarios to be able to play with more than the basic setup. Still, I definitely recommend Clash of Heroes to anyone with an interest in competitive multiplayer puzzle games.
I love the rebalancing of specific abilities (in particular, the heroes' special spells are much more fair across the board now) and the multiplayer implementation, but I wish that some of my other problems with Clash of Heroes had been addressed in this port. Nonetheless, you can do much worse for your puzzle fix.