It’s not unusual in music for bands to start ‘branching out’ and switching genres once they reach a certain age, confusing their hardcore fans in the process. Take The Beatles's sudden love affair with the sitar for instance, or Radiohead throwing away the guitars for drum machines and synths.
This kind of 'development' rarely happens in the gaming world, but there are a few exceptions to the rule. The Might & Magic series is probably the best example of this, having spent the last 20 years leaping through genres with abandon.
Starting out as a ‘proper’ role-playing game back in 1986, with hardcore fantasy subtitles like Clouds of Xeen and For Blood and Honor, it soon spawned the successful Heroes of… strategy series on the PC and Game Boy Color, before diving head first into first-person combat on the PC and Xbox with Dark Messiah.
Now it’s back on a Nintendo handheld with a whole new ‘sound’ - seemingly designed to annoy the few longstanding fans of the original RPGs by both changing the generic fantasy art into manga-influenced cuteness and switching genres so completely that it's left a couple of the old ones in by accident.
In Clash of Heroes, you take charge of one of the five heroes in turn as they struggle to stop demons from grabbing a sacred weapon and forcing their way permanently into the land of Ashen.
Much like the Heroes strategy titles, battles are conducted not by the heroes themselves but by the various minions drawn from their armies. Unlike Heroes, however, the fighting takes the form of a match-three puzzle game, in which rows and columns of three similar coloured troops fuse together to create attacks and walls, respectively.
You can remove people from inside a column, causing them to disappear back to the reinforcement pool, or pick someone from the back and plonk him on another column. Each turn only lasts three moves, though, so carefully deciding how to best make use of your troops becomes paramount.
This is mainly because, once charged, matched units race up from the bottom screen to the top where the enemy sits, ploughing through troops weaker than them and smacking the enemy hero directly if they get through. If you or your opponent’s hero takes too much damage, the battle is over.
To add to the complexity, each faction also gets ‘Elite’ and ‘Champion’ units, which require two and four normal units placed behind them before they can charge an attack and often take many turns before they’re fully ready to unleash a world of pain.
There can only be a maximum of two different types of these ueber-troops for each army per battle, and these units can actually die permanently if you don’t have enough cash to recruit more, adding an extra risk/reward element to proceedings.
It all sounds completely overwhelming when written down, but it’s very easy to get into the swing of things and start chaining attacks due to a well-paced tutorial that eases you into the game.
The initial battles do feel more like a game of luck, however, as the types of troops and their levels - it’s an RPG, too - are so low there’s practically nothing to call between them. As the game progresses, though, and the other factions unlock through the lengthy, 30-hour campaign, delicate subtleties in strategy and playing style start to emerge.
Unlike the most obvious competitor in this sub-sub genre, Puzzle Quest, the battles rarely feel random, with the emphasis more on adapting to the opponent and planning attacks than grabbing whatever matches you can make and praying the opponent doesn’t get lucky.
Frustratingly, there is the occasional overpowered unit that, if given a fortunate starting drop, can essentially win the game in the first turn. It doesn’t happen enough to spoil the generally excellent system, but it feels cheap when it does occur.
Despite the eastern RPG-style artwork, battles are very rarely randomly imposed on the player, which means there’s very seldom an occasion when repetitive grinding is required to progress, aided significantly by the low level cap.
There are occasions though when Clash of Heroes can surprise you with a much higher level opponent all of a sudden, both as part of a side mission or during the main story. This is made slightly more aggravating by the lack of any battle preview screen before fighting, forcing you to either retreat at the cost of precious resources or die so you can continue from before the battle.
Yet you'll want to continue because Clash of Heroes is incredible addictive. With both the excellent battles and the perplexing Battle Puzzle sub-games demonstrating the depth of the system, it’s hard to put the DS down once tactics begin forming in your head.
It’s a shame, then, that the multiplayer is only limited to local play, because the unlockable heroes and the relatively short time spent with the final faction will leave you hankering for human opposition to test your mettle against.
Despite this, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is yet another successful leap into a different genre for the veteran series. It manages to walk a fine line between puzzle, strategy, and RPG with aplomb, removing almost all the randomness from similar titles like Puzzle Quest while introducing a battle system that is clever, original and accomplished.
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