Hero Mages is a solid turn-based strategy effort, covered with lashings of old skool Dungeons & Dragons magic. It's just a shame that creator Ross Pryzbylziki has forged his online-led title on the Field of Dreams principle: “If you build it, they will come”.
So far, as the ghost town-like lobbies attest, this simply isn’t the case. But there’s still a fair amount to enjoy offline while waiting for more warriors to wander onto Hero Mages’s battlefields.
Cribbing the rule book
As the tutorial is quick to emphasise, the game is designed to bridge the disparate worlds of tabletop strategy, collectable cards, and these newfangled touchscreen devices.
In practice, this means Hero Mages places animated combatants on gridded maps, with occasional rows of stone placed randomly to create walls behind which to seek cover.
The game sticks closely to the D&D formula. Action points determine how far miniature warriors can move or fight, and health points determine whether or not they're alive. The basics will be familiar to players of Fire Emblem and its fantasy turn-based tactical ilk.
While the backgrounds are simplistic they're pin sharp, and the weapon-flailing character animations are more reminiscent of action-RPGs than the standard strategy fare. On a mobile, identifying units without tapping on them can be a strain, but on a tablet Hero Mages’s attention to character detail really shines.
While you can launch straight into Quick Battles with the AI, we’d recommend giving the lengthy and gently humorous tutorial a spin first.
Through a series of static, dialogue-driven cut-scenes and hand-holding skirmishes you get a a feel for both the the story of Papillion (the game’s wider setting) and the mix of magic and metal sword-bashing.
Everything is handled by tapping on a character - be it Warrior, Mage, Barbarian, or hideous monster - and then choosing whether to move, attack, or use a special power (such as sprinting) from easily identifiable icons on the right.
You also get a half of a deck of 50 powerful cards to use each turn, offering the chance to summon allies, wreak destructive havoc, augment a hero’s abilities, manipulate objects, or stun enemy units.
With countless different tactics at your disposal, taking time to learn them all requires patience and practice. Helpfully, tapping the 'hint' icon in the tutorial will always give you a nudge in the right direction.
Once you’ve polished off the tutorial stages, which is no small feat given the game’s complexity, you’re left with only two single-player options: Quick Battles or Customised Battles.
In the latter you get to handpick every element of a match or tweak a host of presets. Our favourite was setting a minute-long time limit to turns, forcing you to think up snappy strategies on the hoof rather than dawdling.
While you can get a few hours of enjoyment out of setting yourself increasingly tough challenges, soon you’ll be yearning for a deeper story or itching to take Hero Mages online. Setting up a free account up is simple enough, but - despite the game being playable across browsers, Android, and iOS - we couldn’t find a match all week.
The community may pick up in the future, but right now Hero Mages is just a polished, if generic, strategy title that’s a campaign or online community short of classic status.