The summer drought is upon us. Everyone's abroad absorbing rays on some crowded Majorca beach or getting crushed in a sweltering festival mosh pit. Nobody's interested in games so nobody's releasing them. Well pack your bags and book the next flight home, because Ubisoft's about to unleash an absolute corker of a game on the DS.
The game in question is Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, a puzzle/turn-based strategy/RPG hybrid with a fantasy anime art style. It's unique, curious, fiendishly addictive and, crucially, easy to learn but hard to master.
If you're thinking, hold on, I've heard of Might & Magic before, isn't it some hardcore PC game or something, then you'd be right. The Might and Magic series began thousands of years ago, in 1986, with Might and Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum. It was a role-playing game with a Middle-Earth-style map on the box. Since then a number of follow-ups and spin-offs have been released, each one presenting fantasy in its own Might and Magic way.
Clash of Heroes, however, marks the reinvention of the franchise on DS. Ubisoft's handed development duties to little-known independent studio Capybara Games, based in Toronto, Canada, and it's proving to be an inspired decision. My DS has held a preview build of the game in a vice-like grip for about a week now. Every journey flies by now that I have Clash of Heroes to play. But why? It's hard to describe, but since that's my job, I suppose I should give it a shot.
It is, at its most basic, a turn-based strategy game. The battlefield is divided up into two - the bottom DS screen is where your army lines up, and the top screen is where your opponent's army lines up. Every turn you have a limited number of moves to arrange your same coloured units into chains of three. Line up three green units vertically and they will form a chain and begin a countdown to attack, firing arrows in a straight line up the column. Line up three green units horizontally and they will form a defensive wall, absorbing attacks. The idea is to reduce your opponent's health point bar to zero before he or she does it to you. Simple.
Clash of Heroes' genius is its depth and how it eases you into its nuanced and wonderfully balanced competitive gameplay. If you're smart you'll remove a unit from the battlefield, causing the units above it to drop down and form a chain, giving you back the move you've just used. If you're smart you'll see how you're able to remove units in this way so that elaborate chains are formed as efficiently as possible. If you're smart you'll begin to view the battlefield, which can get extremely complicated and crowded very quickly, like Neo views The Matrtix: as an arrangement of coloured objects that need to be managed using a set of rules in order to decimate your opponent before you yourself are decimated.
There's loads of variety, too. There are elite units (which need two same coloured units placed behind them to trigger), champion units (which require four units to be placed behind them to trigger), and Hero spells (which take a number of turns before they're available). And they're all different depending on what race you're playing as - Elf, Human or Demon. Anwen, the Elf hero you'll be controlling during your fist few hours of play, has the Sniper Shot as her Hero spell. Once charged it fires a single arrow across the desired column, dealing big damage. Her wall ability is Sylvan Walls, which regenerates one HP at the start of each turn.
That's probably enough to make Clash of Heroes great, but so many elements from other genres are layered on top of the core gameplay that you can't help but feel there's always something to tinker with. There's a fully-fleshed out story mode, a somewhat harrowing tale of Elves and Knights and Demons all battling it out for the prized Blade of Binding in a devastating war. There's an overworld to explore from a top down perspective - you move your hero left, right, up and down along predetermined roads, talking to NPCs, picking up main quests and side missions and, in some areas, getting assaulted by random battles. On top of all that there's the RPG side to proceedings - your hero levels up as you win battles and gain experience points, as do your units. There's strategy in picking which units to use on the battlefield and which elite and champion units to supplement them with. Cash needs to be spent replacing lost elites and champions. The soundtrack is whimsical, the art style as cute as anime fantasy can be. It's like Capybara's taken Heroes of Might and Magic and fused it with Puzzle Quest and added a dash of Final Fantasy to taste. The result is a concoction perfectly suited to the DS. That there's a two-player peer-versus-peer mode just makes it even more compelling.
Not that you'll breeze through the single-player story - it gets quite hard. Like I said, easy to learn, hard to master. The game's almost Blizzard-esque in this way. The opening half hour of the story eases you into proceedings, teaching you the different chains that are possible and how to make them more powerful. But it's not long before you find yourself up against opponents that are a higher level than you, who require real thought to defeat, who, dare we say it, demand a spot of grinding before they're tackled.
The bulk of this game journalism lark is writing wot we fink about the biggest games. What we tend not to do as much as we perhaps should is champion smaller titles that don't get the marketing budget the blockbusters enjoy. This is what I'm doing here. I'm championing a DS game that deserves your pre-order. Listen well DS-owners: Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes could be one of the best DS games, if not the best DS game, of 2009.
Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is due out exclusively on DS in August.