Similarly, I've never been a fan of traditional turn-based RPGs. The slow pace, random encounters, and turn-based combat just bored me. So when the DS Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes was recommended to me by a number of friends in 2009, I was hesitant about the puzzle/strategy/RPG hybrid. Yes, even though they assured me "You'll never taste the RPG!"
Now that I've played its HD upgrade I can safely say that they were dead on, for the most part. Clash of Heroes HD has some RPG trappings: towns, stores, leveling up, and a half-baked story about preventing a demon apocalypse, but all the guff that usually turns me off the genre has been eradicated or at the very least minimized. Random encounters? Completely avoidable. Grinding? Only a smidge. Losing an hour's progress due to not hitting a checkpoint? Never. Turn-based combat? Well, yes, but not in the traditional sense.
Battles are presented as a grid with enemy troops occupying the upper half of the screen and your army at the bottom. Aligning three units of the same color horizontally turns them into a defensive wall, while vertically they become activated as an offensive formation. This instigates a countdown timer that ticks down the number of turns until they rush upwards, wreaking havoc in enemy territory. You can only move a unit if it's at the bottom of a column, so if another one is in the way they need to be moved or sacrificed.
Combat gets progressively more complicated as you synchronize units of the same color so they'll attack simultaneously gives both parties an attack bonus. You can also fuse formations together for a more powerful punch by activating one set behind another of the same unit type and color. Adding further complexities are more powerful "elite" and "champion" units that take up more space on your grid and are harder to activate, but deal more damage.
Outside of its polished mechanics and tight editing, Clash of Heroes HD retains its plucky spirit throughout.
It's a clever system that encourages spacial reasoning just as much as number crunching. There are even optional "puzzle battles" that task you with defeating an enemy wave in a single turn (comprised of a few moves). While it initially resembles a "connect three" puzzler like Bejeweled, you'll quickly find that it's often best to hold back on certain opportunities to put a more devastating plan into action.
Each of the game's five chapters introduces new units, magic powers and equipment, preventing its 25-plus hour campaign from feeling like a slog. While it might sound frustrating to have to keep starting back at level one, characters level up quickly. It's really like five short games in one, and as soon as a chapters starts to wear off its welcome it's on to something new.
Outside of its polished mechanics and tight editing, Clash of Heroes HD retains its plucky spirit throughout. Locations, plot and archetypes may be clichéd, but vibrant artwork, smooth animations, and some genuinely funny dialogue bring it to life. Details like the leaf parachutes elves use as gliders to a couple of demons stuck in a perpetual loop of bar fighting, reveal a surprising amount of charm for a game with such a forgettable title.
While it eliminates most of my criticisms with the genre, there are still a few bugbears holding Clash of Heroes HD back. Battles rely a bit more on luck than I'd like since the positions troops spawn is randomized. Worse, some battles -- bosses in particular -- require you to hit a moving target and it can be frustrating when attacks you've spent several turns building up whoosh haplessly beside a boss because they moved out of the way at the last second. Learning their patterns requires trial and error and are the weak link to the campaign.
Ultimately, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a delicious blend that masks its less welcoming ingredients with the grace of Tom Cruise in Cocktail. Its innovative, genre bending mechanics, forgiving design, brisk pace, and lovely setting more than compensate for the occasional unlucky circumstance or superfluous battle. Having an affection for the genre won't hurt, but it's hardly a prerequisite to enjoy Clash of Heroes HD. The bigger problem is knowing when you've had enough.
This review is based on final XBLA code of Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes provided by Ubisoft. Jeffrey Matulef is a moustachioed freelance videogame journalist based in Portland, OR. His work has appeared at G4TV, Eurogamer, Paste, Gamasutra, GamePro, Mac|Life, and Kill Screen among other places. He can be found on twitter @mrdurandpierre.