Variation and Design Space
Elite and Champion units take the longest to charge and are the hardest to launch into a charging formation. Their large shape (1x2 and 2x2) can make it difficult to find space for them and to work around them. As powerful as these units are, they're balanced nicely with the core units. After all, only core units can build walls and are mainly used to create chains. Furthermore, because core/basic units are "spawned" most frequently, you have a greater chance of creating linked and fused attacks with core units. Their small size and dispensability makes core units versatile compared to elite/champion units raw power.
I am thoroughly impressed with how Capy defined and fleshed out the design space for units, characters (spells and walls), and artifacts. You can read about all the unit special abilities here. Here's a small list of unit properties:
- defensive strength (when not charging)
- charge time
- enemy/player MP meter dependent effects (draining, attack boost)
- ability to increase or decrease charge time of allied or enemy units
- jumping over walls (like knights in chess)
- area of effect abilities (acid on the field/defensive barriers)
- first strike ability (relative to other units attacking at the same time)
- target dependent abilities (ie. if idle/charging/stronger units are in the path)
- proximity strength (the longer an attack travels the weaker it gets)
- ability to freeze then shatter enemies
- ability to destroy/weaken all walls instantly
- ability to resurrect the player
- ability to give instant death
- ability to pass through attacking units (ghost)
- ability to revert charging units back into idle state.
Of course, some of these abilities only apply to a single unit, but that's part of the point. There's about 20 unique properties for units and only 40 units in the game. This means just about every other unit has something unique about them. And that's just the units. The characters and artifacts were given the same level of creativity.
These bosses are huge! And they're not the biggest.
Unique battle scenarios/set pieces are evenly distributed throughout Clash of Heroes' campaign. I remember them so distinctly. In some I had to aim my attacks at specific fixed targets. In another, I had to time my units to cross over a deadly lava moat Frogger style. From avoiding hitting a hostage, to striking switches to escape imprisonment, the boss battles have rules and strategies all their own. And the 10 or so puzzle mode challenges offer a nice, optional change of pace while helping the player learn high level techniques.
Everything Else (Story, Art, and Shortcomings)
The RPG leveling of individual units and the player character adds complexities to the game that hamper strategy somewhat. One can only make a strategy (a specific plan of action) with specific information of the game state. When the strength of each unit depends on their level, it becomes very difficult to calculate precisely how much HP units will have after charging X many turns. In multiplayer this isn't an issue. All units are maximum level.
In Advance Wars, detailed unit information is always available. Though each unit does a different percentage of damage to each other unit, players can always check how much damage their next moves will likely do. It's the same with Desktop Dungeons. In Clash of Heroes, after the battle starts, none of the stats are available. Fortunately, there are lifebars for charging units. With a bit of math, you can calculate HP over time. But then things get tricky again when charging units take damage or you try to plan out how many enemy units you'll be able to fight through.
Furthermore, RPG leveling is a great way to weaken the depth and balance of a game. Instead of embracing with the combat design and using strategy to beat your opponent, one always has the option of leveling up (to a degree). The freedom to level can also alter the flow zone. Some battles I simply wasn't at a high enough level to win (which I discovered by losing a few times). Others, I was too strong. Neither of these possibilities are very interesting to me.
It's great that Clash of Heroes uses unique battle set pieces to increase the variety and challenge of combat. Otherwise, the AI wouldn't provide enough challenge. Early in my playthrough my strategies were already more advanced than the computer's. Even maximum difficulty on quick play wasn't a challenge. Of course, this is where multiplayer support kicks in. But without online play, I have no one to play with. Furthermore, the game would benefit from a single cartridge, single DS "hot seat" multiplayer mode.
The story conceit is high fantasy from the Might & Magic universe giving a richness to the world and characters. The story is a simple one of 5 unlikely heroes who take up the charge and save the land. But the great strength is in the telling (organization of events and time) and how the story harmonizes with the gameplay. After the initial conflict the 5 main characters are scattered across the land. You play as one at a time starting at level 0. In each of these chapters you level up, reach the climax (in difficulty and narrative), and then start all over again with another character. Essentially you play the same slice of time about 4 times, from 4 different perspectives. This approach creates interesting moments of foreshadow and linked narratives. Seeing Varkas cross over the first 2 chapters or witnessing a fight amongst demons creates connections that work to strengthen the segmented story. The ending is on the weaker side because the story doesn't have a strong theme to focus the resolution. The generic "defeat evil" and "avenge my family" ideas are there, but they never become elements that the plot revolves around (ie. characters having to make tough decisions). Instead, the ending is in service of connecting the story of Clash of Heroes with the larger Might & Magic cannon.
The art style is in the Japanese anime vein, yet it's obvious the images are not drawn by the Japanese. Aside from some proportion and foreshortening issues with some of the images (mainly the box art), I do enjoy the art style very much. The backgrounds are rich, and the animation work is even better.
Throughout the game, key story moments are drawn out in still panels. I wish there were more of these, or I wish they were better organized. Especially late in the game, some of the final climatic actions outside of the gameplay battle are surprisingly communicated via text. When one of the characters saves another and does what could "never be done before" to save the land, whatever she does is a mystery because it isn't shown.
Clash of Heroes is incredibly streamlined. 80-90% of the gameplay experience is spent in battle, the game's strength. All the other text, story sequences, world navigation, side quests, and secrets are almost set out for the player on a linear path. When you see a treasure chest, you might as well just walk over and grab it. For the most part, if you see something you can get it or fight it without problems. Even when the game opens up somewhat (chapter 3 & 4), the freedom doesn't do much. You're either too weak to take out bounties you've stumbled across and have to come back later, or you're probably on the "main path" anyway. Fortunately, there's no getting lost or time wasted on traveling long distances. Yet, as streamlined as it is, there are still many very minor issues with some of the design decisions. Here's a small list:
- After the player completes a chapter there is no option to save the game. This forces a player to either close their DS or play on through the introduction of the next character and perhaps a battle or two before saving. This is the worst later in the game where playing on sends you into a battle against 3 bosses.
- There are 3 types of currency in this game where buying things isn't a large focus at all. You have gold, blue gems, and metal stones to purchase elite/champion units with. Perhaps this fits with the Might & Magic cannon. I wouldn't know. To me, it's just excessive. I always had enough currency to buy just about anything I wanted, though I am the type of player who takes care not to lose elite/champion units. Fire Emblem has taught me well.
- In the same way that it's difficult to get precise information on your units in battle, you can't learn about opposing units either. So when fighting new enemies or bosses, there is some trial and error involved. Sometimes I restarted battles just to change out my army configuration. Fortunately, you can save before almost every battle in the game. This is why I also think the "retreat" from battle option shouldn't cost the player money.
- The game focuses on battling most of the time. And though each of the 5 characters plays very differently, there are a lot of unit/artifact combinations to try, and many of the battles are unique set pieces, the game gets heavily bogged down with battles toward the end. Though I love battling, I got good at the game in chapter 2. So the more standard battles I played, the less I was challenged, the less I learned, and the more I had to play to the RPG leveling system that detracts from the strategic/puzzle gameplay. In chapter 5, the final character, players must fight through a largely uninspired gauntlet of 10-15 battles to get to the final boss!
- Though I'm not keyed into any CoH community, I'm fairly certain that some of the multiplayer characters and artifacts are not well balanced. One word; unicorn.
So what can Capy do to repair this great game? How about... create a PSN/XLBA version with co-op, online play, a new balance, and other tweaks to the campaign?