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The venerable Might & Magic franchise returns in one of its most distinctive outings yet...
The Might and Magic franchise has always been a complicated beast to surmise. Since its days as one of the few 3DO success stories, Might & Magic has offered up experiences covering turn-based strategies, role-playing-games and plenty of things in between. Even after Ubisoft acquired the brand back in 2003 it seems that the French publisher has struggled to handle it, releasing only Nival Interactive's Heroes of Might & Magic V and Arkane Studios RPG/FPS offshoot Dark Messiah of Might & Magic.
Still undeterred by the mixed reception so far Ubisoft is making another attempt with Capybara Games' Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, the franchise's first title to be developed specifically for the Nintendo DS. Combining RPG, RTS and puzzle elements, Clash of Heroes adopts the Puzzle/Strategy hybrid made popular by Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest series, offering a distinctive gameplay experience even by the brand's diverse heritage.
Taking place 40 years before the events of Heroes of Might & Magic V, Clash of Heroes promises to showcase familiar characters and storylines albeit with a new anime visual style. Might & Magic fans will no doubt be happy to pore over the dialogue, but the fantasy theme and unfamiliarity could be off-putting for newcomers. Unworried by the threat of a new demonic threat, TVG set off across the lands of Ashan and mingled with knights, elves, wizards and warriors for a couple of hours to see what the new title has to offer.
The main bulk of the game appears to lie with Clash of Heroes' unique concept for battles. Combat takes place across the DS' two screens, your opponent's units displayed on the top screen and yours on the bottom. Restricted by a set amount of turns, the challenge is to move and link characters of the same colour to form a unit of three (for three is undeniably the magic number), which can then launch an attack after a corresponding number of turns. Core units will likely attack on the next turn, but stronger units will take a higher number of turns before actually launching the attack, so there's already a degree of forward planning that's required. Attacks are dependant on the unit launching them, causing harm to any of the opponent's units that they come into contact with and ultimately charging to the top of the screen and causing damage to the main character that you're fighting against. Cause enough damage to their HP gauge and you'll emerge victorious. We've played a substantial amount of the first few acts and were pleased to find Clash of Heroes varying the objectives nicely, with challenges such as avoiding an ally on the top screen or targeting two moving units that were attempting to saw down a sacred Druid's tree.
Beyond the standard attack technique of linking similarly coloured units, Clash of Heroes appears to offer a considerable amount of depth and variation. Similarly coloured characters linked together in a vertical formation will form an attacking unit, however combining them horizontally will create a wall to resist against your opponents attacks. Creating two or more attack units of the same colour will create a Link, which provided they attack on the same turn will cause more damage. Stack two attack units together (or two walls) and you'll create a Fusion, which reduces the number of turns you have to wait until the attack is created.
Beyond the standard Core units you'll also find Elite and Champion units, capable of launching special attacks such as a Deer jumping over an opponent's defensive wall or a Dragon that will spit acid across the opponent's battlefield. The caveat being that, unlike Core units, Elite and Champion units will die when defeated in battle and can't be brought back into the action whenever you hit the Reinforcements button to bring new units onto the battlefield.
But it's not just playing Tetris. There appears to be a considerable spectrum for tactics and strategy; move one particular unit and risk opening up a space in your defence, while the importance of creating chains based on the attack turns of each individual unit is vitally important. Finally, if the odds are stacked against you a range of Hero Spells provide the ability to cause large amounts of damage. New spells can be unlocked by discovering the hidden artefacts, with a Spell Meter increasing whenever your units take damage.
Beyond the combat, moving around the world of Ashan allows you to converse with other characters, discover artefacts to boost your moves, enlist in secondary quests and harvest resources to buy additional Elite and Champion units. Given the RPG ties, character upgrades appears to play a sizeable role in the game, increasing the damage of a unit's attacks and unlocking new special moves.
Covering five different chapters we suspect there's a considerable size to the main single-player campaign. But if you're looking for more than Clash of Heroes serves up instant battles like skirmishes in an RTS, or a multiplayer with another friend in two-player peer-to-peer.
Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is shaping up to be a thoroughly rewarding DS title. The combat is once again an example that puzzle and strategy elements can combine to create an enthralling experience - particularly on the handhelds. Our main concern is that the Might & Magic brand and fantasy theme could alienate rather than attract newcomers - which would be a shame given that it's shaping up to be a surprise sleeper hit.
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