Ported over to iOS from previous Nintendo DS and Xbox Live Arcade versions, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes ought to be a wonderful addition to the iPad strategy gaming universe: it looks great and the core gameplay is very appealing. The five playable factions, each with various loadouts available, provide substantial variety. Unfortunately, you’re often playing the iOS-exclusive sixth faction: bugs.
While I have very fond memories of playing Heroes of Might and Magic predecessor King’s Bounty, I’ve never before played an actual Might & Magic game, nor have I played this game in one of its many prior forms, so I won’t be comparing it to them. Like Puzzle Quest, CoH involves moving around a point-to-point overworld map through a fairly standard RPG tale. Happily, unlike Puzzle Quest, that’s executed with enough style and creative recombination of familiar ideas to offset the usual overwrought dialogue.
Battles are resolved using an excellent turn-based tactical game so far removed from usual RPG combat that “genre-bending” certainly applies. Though moving your troops to make formations of three or more in a line is the central mechanic of CoH, comparisons to match-3 puzzle games like Puzzle Quest’s battles or Bejeweled are less apt than those to lane-based combat like SolForge or even Plants vs. Zombies. In CoH, it’s only possible to move the rearmost unit in a row or delete a unit, which is such an unusual limitation that I found my familiarity with match-3s more misleading than helpful. There’s also a delay before formations attack, which rewards the planning of programmed movement.
Though some battles do drag on a bit (especially when two armies with strong healing abilities square off) and there are difficulty spikes during the campaign, there’s enough variety in the armies and special goals in different battles to keep the combat enjoyable throughout. Not only are there five factions, each army can be customized with various regular, elite, and champion units, and you can choose an artifact which grants a moderately important special ability. Optional puzzle battles (which must be “solved” in a limited number of turns) are particularly enjoyable, often serving as strategic tutorials for advanced techniques.
From a technical standpoint, unfortunately, the translation to iOS is shameful. While I only encountered a few game-stopping bugs, crashes out of the app are from the worst of it. During several battles, I inexplicably lost the ability to remove units. The game ought to shine in multiplayer for many of the same reasons as Pocket Tactics‘ Game of the Year for 2012, Summoner Wars. Sadly, my several attempts to begin asynchronous online games all failed (crashing the app of those who tried to accept the invitations). CoH also has serious memory management problems. I found that quitting and restarting could increase the speed of battles to a degree approaching comedy, with units seeming to run around like the Keystone Kops in comparison to their previously funereal pace.
Though these are serious problems, they are at least obviously unintended. By contrast, the overworld movement is terrifically bad by design. Maps are laid out with distinct nodes, and usually, you tap on a node to move there. Sometimes, however, you tap on the character to move away from your current node. Similarly, you tap on yourself in order to interact with whatever’s nearest. If you tap on the thing you want to interact with, you usually move away from it; this is quite possibly the wrongest reaction the interface could possibly have. I initially thought this was unintuitive but would grow to become second nature; it didn’t. It rarely causes more than a brief waste of time, but it’s so obviously wrong that it feels deliberately insulting. I also wouldn’t recommend playing on an iPhone or iPod Touch; with no undo feature, the interface is just too cramped to be confident of executing your plans.
In fairness, even if the overworld were perfectly translated, it would feel like an obstacle unnecessarily keeping me from the battles, where the interesting decisions live. It’s a shame these really quite good tactical affairs come with a bad translation of an unnecessarily involved overworld. Playing Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes feels like eating a sandwich expertly made of quality filling, between two overly thick slices of moldy sourdough.