Review: Swap Heroes 203 Apr 2015 0
Call any particular cast of characters “interchangeable” and, for most games, you'd be speaking in the pejorative. But for Swap Heroes 2, the second action-puzzler of its name from developer Chris Savory, rolling with a foursome of interchangeable fantasy archetypes is the whole point. As the name suggests, the idea isn't that your squad is comprised of bland nobodies who wouldn't stand out at your average weekend LARP (let alone a week-long camp where everyone's armored to the nines), but rather that your team adheres to one specific, rigid tactical formation, a formation which only allows for two characters to change places at any one time.
The positions are thus: three heroes in front, one in the back. Each turn you've only one option, and that's to have two of your team switch places. Swap between any two of your frontmost fighters and, after they've moved, your entire offensive line will take a swing at the three lanes of baddies set out before them, all while your back-row Tom Brady analogue takes their sweet-ass time to read the defense and recover a few hit points. (To those unfamiliar with American football: uh, the scrum? It's kind of like the scrum, I think.)
Bring your in-reserve hero forward, though, and that's when things really get swappy. Each class has a different special ability that activates only when they're called up to the front. For example, the Warrior--one of the four classes unlocked at the start of the game, out of eight total--lays down a blue wave of laser-sword energy that damages every single enemy on the field. The Mage, meanwhile, throws down a column of fire which scorches every enemy in a lane for three turns, regardless of whether or not our red-clad sorceress holds the line. The Archer gets an underwhelming super arrow that's extra damaging but fundamentally indistinguishable from his basic attack, while the Bard has an equally disappointing heal-over-time tune. (Archer gets a pass for being a straight-up anthropomorphic Disney fox in Robin Hood gear.)
That's basically it. The give and take of any level (each divided into two stages which ask you to dispatch 25 mooks) lies in keeping the sometimes pink, often cuddly hordes of monsters at bay while also taking your most banged-up squaddies off active duty when necessary--any team deaths will end a level.
This rotation is complicated by a handful of enemies which can deal indirect damage, or mobs which can lock heroes in place for a turn. More common, though, are several different themes on the same basic "melee" and "ranged" monsters, creatures best dealt with by your own melee and ranged (and middle-ranged) heroes. You might see a row of pig soldiers advancing down the left lane and figure that you have a turn, at most, to get your own Warrior or Monk there. But, there's a hostile spellcaster camped in the middle of the center lane and your Bard looks mighty bloodied. In addition to their special attacks heroes vary in terms of stats such as health and attack damage, so your beefy Monk would be able to hold the center for a few turns, though the Warrior, being able to hit targets two spaces away, would be the better choice. All this assuming a rock golem or spider doesn't teleport into the right lane and overwhelm your Mage, or that you've put enough upgrade tokens (gained by beating levels) into healing for when your Bard pirouettes back into the fray, or that a devious living bomb doesn't appear and completely bork your plans, forcing you to get some ranged damage out before the ACME-looking thing blows and wounds each of your fantasy foursome with shrapnel.
These battles are good fun, the sort that rests on the barrier between moment-to-moment puzzle smarts and grander, theater-wide (or at least level-wide) strategizing. With consistent upgrades for your squad, you're not going to completely throw a stage with one or two bad moves, and in fact might benefit from a swap that's inefficient in the now if it moves a hero into position for a move that's sure to be useful later. As stages progress and you close in on the 25 kills needed to win, though, this dynamic reverses.
Swap Heroes 2 could have done much to dress up its simple squad-switching conceit. There's a campaign of sorts in the game, level-up tokens, and a few unlockable characters as previously mentioned, though these blandishments are so few it becomes clear that the main draw of the game is meant to be the endless mode, a play-to-death horde affair.
The campaign relies heavily on reuse as well. There are four main stages, each with two 25-kill sections, and each stage has three difficulty levels that award one upgrade star apiece. The final boss is gated, however, requiring that you've earned at least ten stars if you want to go a few rounds with the Generic Shadow Villain that inhabits Death Peak. This gating means you'll need to repeat every stage twice for eight stars, then repeat two (likely the easier first ones) a third time for the necessary ten. In the first go-round with Swap Heroes 2 the game does a fine job ramping up the difficulty with new mobs and mechanics that the player needs to recognize and plan around. This ascending difficulty curve is ruined when the game asks you to replay the same stages (with the same sorts of mobs) over and over again, suffering at the hands of some vaguely increased difficulty which one assumes comes from increasing monsters' stats or spawning patterns.
Swap Heroes 2 is a good distillation of the combined arms thinking common in fantasy roleplaying games. It, like those core party-based RPGs, asks you to build a team of heroes with different yet complimentary talents, and then presents you with a series of fights where most but not all of your squad will have an immediate job to do (hit this, heal her, shoot that, and so on). Someone is always the dead weight, but that title can pass from one hero to another and back again depending on the turn. Unfortunately, the game seems to think that in isolating and defining that RPG experience it can sport an equally slim selection of heroes, stages, and foes. Swap Heroes 2 is smart, but slight, and could have been much improved if its main mechanic was given the proper room to stretch.