Review: Hero Emblems

By Dave Lane 09 Jan 2015 0

Review: Hero Emblems

Released 08 Jan 2015

Developer: HeatPot Games Ltd.
Available from:
App Store

It is a familiar tale, as old as time itself. The forces of darkness are gathering across the land, hoping to forever extinguish the light of goodness from the world. Against this eldritch tide, a wise and noble King pits his elite guards, four stalwart warriors who step forward to smite the wicked with their awesome powers of – addictive tile-matching puzzle mechanics?

Yep, it’s everyone’s favourite way of making casual puzzle funtime acceptable to take to dinner with the core gamers – the match-three RPG.

First you get the tiles. Then you get the crosses. Then, THEN you get the women! 

In Hero Emblems, you form lines of matching tiles in order to make your quartet of heroic goofballs smack their way through hordes of monsters and resist the machinations of a mysterious demon king. Speaking of resisting evil, Taiwanese developers HeatPot Games have done their part and stood fast against the foul taint of freemium which mars similar titles. For your money, you get, with no strings attached, a well crafted game of considerable length with good production values and charming visuals, unblemished by bugs or clunky controls. If you want your JRPGs to be serious fantasy dramas, though, look elsewhere.

See, despite the supposedly global stakes, the story of Hero Emblems is a light affair. As the pleasant but undeniably cutesy graphical style implies, Hero Emblems is very much a fun-for-all-ages affair in terms of how it’s presented -- as a puzzle-RPG, this treads lightly with the latter.

It's an early JRPG written in crayon, and in a different game, it would have driven me nuts. Here, though, the sense of childishness seems entirely in keeping with the inherent silliness of battling evil with Bejewelled. Besides, we're not here for storytime - that's just there for context and cohesion. This puzzle-RPG is all about the puzzle. And the puzzle is pretty good.

It's a hard knock life for us. 
For the most part those mechanics close to the formula established by Puzzle Quest. Creating a line of three or more matching symbols will cause one of your heroes to attack, heal, or restore your armour, hopefully kicking off a chain reaction to boot. Each move you make ticks down the timer over opposing monsters, and when that hits zero they attack, dealing damage and frequently tainting your symbols with status effects. Players need to focus on thinning a group of beasties early and then healing up before polishing off the last foe, as well as setting up more powerful moves as you go.

Creating a line of four emblems will launch a stronger attack and leave behind a special ‘skill tile’ that enhances the next match it is used in with elemental damage or debuff removal. Setting up a line of five is the mother lode – it leaves behind a cross emblem that allows you to unleash a game swingingly powerful super. All relatively standard, but the way Hero Emblems structures its fights adds a small but significant twist.

Triggering a massive cascade of matches completely by accident is at once wonderful and strangely humiliating.  
Any given fight in Hero Emblems sees you fight multiple groups of monsters in sequence, with your health, board position, and even that chain you're midway through carrying over to the next fight. A random encounter might have two or three fights, while beating a story-critical area will involve a lengthy gauntlet of ten or more battles, culminating in a show-down with a boss who puts out horrendous damage and especially nasty debuffs. Oh, and he might be outright immune to regular attacks. Hope you didn’t blow all your skill emblems polishing off the last bunch of mobs.

This carrying-over, and the pressure exerted by a coming boss fight, mean that the player is often conflicted between making the moves that most efficiently deal with his current problem – finishing off an enemy the turn before it attacks or getting rid of poisoned emblems, for example - and the desire to create and hoard skill emblems and precious crosses for the future like a highly idiosyncratic dragon. It’s a design decision which neatly incentivizes players to weigh up their moves relatively carefully, in contrast with the frantic real-time matching of something like 1000000.

It’s that balance that makes Hero Emblems work. No match three is going to be a chess-like experience – the high turnover of random new tiles from the top ensures that – and Hero Emblems has the accessibility to go with its kid-friendly looks, as evident from the fact that the game only gives you four different symbols to deal with and has no penalty for death beyond being booted back to the entrance to an area. All the same, the difficulty is fine-tuned so that fights always feel winnable, but if you slack off during a story encounter - if you stop looking for efficient moves, if you don't keep an eye on your health - you’ll be quickly defeated. The game is cute, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down... 
The only jarring note in the game’s slick play experience is the occasional need to grind gold through revisiting areas defanged somewhat by the absence of their boss fights, but it seems churlish to complain too much about something which is part and parcel of the genre. Additionally you’ll occasionally wish you had more to spend that cash on. You have some choice in determining what your skill emblems do, but other than that you’re mostly paying for flat stat upgrades – no complicated build decisions to make here.  Crucially though, the game is engaging and smooth enough that even simpler fights never become a huge imposition, and the simplicity of the RPG elements means they  do not break up the frictionless fun of keeping the tiles flowing downwards.

It’s that compulsive flow, the flow which greedier developers break up with demands for cash, that makes Hero Emblems a charming success. The twee aesthetic is going to be a deal-breaker for some, but behind it lies a surprising degree of craftsmanship that makes this a strong example of it’s genre, a lengthy and consistently joyous experience where the gameplay’s polish makes up for the game’s weaker elements. These aren’t heroes who’ll change your world, but they’re more than up to beating a few big ol’ meanie-heads.

Reviewed on iPad 4. 

Review: Hero Emblems

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