Review: Heroes of the Revolution

By Owen Faraday 13 Aug 2014 0
Over the river and through the woods, to Granma's house we go. Over the river and through the woods, to Granma's house we go.

Heroes of the Revolution is a game about reversals. You can see this from the first moment. You're playing as the tiny band of rebels coming ashore in 1956 on a spur of land in Cuba's mountainous and remote Oriente province. With this meagre force of non-professionals that would have trouble robbing a Seven-Eleven, you need to defeat the Cuban government's vast army. They've got tanks and armoured cars and snipers and artillery. You've got... beards.

But if you pull it off, you'll invert that game map that you saw on turn one: all of Cuba will be under your control, and the government's forces will be pinned in the corner. You will have traded places with your enemy, becoming the force you set out to replace.

Intentionally or not, this is a tidy little analogy for what happened after the Revolution, when its leader Fidel Castro forgot all about that parliamentary democracy he was going to establish and morphed into a replica of the dictator he had fought so hard to oust. But that's a subject for another game.

Heroes of the Revolution is concerned with the David versus Goliath showdown between your ragtag rebels and the American-funded Cuban Army, and while it's not without some significant flaws, it's a game that I've enjoyed tremendously.

Missions pop up periodically to offer you a temporary bonus -- but only if you succeed. Missions pop up periodically to offer you a temporary bonus -- but only if you succeed.

The first thing you'll notice upon launching Heroes of the Revolution is that Cuba is huge. The hex map of the island is dauntingly large, full of villages, cities, army checkpoints, and air force airfields, and it's crawling with Cuban Army troops. You start the game with three bands of irregulars (the lowest-quality unit in the game) and one commander unit. But the commander is Fidel himself.

Fidel is one of the 20th century's most charismatic figures, and this manifests itself in-game in the form of his unit's special ability: an enemy unit has a small chance of flipping to your side when Fidel attacks them. You can slowly recruit forces from the towns and cities that you capture, but Fidel is crucially important for augmenting the size and quality of your columns early on.

Fidel's in-game loyalty presto-change-o might have some undocumented real-life effect, though. Heroes of the Revolution makes a pretty salty first impression: the game's atrocious fonts appear to have been borrowed from a Thomas Kinkade catalog, and the terrain textures are functional but not exactly attractive.

But the early stages of Heroes of the Revolution are dramatic and exciting. Do I dare employ Fidel in a risky attack on that tank platoon while he's low on health, or do I fight a desperate holding action with irregulars to give Fidel time to recover strength in that village? The possible rewards are huge (that tank might be your tank in a second) but the potential cost of losing Fidel is catastrophic. It's white-knuckle stuff.

Hero units range from the internationally famous (like Che Guevara) to lesser-known figures like Celia Sanchez. Hero units range from the internationally famous (like Che Guevara) to lesser-known figures like Celia Sanchez.

This is the most convincing simulation of a guerrilla war I've ever played: you're always on the run early on, because your troops can't possibly stand up to the Army in a mano-a-mano fight. Instead, you stay mobile, eluding government forces and waiting for poacher's chances to strike: a momentarily undefended village, or a lone infantry unit that you can overwhelm with numbers.

The combat here is standard wargame fare: attacks are resolved with 20-sided dice (which appear right on screen -- the whole game is full of skeuomorphisms and sound effects that evoke a tabletop wargame) and damage is allocated with another dice roll. There's just the right amount of complexity to the system to keep it from needing a lengthy read of a rulebook, and most of the nuances are immediately grasped: mountains offer a big defense bonus compared to plains, snipers do more damage against soft targets like infantry than they do against tanks.

Technically, Heroes of the Revolution is solid. The UI is better than the muddled graphics would suggest at first glance, though it is in desperate need of an option to skip dice-rolling animations, as well as the ability to place units permanently on guard duty to stop them prompting you for orders. But after a while you start to notice how thoughtful it is: damaged units get a little pip on their chit, and experienced units show rank stripes so you can assess the state of things quickly.

Once you get out of the first act, Heroes starts to display a few cracks. Cuba, it turns out, is ideally suited to a video game progression. You start in the east and work your way westwards along the island's spine towards Havana as you grow in power. This is exciting at first, because capturing a regional capital rewards you with a new hero unit like Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara, or Celia Sanchez, whose special abilities are different from Fidel's but almost as useful.

Don't let this happen to you. Don't let this happen to you.

But Heroes of the Revolution's final act is as anti-climactic as its opening act is thrilling. If you manage to take the eastern third of the island (not a gimmie -- it's not impossible for the government to wipe you out early on if you gamble too aggressively) then the game stops being David vs Goliath and becomes Goliath vs Godzilla. Your forces become irresistibly immense (in fact, you'll have more than you'll know what to do with) and the "boss fight" for Havana will be a rout in your favour. It's clear that the early game has gotten more love than the late game here, and that's a big knock.

The early game also revolves around Fidel to an immense degree. Losing the charismatic commandante is the kiss of death for your uprising if it happens in the first dozen or so turns; it may as well be a "game over" screen. I don't actually hate this, because it gives Act 1 a sharp focus, and it's still theoretically possible to win without him -- but it's like playing chess without your queen. Experts will appreciate the challenge of that situation, but most people won't enjoy it.

And yet, I can't bring myself to give Heroes too much stick for its failures. In a world overstocked with World War II games, a Cuban Revolution wargame is delightfully fresh. And the theme isn't just a coat of paint -- the game mechanics pay it off in interesting ways. Heroes of the Revolution is fantastic despite its flaws. The devs deserve a cigar.

Heroes of the Revolution was played on an iPad Air for this review.

Review: Heroes of the Revolution

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