Combining the turn-based adversarial strategy of that old classic chess with the plethora of power-ups indicative of gaming's more modern electronic offspring, Hero Academy is a fun but sometimes vexing offering from Robot Entertainment, they of Age Of Empire's recent online incarnation and the well-received Orcs Must Die 2.
Players pick a team, all of which have been rendered in a pleasingly pastel bobble-headed cartoonish art style. The default is the medieval D&D themed Council, but the Dark Elves, Dwarves, Tribe and even a Team Fortress 2 faction can be fielded, for a cost. Units are placed one at a time onto a horizontally aligned nine by five board with either one or two crystal obelisks per team. The winning team must either eliminate their opponent's crystals or wipe their forces clean off the board.
Each player gets five moves a turn, represented by a little wheel in the bottom left of the screen. Like previous PC turn-based hit Frozen Synapse, you can field-test different maneuvers and see the results without committing, enabling you to tweak your tactics until you're ready to submit your turn. Games can take a fair while to play out, and disappointingly there's no option to play against an AI, but the notification system is well implemented, and it's easy to keep track of several simultaneous battles, even when minimized. You even have the option to submit your move with a taunt, if you've dealt a particularly devastating blow.
The lack of even a brief single player campaign is disappointing; needless to say, if you want to play this game to any great extent, you better have a lot of friends or have no qualms about hitting that random opponent button.
The graphics are deftly dynamic, with the appearance of the pieces changing depending on their overall health and what items they have equipped. All the units are instantly recognisable and have bags of character. Team colours and avatars can be customised, but again this functionality is behind a price wall. Sound design is competent but not outstanding; battles are accompanied by hefty biffs and thwacks, and a menacing little string motif plays when you select a character as they brace themselves for the attack. The option to run the game in full screen mode is curiously absent, but running it windowed isn’t that big a concession.
The game itself is a curious beast. Each team has five unit types (except Team Fortress which run with their full nine, but this is accounted for in other ways). Team members behave as you would expect, with the hardy melee units like the Knight and Void Monk on the front lines, protecting the more vulnerable healers and ranged attackers like the Archer or Wizard. The sides seem well balanced, but the complexity is compounded by wearable items like swords, scrolls and shields which offer various buffs and debuffs, individual squares on the board that do the same, area effect spells like fireballs and life-drains, and the aforementioned five moves a turn. The result is an experience where every move made feels like a stab in the dark, despite knowing all the rules and objectives.
Units and items are replenished from a pool at the bottom of the screen, with new ones assigned randomly when one is plucked for use on the board. It initially seemed out of place here in what ought to be a straight-up matching of minds, but if you treat it like a deck like in Magic: The Gathering et al, it keeps you on your toes and you learn to be agile enough to counter most situations. If you are really cursed with an unusable group, it's possible to swap out the deadwood, but this will cost you a turn.
The major complaint here is that, for such a multi-faceted game, the tutorial help on offer is basic at best. A set of lessons explains the general concept and rules, but details on the specifics of each unit (move distances, special abilities and the like) are hidden away in an on screen manual which makes for very dry reading. As such you find yourself learning about unit strengths and weaknesses as you inevitably play and lose your first few matches. A set of challenges are included which introduce each team and task you with ridding the board of your enemy in a single turn, but these can only be completed if you're totally clued in to each unit's abilities. A few video guides to the various units would be of great help here, and will hopefully be added in a future update.
The game is also available for iOS, so using the one account you can sync your games and purchased extras between your PC and iPhone/iPad, playing games on the move and continuing them on the big screen when you get home. However, the decision to charge for new factions smacks of marketing and provides an instant reason to dislike. We're only talking small cash here but it really should have been made available for a flat fee. What's more, if you purchase on iOS you are getting the exact same game for a substantial discount.
On the face of it, this appears to be a simple little pastime, but the sheer depth of possible units and moves leaves the mind balking at where to begin learning to play well, if indeed such a thing is possible. Achieving a fair and balanced play experience with games such as this is no mean feat, with so many weighted variables. There's definite added value here for TF2 fans, for as well as the pleasure of seeing them transported into this alternative gaming format, there's some bonus headgear available for use in their home game. The developers are promising regular new content, which will hopefully keep adding value to the game without descending into that awful pay-to-play model Zynga are perpetuating.
Ultimately this is a sleek, well-packaged distraction, but you're often left wondering if you had any real input into the games you won, or any real excuse for the games you lost.