One of the most criminally underplayed games in the DS library has been given new life in the recently released Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes HD on XBLA and PSN. Sure, the puzzle/RPG hybrid has been done before in Puzzle Quest and its equally excellent sequel, but Clash of Heroes HD brings its own distinct style of gameplay. If Puzzle Quest is seen as the puzzle/RPG manifestation of a dungeon crawler, then Clash of Heroes HD is the genre mash-up equivalent of a tactical RPG. And as the HD in its title indicates, it's not to shabby to look at either.
For those who played Clash of Heroes on the DS, gameplay should feel instantly familiar in the HD conversion. The battlefield is split between you and your opponent as you take turns matching units to attack and defend. Matching three units in a column begins charging an attack, while matching three or more in a horizontal row creates a wall. You have a limited number of moves per turn, and each unit has its unique strength, defense, and charging time, so there is a significant amount of strategy involved in unit placement.
The single player campaign is split between the game's five factions - elves, humans, necromancers, demons, and mages - played in sequential order to tell the game's story. For those lore buffs interested, the plot of Clash of Heroes HD actually cannon in the Might and Magic universe and acts as a prequel to the events of Heroes V. Thankfully, it's also an interesting story in its own right, and does an excellent job of introducing the player to the heroes and unique special units in each faction.
The special units are the key to any good Clash of Heroes HD strategy. Each faction has five distinct special units, two of which can be brought into battle. Thanks to some rebalancing from the DS version, each special unit is a viable tactical option from the massive bone dragon to the physically weak druid that lengthens the charge time of any units it attacks. These units are also larger than the typical grunt soldier, taking up two or four grid squares, making effective battlefield management a must.
It's a lengthy campaign too. Though I'm told the average time is between 20-25 hours, I spent closer to 40 to complete side-quests and solve deviously challenging optional battle puzzles. Your hero and units will level up and find artifacts to augment your abilities throughout the campaign, though with each new faction you must start from scratch at level 1. It makes sense in terms of introducing the player to each faction's unique traits, but it creates a very uneven difficulty curve. It's not a game breaker by any means, but it is frustrating to go from an all-powerful, leveled up character one chapter to a weakling desperately in need of grinding the next.
The real meat of the game though is its multiplayer offering. The DS version offered multiplayer battles, but without an online option, finding another person carrying around Clash of Heroes isn't exactly easy. Clash of Heroes HD features both online and offline battles, with players given the option for a turn timer to keep matches moving and whether artifacts can be used. Your hero's level from the single player campaign doesn't carry over to multiplayer, but any artifacts found do, and completing each chapter unlocks an additional hero and special unit from that faction, so there are still benefits for those who play the campaign first.
In addition to the standard 1 vs 1 multiplayer battles, Clash of Heroes HD adds 2 vs 2 co-op battles exclusive to the console version. In these battles, units for each team are divided into two colors, with each player only able to move units for their corresponding color. It's refreshing to find a co-op game that requires actual cooperation, though this mode is best reserved for playing with friends on the same couch or over voice chat. Playing a co-op battle with a stranger online is, well, about as fun as playing any co-op game with a random stranger online, which is to say not at all.
I'm not normally one to harp on a game's visuals, but the new HD sprites are absolutely gorgeous. Every character is hand drawn and animated with such personality that you can't help but sink into the game's world. The writing is also quite good, with the necromancer and demon campaigns especially standing out for witty dialog. I did notice one odd glitch during a cutscene (toward the end of the demon campaign, for reference) where some cut off sprites on the side of the screen clearly weren't supposed to be visible, though I mention this more as a humorous oddity than as a condemnation on a visual presentation that is otherwise consistently great.
Finally, since this is a port from the DS, it's worth mentioning what has changed in the HD version. Units and hero abilities have been rebalanced, eliminating some of the cheaper tactics from the original game. For example, the attack power of Anwen's special ability is now spread across three columns instead of a focused attack on one, making it less of a silver bullet for an easy win. The bonus battle puzzles also appear to be completely new for the HD port, and each faction's chapter can be revisited after completion to solve any side-quests that were left behind. The changes are small, and some returning players might not even notice them at first, tightening a few loose ends in an already great game.
Even if you've already played the game on the DS, which sales statistics would suggest you didn't, the HD adaptation is an amazing package. With a satisfying campaign lasting longer than most $60 retail games and a uniquely strategic online multiplayer offering, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes HD is a game that needs to be played by fans of RPGs, puzzle games, and strategy games alike.
A copy of Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes HD was provided by the developer for review. I played the game on Xbox 360, completed the game's campaign, and played many multiplayer battles online.