And the award for best Christmas game that wasn't remotely on my radar goes to… Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes for the Nintendo DS.
I didn't even know this turn-based strategy game-the first entry in the once-popular Might & Magic series to appear on Nintendo's dual-screened handheld-existed until it arrived in the mail last week, but I've since sunk more than a dozen hours into it, and enjoyed virtually every minute of it.
The story plays out via familiar means. We move our fantasy heroes-a mix of elves and humans-along a forking path that looks rather like a game board. Spaces along the path are filled by non-player characters with whom we can chat, various treasure chests and riches, and plenty of mandatory and elective quest stops.
Nothing too shocking here.
The real innovation here is in the game's battles, which are wholly original and wildly compelling.
Each fight begins with enemy troops lining up in a six-by-eight grid on the top screen while our hero's forces do the same on the bottom. Turns consist of three moves that can be used to either relocate or remove individual units with an aim to match three. A horizontal line will morph them into a defensive wall, while a vertical line will turn them into a combat ready unit that will launch itself at the upper screen after a set number of turns. Our goal is to break through the enemy's walls and units to hit the enemy general at the top of the screen, wearing down its hit points.
Sounds simple-and, indeed, it takes just a few minutes to learn the ropes (which is part of the game's appeal)-but there is shocking depth to and nuance involved in this unique battle system.
For starters, the unit types vary greatly, ranging from simple troops (such as archers, swordsmen, and spearmen) to more powerful hero units, and, ultimately, champion units. What's more, each has its own special ability, such as being able to strike more quickly or heal the player's character while waiting to attack. Add in the need to match units by colour-which also allows players to link attack units that are the same colour and are set to strike in the same number of turns, or fuse like-coloured units by making matches one on top of the other-and suddenly the range of possible tactics and moves explodes.
And I haven't even touched on our ability to call in reinforcements as the battle progresses, how we can boost our number of moves each turn by causing chains reactions while matching units, the ways in which we can level up each of our unit types with experience, or any of the spells and accessories at our disposal that can change the tide of battle when used wisely.
There's even more to the battles than what I've described here, but this is one of those games that you need to play to fully appreciate. It doesn't seem like much on the surface, but give it an hour and you'll begin to realize that the turn-based tactics here are really something special.
Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is one of the best handheld strategy games I've played in years. Pity it might drown in the tidal wave of holiday releases currently crowding store shelves.
Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Capybara Games
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