App of the Day: Hero Academy

School of orc.

"This is a nice game that may well turn into a great game," was Chris Donlan's opinion on Hero Academy in January. Three months, two new teams and one additional battlefield later, was Donlan's prediction right?

First, a reminder of what Hero Academy is all about: it's a turn-based one-on-one strategy game set on a rectangular grid where you have to destroy your opponent's crystals (or units) before they destroy yours. You have five moves per turn, which is never, ever enough, and on top of your troops you have a range of offensive and defensive buffs and special moves to deploy.

On paper, it seems alarmingly basic, but the simplicity is a huge part of its appeal. Strategy games often leave me cold, yet this scratches an itch that only Advance Wars previously relieved. I don't think the comparison with Intelligent Systems' classic is unjustified, either: like that game it's smartly constructed, immaculately balanced, and benefits from an art style that is both characterful and readable.

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There's something wonderfully sad about the slumped-shouldered, muss-haired look of a wounded Dwarven Gunner.

I'll happily concede that it probably gets a bit dull if you stick with the Council, the team you get with that initial free download, but the additional teams are sensibly priced, and each brings something new.

We already talked about the Dark Elves in our old Hero Academy review, but now we have the Dwarves and The Tribe, orcs in all but name. The former take a bit of getting used to, with a slightly underpowered warrior who doubles as a healer, and a Molotov-lobbing grenadier who seems a bit too strong, especially with an attack boost. The standard gunner was a little weak at first, but the most recent patch has turned him into a useful front-liner.

The Tribe, meanwhile, are my new favourites, not least because their unique team bonus sees their faces redden and contort into a snarl when one of their own is stomped. That it gives the first unit to strike back a 50 per cent attack bonus is almost by the by.

They have a wonderfully vicious hag who can explode fallen troops at range, delivering damage to any nearby enemies, and a masked shaman whose healing spell chains through nearby units, a trick which seems indecently useful at times.

What's more, while their spell - which deals no damage but knocks back every enemy unit by two spaces - costs your enemy valuable movement turns, its main purpose is as a brilliant bit of trolling. In truth, The Tribe are perhaps a tad overpowered, although I've thought that of every team so far at some stage, which is probably a sign that everything remains in perfect equilibrium.

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The Tribe's HP-boosting haunch of meat also conveys a big attack bonus, making it useful even when your squad is in rude health.

Meanwhile, Robot's ongoing commitment to stamping out exploits and rebalancing its game is laudable. The new battlefield adds little more than a slight visual overhaul and barbed crystals that harm melee attackers, but it's a nice addition nonetheless.

Less pleasing is the cost of extras like uniform colour and avatars, but in a way I'd rather Robot cover its continued development costs this way than risk unbalancing the game with stat-boosting IAP that gives paying players a significant advantage.

If the only thing you stand to gain from shelling out is the ability to have your team taunt your opponent by doing a silly dance at the end of a turn in their new turquoise home kit, then that's fine by me.

As a final bonus it's now a universal app, and that lovely art looks particularly resplendent on the iPad. I've experienced a bit of technical flakiness since the most recent update, so you might want to hold out for the time being, but otherwise this is as essential an addition to your iDevice of choice as anything you'll download all year.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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