Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a game. You know, like chess, or backgammon, or tic-tac-toe, or, heck, Kerplunk. There are two sides in play, you take it in turns to make your move and success demands skill, concentration and, occasionally, a dash of luck.
Why am I pointing out such an obvious truism? Well, in a year when most of the big AAA duckhunts doggedly insisted on leading the player by the hand from one scripted, retina-scorching set piece to the next, it was mightily refreshing to see a mainstream console title really explore the millenia-old science of play and offer the grey matter some nourishment.
In a similar fashion to, say, Advance Wars before it, Capybara's phenomenal puzzle RPG reveled in the primal thrill of competition, of using your smarts to slowly grind down a seemingly more powerful opponent, of gradually mastering a rule set that at first sight seems bewilderingly complex.
For the uninitiated, it's a lavish re-imagining of a forgotten DS gem, expanded, re-balanced and rebuilt from the ground up. Spun-off from Ubisoft's dusty, dyed-in-the-wool RPG franchise, Clash of Heroes is essentially a match-three puzzler with some narrative window-dressing and character progression thrown in, a la Puzzle Quest.
If your mouse cursor is currently hovering over the 'back' button, I'd urge you to read on, because the gameplay system at Clash of Heroes' core is a thing of rare, bewitching beauty - a creation so deep and so elegant that it will keep you up at night pondering its intricacies.
In summary - as your hero wanders from node to node on the game's railed world map you'll sporadically be thrown into battle, with your army of units lining up facing that of your opponent. Each turn gives you three moves to shuffle your troops around in an effort to line up three units of the same colour. Match them up along the horizontal and your units combine into a defensive wall that sprouts up ahead of your front line.
However, if you match them along a vertical, they'll link together into one unit and begin charging up for an attack. That takes a set number of turns depending on the unit type but once it's maxed out, the unit will race up the screen and attack its opposing numbers. Should it be powerful enough to break through enemy lines and reach the top of the screen, it will take hit points off your opponent. The first one to zero loses.
Capybara then proceeds to pile on additional depth. Matching two sets of units in one move gives you an extra turn. Combine more than one triplet of units of the same colour and strength in one turn and they'll link together across the board, exponentially increasing their cumulative HP as they charge. Successfully stack an additional set of three on a charging unit of the same colour and your soldiers will combine for a massive attack.
On top of all that, you've got a magic meter that builds up as you take hits, Elite and Champion unit types that you unlock as you progress and special artifacts that you can equip to afford yourself additional powers, such as regenerating walls or boosted HP. Oh, and each of your unit types has a different attack strategy - for example, some are pure muscle, others cast spells that drain HP over an extended period of time and others freeze charging units so they miss turns. Like I said, deep.
While at first daunting, it's a joy to witness Capy's layer cake design push you further and further as the game progresses, slowly piling on the complexity and ratcheting up the pressure. It's the only game I've played this year that has continued to gnaw away at my brain as I lay in bed trying to sleep. I've seen battle formations seemingly materialise in plates of food, puzzle solutions come to me as I'm doing the dishes and eureka moments appear out of nowhere while doodling mindlessly on a notepad mid phone conversation. If there's a videogame equivalent of an earworm (a mindworm?), this is surely it.
And it's testament to how absorbing the gameplay is that the game's lovely Saturday morning cartoon visuals only warrant a footnote. The truth is, the combat system is so precisely formed that it would work just as well if the units were simply differently coloured circles, squares or triangles. That said, Capy's delicious character design is further icing on the cupcake.
Rather than prosaic orcs and elves, we get armour-clad grizzly bears that tear through enemy lines; death-dealing unicorns that leap over opposition's defences; blunderbuss-wielding gremlins that chirp evilly as they pepper the enemy with buckshot; and smirking succubi that sashay across the battlefield engulfing your foes in flame. It's a memorable cast.
There is a price to pay for all that hand-drawn animation. Clash of Heroes is a memory-guzzler and the loading screens in the console versions are long, frequent and patience-sapping. The recently-released PC version is the way to go here.
It was harder to dig out the gems amidst Xbox Live Arcade and PSN's increasingly cluttered and less quality-controlled output this year but, along with Bastion and From Dust, Capy's effort undoubtedly shone the brightest. Kudos too to Ubisoft for, along with Outland, Chahi's aforementioned god game and, hopefully, I Am Alive, showing some imagination in their downloadable output.
Alas, judging by the sparsely populated online lobbies soon after launch, it was a title that many passed over, perhaps thanks to that generic fantasy moniker. A pity, because Clash of Heroes provided some of the purest gameplay of 2011 - the product of a development team that clearly understands why people still play mahjong, or Risk, or Go, generations after they were first conceived. Now that the November blockbuster blitzkrieg is over, there's no better time to discover what you missed out on.