Once More Into The Breach
The "Might & Magic" franchise lumbers on with yet another batch of releases, this time four "Heroes Chronicles", episodic turn-based games using the engine from last year's "Heroes of Might & Magic III". The basic premise is simple enough - instead of charging you upwards of Ł30 for a huge sprawling epic like previous Heroes games, you pay Ł15 a pop for four seperate stand-alone episodes.
These are centered around the exploits of the barbarian Tarnum, who leads his people to freedom in a costly war against the wizards who have enslaved them in the first of the four games, "Warlords of the Wasteland". After Tarnum's death he is brought back by his people's gods to make amends for his sins, and finds himself trying to save the soul of the man who killed him in "Conquest of the Underworld". He then becomes the immortal champion, and in "Clash of the Dragons" finds himself amongst the long-lived elves, trying to discover why the once friendly dragons have suddenly disappeared. Finally in "Master of the Elements" he finds himself wandering the four planes trying to stop a war between the elemental lords which is threatening to spill over on to his own world. Although the stories are interlinked and make slightly more sense if played in the right order, you don't need to play them all in sequence.
Each of the four Chronicles has a single linear campaign of eight scenarios, starting with small maps and easy objectives and working their way up to vast sprawling missions which can take hours or even days to complete. These are peppered with text messages which usually appear at the start of a turn, and which reveal a little more of the plot or give you an insight into Tarnum's character. Sadly, as we have come to expect from New World, these are fairly poorly written, at times long-winded, and rather stilted. In previous games in the series it didn't matter too much, but in Chronicles the storyline is central to the game and the little message boxes seem to pop up almost every other turn, making them hard to ignore.
Same Old Same Old
Apart from the increased focus on storytelling though, the basic gameplay will be instantly familiar to fans of the series. Tarnum and the other heroes you recruit are moved around on a map, picking up the items which have been carelessly left scattered around on the ground, taking control of the mines, lumber yards and other resource points available, and fighting both neutral creatures and any enemy heroes.
Each map features one or more towns which you can conquer, although this is not always necessary to win a scenario. These towns can be upgraded with a wide range of different buildings, from marketplaces (to trade goods) and taverns (to recruit new heroes) to various kinds of barracks which can each produce a certain number of a single type of unit each week ready for you to hire, if you have the necessary gold.
There is an almost bewildering range of units on offer, from dragons and angels to archers and minotaurs, from pegasi and unicorns to genies and hell hounds. Each type of town can produce seven different units, plus an upgraded version of each, but the themed nature of the Chronicles means that unlike in previous Heroes games you aren't overwhelmed. Instead of bombarding you with hundreds of units from a dozen different types of town within a single campaign, they are evenly spread amongst the four games.
As the title of the game suggests though, the focus is very much on the hero, as his offensive and defensive statistics and any relevant skills alter the stats of troops under his or her command, which in turn has a great effect on the outcome of a battle.
A high level character with a small army can easily destroy a much larger force with a less experienced leader, and this is especially true once magic gets involved. Some of the high level spells are ridiculously effective, such as the infamous "implosion" spell, which causes an obscene amount of damage and can wipe out entire units in the hands of a powerful wizard. Powerful magical artifacts only make your heroes even more deadly, increasing their statistics, giving their troops immunity to certain spells, or producing extra resources for you.
Because of this you will find yourself spending a lot of time shuffling your heroes around the map from one special location to another to make sure they are as powerful as possible by the time the scenario ends. For example, there are mercenary camps which you can improve your combat abilities, towers where you can raise your magical skills, obelisks which give you extra experience, knowledge trees which increase your level, and so on and so forth. The maps are positively packed with items, power-ups, resources, landmarks, wandering monsters and special locations to visit, and it does look rather silly at times when you find yourself in a world where it's hard to walk a couple of miles without treading on a heap of gold coins or a powerful artifact. Most of the time it's not too bad, but a few maps just look plain ridiculous, and quickly devolve into running around hoovering up everything before the enemy can get to it.
Woah, Deja Vu
Unlike the last release in the on-going Heroes saga, the Chronicles games don't include a seperate tutorial, although the slim manuals included with each of them do cover all of the basics. Instead you will receive suggestions from your advisors as you play through the first couple of scenarios in each Chronicle, ranging from the blindingly obvious to the fairly useful.
The learning curve is also somewhat smoother than in Heroes III, meaning that newcomers to the series are less likely to be left adrift. That doesn't mean that this is Heroes Lite though - the last few missions of each campaign are still rather difficult, and should provide a decent challenge for all but the most hardened of Heroes addicts. Unfortunately the games offer very little which is actually new, and although they are a good enough introduction for newcomers to the series, the continued lack of any development in the series may start to grate with more experienced players.
The towns types and buildings are all strangely familiar, as are the units, the spells, most of the terrain tiles and special items, many of the heroes you can hire, and even the music. New animated menus and some impressive pre-rendered cutscenes aren't enough to shake the feeling that we've seen it all before. The game even uses an apparently unmodified version of the Heroes III engine, and most of the artwork is from the previous Heroes games as well. It's all beginning to look a little tired, and an overhaul with support for higher resolutions and more detailed and smoothly animated sprites would be welcome. Maybe in Heroes IV?
At the end of the day the Heroes Chronicles games are effectively just four more mission packs for the already over-sold Heroes III, with little new to offer apart from a new character, a new storyline, and a single eight mission campaign for each. Given that you can now pick up Heroes III Complete (which includes around 20 campaigns) for no more than the cost of two Chronicles, it begins to look a little silly.
If you are new to the series, buying one of the Chronicles is as good a place to start as any thanks to its budget pricing and gentle learning curve, but if you find that you like it you would probably be better off buying one of the many huge Heroes III bundles on offer instead of getting the other three Chronicles.
If you are an experienced Heroes player, the Chronicles are more of a light snack than a four course meal, and you may want to save your pennies in the hopes that a true sequel will be released next year. With any luck rather more effort will go into the next installment...