The Might & Magic series has seen better days. As the gaming industry has moved on, the franchise, which at one point was a best seller, slowly fell from relevancy, and while the developers have desperately tried to keep up with the times the recent releases haven't been all that well received. The newest title in the series, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, released to almost no press, and it appeared as though Ubisoft was either relying on the M&M name for success, or letting the title die a cold, lonely death. Yet, despite all odds, it manages to not only succeed where past Might & Magic titles failed, but does so by eschewing the classic gameplay in favor of a much more recent concept: the puzzle/RPG genre.
In a somewhat symbolic move, the gameplay has players controlling children, split apart after their parents are killed by a demonic invasion. Each section of the game follows a different child, who has a unique gameplay mechanic depending on the race. The children return to their home lands to warn their people of the demon scourge, but are met with arms, as the nations of the world have been duped into war, and it's up to the children to stop it. It's not all that involved of a story, and is a definite step back from the epic scale the Might & Magic series is known for, but it does its job, and provides a better narrative than any other game in the genre to date.
The genre, as mentioned earlier, is a hybrid puzzle/RPG, like the one found in Puzzle Quest or Gyromancer. When combat begins, units of three different colors (and up to five different varieties) are placed on a game board, and must be matched in order to fight. While it may appear to subscribe to a typical "match three" format like Bejeweled or Puzzle Quest, it's actually a much more complex affair. Yes, three like-colored units will match together, but they don't disappear once matched. Instead, horizontally matched units will form walls, while vertically matched units will begin to charge power, before attacking the opponent after a set amount of turns. When it comes time to attack, they will march in a straight line towards the opponent, damaging (and being damaged by) every unit in the way. If they make it to the end, the opponent's HP drops, and the combat continues. To make matters much more interesting (and, in a way, random), it's not possible to switch the locations of units, so they can only be moved one at a time or destroyed, with each action costs a move, and each player having three moves before the turn is over.
It's a complex, fantastic affair, and adds a number of additional elements to help the gameplay feel unique. Instead of an assortment of puzzle loosely tied together by a story, occasional bosses help match the gameplay to the plot. Bosses will stand on the opposing battlefield, spawning units and moving around while the player needs to time precise strikes with his forces. It's, in a way, brilliant, and while the boss levels can be a bit annoying, it helps break up what would otherwise be monotonous.
And yet, that complaint seems a bit trivial. Yes, fighting the same battles over and over again might seem repetitive, and truth be told it can be. Easy battles usually end quickly and more difficult battles might take a few tries to complete. However, for as repetitive as that might sound, it's incredibly addictive thanks to the gameplay being tied to a puzzle system. Playing Tetris and Bejeweled, to, resort to doing the same thing over and over, but that doesn't mean the act grows old. Just as is the case with other puzzlers, completing the puzzles is simply fun, and the added bonus of leveling up units and defeating enemies while progressing a plot makes it all the more rewarding. That's not to say it's flawless, since there are some issues in the core mechanic. Because moving units around is a major part of the gameplay, the initial load-out, which is randomized, can often be critical to success. At times it's easier to simply retreat and restart a battle if the units given weren't in good locations, and while there's a minor punishment for this, it's better than fighting a futile battle.
Despite this fault, Clash of Heroes manages to be one of the more entertaining games of 2009, with its biggest flaw being in marketing and a poor release date. It's not, in any way, for fans of Might & Magic, in the same way that Far Cry 2 barely kept anything from the original for the sequel. Playing as children, completing puzzles, the cute, anime-style; it's really all fitting, since it feels more like a child of the series than a sequel. Then again, that's not a bad thing, and hopefully the game will receive enough buzz so that a sequel might fix the few problems, and gain the attention it deserves. In the meantime, it's a great game, toppling Puzzle Quest and Gyromancer for king of the genre.