Helm's Deep With Friends: Swapping Slaps in Hero Academy (Steam)

In turn-based strategy the next move is always the most important. If you’re not thinking ahead then chances are you’ve already lost.

This is especially true in Hero Academy, an iOS strategy affair recently released for PC through Steam. As your opponent rushes to your defenses, the decisions you make could determine which civilian populace will be throwing the confetti at the victory parade. You could buff up your troops, focus on thinning out the enemy ranks, or maybe bunker down and hope for the best. Regardless of your choice you must always cast your mind to your next play; one mistake might just throw the whole match.

Little has changed in Hero Academy’s jump to PC. The Words with Friends model works as well as ever: you search for an opponent, trade a few blows and then, hopefully, lead your troops to the inn for a round of post-war supremacy beers. The sidebar keeps excellent track of all your skirmishes and employs taskbar notifications to keep you updated on battle developments. As you lay back and wait for a counterattack a likely diversion will be starting up another conflict; very soon you’ll be thankful that your games are so ruthlessly organised.

 “Arguably the most important thing for a game like Hero Academy is a large community of players” 

You can communicate with your foe via an ingame chatbox and, if you’re so inclined, submit a taunt at the end of your turn: the Hero Academy equivalent of a power-armoured teabagging spree. All of these elements form a captivating whole that’s kept me dipping in and out in routine fashion; definitely a game to be checked on occasionally rather than played religiously.

Anyone versed in the iOS version will instantly recognise the PC controls. What once was touched is now clicked. For those unfamiliar, the simple controls should be easy to wrap your head around within the first few turns. Battles take place on a rectangular grid with each team facing off on either side. You have five moves per turn in which to arrange your forces in the hope of subjugating the opposing team. The aim is to destroy your rival’s crystals before they destroy yours, or alternatively, wipe the opposing side off the face of whatever fantasy world the game takes place in.

Your troops are displayed on the bottom of the screen and dragged to the grid much like a tower defense title. Once in play, what you do with your army is up to you. With each of the teams carrying their own specific troops the differences might seem a tad overwhelming at first, but all of them can be broken down into more basic unit types. Each team comes equipped with a heavy unit for soaking up damage, a healer to restore said damage, and a few ranged attackers to chip away at the opposing ranks. Each team holds their own unique spin on this formula, and a great deal of the strategy lays in figuring the team best suited to your particular style of play.

 “The addictive quality of its distant cousins, Words With Friends and Draw Something, has been well duplicated” 

The main addition to the Steam version is a Team Fortress 2 team. For many, Valve’s poster boys might seem like an attractive option, as chances are you’ll already know the nuances of each individual member. The Heavy can soak up blows; The Medic boosts the HP of others; The Pyro hits through two horizontal tiles; the Scout bounds around the grid with ease; the Demoman launches his AOE grenades; the Spy can’t be hit at range and the Sniper can pick off troops from the other end of the grid. These are all ideas that are predictable and easy to understand if you’re familiar with the Team Fortress franchise.

The other team that comes bundled with the Steam edition are ‘The Council’: A veritable greatest hits of Tolkein-esque stereotypes. Other teams are available (if you feel like coughing up a few pennies) but you shouldn’t feel obligated unless you have a creepy obsession with Dwarves or you just HAVE to roll as a Dark Elf when you hop onto Skyrim.

Arguably the most important thing for a game like Hero Academy is a large community of players. Apart from a few a challenges, the game is strictly multiplayer; if its players jump ship then its death knell will soon be ringing. At the moment it’s looking like the player-base is there, thanks partly to cross-platform multiplayer between the PC and iOS versions. I’ve never struggled to find a game but very few have turned into full on matches. The very first game I started still sits neglected in the sidebar presumably abandoned by an opponent who simply doesn’t care anymore. If you’re out there my friend, ‘VirtualUnreality’ is still waiting on that turn.

What Hero Academy certainly gets right is its level of complexity. With battles taking place in such a small arena, too many elements would feel confusing and unnecessary,  not enough and it would soon become a chore to play. Hero Academy seems to have hit the sweet spot. It’s simple enough pick up quickly, whilst being complex enough to find a deeper level of strategy when you really sink your teeth in.

 “I can’t escape the feeling that this style of gameplay is more suited to a mobile device”

The addictive quality of its distant cousins, Words with Friends and Draw Something, has been well duplicated. I still find myself gleefully forging battle plans whenever a notification beckons me to the field of conflict. Yet, I can’t escape the feeling that this style of gameplay is more suited to a mobile device. An iPhone, for example, is switched on and close to hand for the majority of the day, making it far easier to stay abreast of your games and make a counter attack whenever it’s convenient. With the Steam version I only get notifications whenever the game is running, so it’s likely that matches will drag on to the point where both combatants lose interest.

To its credit, I’ve enjoyed my time with Hero Academy. For armchair strategists it could quickly become a permanent diversion, but for some, the asynchronous battles might feel a little slow-paced. Either way, if Robot Entertainment can grasp hold of a satisfied player-base then I see only good things on the horizon. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a notification; I have a war to win.