The drawn out clumsy punchdance of Hero Academy

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A good turn-based tactical game has the feel of two armies squaring off, watching each other as units move into position, arrange themselves, entrench, feint, engage. There are fronts, flanks, reserves. With a good AI or a human opponent, it’s a series of urgent questions. Where he gonna go? What’s he gonna do? What am I gonna do? What is going to happen? When is it going to happen? It’s a dance.

Then there’s Hero Academy, where two players take turns hitting each other really hard.

After the jump, the slugfest

In Hero Academy, which plays on a simple playing field with mostly simple units, each player gets to do five things in a row. Summon dudes, move dudes, attack dudes, use power-ups on dudes, heal dudes, or whatever. Just run amok for whatever five things in a row you want to do. The other player won’t get in your way. Whereas most turn-based games just let you move each unit once, this is certainly an, uh, interesting way to keep thing snappy.

But I’m not convinced it’s an effective way to design a game. Too much can happen on any given turn, and the other player is removed from the game for too long. Imagine chess where you get to move five times. Not five pieces. Five times. Naturally, you’d probably run in with your queen, clean up as best you can, and then run back. That’s Hero Academy in a nutshell.

You might not grok this when you first jump into the game, which can only be played against another player who probably already knows what he’s doing. You might gradually move your units in a group, relying on combined arms and overlapping fields of fire. You might use your power-ups to add 20% resistance here and 10% extra health there. You might carefully stake out the tiles that make a unit more effective. You might manage your healer to top off any units wounded by an area-of-effect attack. You might even meticulously snipe at an enemy unit so that it falls, only to get resurrected unless you walk up to stomp the fallen enemy to death. Yes, stomp. You know, like in Gears of War. Nothing like a brutal coup de grace mechanic to lend your cute cartoon world a hint of the grim!

The stomp is another odd design decision to presumably tempers the power of ranged units, but instead drives Hero Academy down a tactical groove. Because these five-action uninterrupted beats are so long, they rob the game of a lot of the strategy it would have had if the game unfurled more gradually. It leaves you with a series of relatively lengthy hit-and-run attacks. Boom and zoom. Strike and fade. Get in, hit hard, get out. Consider the tactical variety in Uniwar, the current gold standard for turn-based strategy games on the iPhone. Hero Academy has the pieces in place for that sort of variety, but it’s entirely subverted by the gameplay.

To Hero Academy’s credit, each turn is like a puzzle that you can freely tinker with until you’ve settled on the solution you want to submit. There are no die rolls and no hidden units. Try whatever moves you like as many times as you like. Test freely. Rewind, try again. See how much damage these attacks do. Now see how much damage these attacks do if you use a damage power-up. Now see how much damage you can do with another unit. Keeping trying until you get the best result you can get. Then submit your turn.

Another odd design decision is the actual victory, which you earn by taking time out to smack the other player’s crystal. You have to use the attacks you would normally use on the other guy’s units. Which there’s not much point in doing until you’ve cleared the field of the other guy’s units. This is just a matter of time, given there’s no resource model in the game beyond each player eventually running out of stuff. Every turn, a player fills his “hand” with units, power-ups, and abilities from his pre-set “deck”. This goes on until the decks are empty. Who will lose the long slog of attrition first?

Like Uniwar, Hero Academy wants to base its gameplay on asymmetrical sides. But there are currently only two sides, and the differences between them don’t have much opportunity to emerge, given the extended beats of alternating five-turn hit-and-runs, usually by ninjas for the good faction and wraiths for the evil faction. Furthermore, the multiplayer is a crapshoot with no provision for timing the turns. You’re like as not going to get into a game that the other player never finishes. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were some other way to play Hero Academy. There isn’t. It’s a multiplayer only affair, with poor documentation and an unfortunately fiddly interface. Hero Academy is simple, simplistic, and ultimately unsatisfying. You might as well find a friend and take turns punching each other in the arm to see who gives up first.

2 stars