Heroes and Castles is an entrant into, what is in my mind, one of the great ongoing experiments in gaming.
The game goes like this: it’s a medieval fantasy, hack-and-slash-style RPG game, with real time strategy elements. That means that you’ll pick a hero (which are all of the classic RPG character archetypes such as: knight, mage, archer and assassin), level them up, assign them new abilities and ultimately have them put the hurt on an army of evil that’s very intent on destroying the castle you’re defending. The strategy part of this equation comes into play through your ability to spend gold during these sieges on things like: creating various units to assist you, building defensive structures or just making repairs to your castle when things get rough.
What it really is, though, is another in a line of games that were convinced they were successfully able to combine a heavy action genre (like a hack-and-slash or a first person shooter), with a real time strategy game. With few exceptions, games of this type tend to get labeled as “interesting, but highly flawed.” As you may imagine, the biggest problem with them is an inability to properly balance these two styles of games in a way that doesn’t favor one over the other. As a result, these games too often feel more interested in fostering the gimmick, than they are in providing a fun experience.
Seemingly aware of this legacy of shortcomings, developer Foursaken Media made a very wise decision to present Heroes and Castles as primarily an RPG from the outset, and a pretty deep one at that. The character classes available are not only extremely different in terms of how they are designed, but once you begin exploring the various intricacies of the upgrade and perk system, you can get them to a point where each plays differently enough to almost be a star of their own game. There is a lot in play here in terms of character building, which is nice to see.
As for the strategy aspects, they’re extremely muted. You’ll have to reinforce yourself against overwhelming odds by making sure you’ve always got a steady supply of troops coming your way. There is some additional thought that comes into play when you must consider how to balance your resources between offensive and defensive measures, but for the most part you’re going to be looking to throw as many troops at your foes as you can, while occasionally making repairs, or throwing up some specialized structures. It’s more of a nod to the genre, than a full embrace.
That tradeoff could have helped keep Heroes and Castles’ gameplay more focused, but unfortunately its potential good is undone by the flaws found in what ends up being the bulk of the experience; the combat.
The combat in Heroes in Castles is a fairly simple “mash the buttons until everything is dead” affair,but it’s also riddled with flaws. At first it seems ok when you’re only taking on a few enemies, however once things pick up, you soon realize that the game provides no easy way to handle attacking multiple units, outside of some all too rare special abilities. A big part of the problem there is actually the animations, which give no real satisfying indication of what kind of damage you’re doing or to whom. Numbers appear above your enemies showing damage, but in the middle of a mob, it’s almost impossible to tell just what is happening. This too often leads to simply mashing buttons amidst a group of enemies, and hoping for the best.
But you’ll rarely get there, as Heroes and Castles is one damn hard game. Things start fairly simple, as your biggest obstacle is the awkward combat system, but around level three or four, when armored enemies come into play, you’re going to be dying a lot, and generally feeling absolutely helpless while doing it. There were many instances where I felt like I was playing as well as I possibly could, but couldn’t stay alive for more than a scant few minutes, mostly because of those armored units who not only deal and take lots of damage, but are absolutely everywhere.
Ideally, this is where your support comes into play, but the only unit capable of dealing with them early is a very expensive pikeman. Unfortunately, you only get one of them per purchase, and they don’t even bother to specifically target the units you bought them for in the first place. Within a few minutes of purchasing one then, you are broke, friendless and on death’s bed. Fun.
This is also a good time to mention that Heroes and Castles offers a lot of in-app purchases. At first, I found them harmless, but once that difficulty spiked up, I realized that there is some very real incentive to buy your way into even a winnable situation, whether it be by upgrading your character, units, or just gifting yourself more resources.
It’s actually both one of the more clever, and despicable, methods of in-app purchasing I’ve ever seen, as the game does a good job of attacking your self-esteem, and driving you to your wallet just to feel better again. It would almost be amusing, if it weren’t for the fact that this isn’t a free game, meaning that the bastards already got my money, and now want to beat me down for more of it.
What I’m saying then is that Heroes and Castles isn’t just another failed attempt at successfully merging the action and strategy genres, but in many regards is just a bully whose lone purpose is to go after your pocket money, and claim it for his own. Any redeemable qualities it does have, such as some nice design elements and genuine depth in the customization and upgrade process, are undone by an insatiable desire to stack the odds against you, and never relent until you are either a broken shell of your former self, or are willing to pay and pay in order to keep the bully at bay.
Had Heroes and Castles been a smoother game with a much more reasonable difficulty curve, I would actually be happy to recommend it for the things it does well. But as it is, the only people I can really recommend this game to are the most extreme of video game masochists, and/or those who don’t mind shelling out a little cash once in a while to get ahead.
No, just mean.
Heroes and Castles seems determined to not let you have a good time. In this it succeeds.