Might & Magic: Clash Of Heroes was one of those Nintendo DS games that I never played at the time but had always heard was very good. Its unusual triple-decker sandwich of strategic, match-three RPG puzzling hasn't really been replicated in the fifteen-odd years since it first came out, unless you count its own HD remaster that came out in 2011. Alas, with that version now having gone off sale on PC in favour of this further spruced up Definitive Edition, this is now the best and only way to play it. Originally developed by the same core team at Capybara Games that went on to make the excellent Grindstone, this Definitive Edition has been handled entirely by remake house Dotemu, and yep, I now see what all the fuss is about. However, I also have quite a lot of reservations about it. For all its clear, obvious brilliance, it's also a very hard game to love. Because it really is very hard, and I still can't quite decide if I'm having fun or not.
Having not played either the original or the HD remaster, I obviously can't speak to whether Dotemu have made any substantial changes to the balancing of the AI in Clash Of Heroes here. But man alive, I'd almost argue that this is the game that should have been called Grindstone, because eking out a victory in these 15-20 minute battles is sometimes like pulling actual teeth - and it will repeatedly whomp you into next week if you don't keep pace with its story missions by completing various side scuffles and bounty contracts - all of which are just as difficult and challenging as its critical path.
These story missions are spread across five individual campaigns that all focus on different hero characters and their respective army factions. They all play a role in an ongoing story, but once a campaign's finished, you're onto the next one with no carryover between your items, units, money, nothing. This sounds stingy, but it does make rough sense in the moment - after a sudden demon attack causes several characters to fall through a portal, scattering them across the land, each hero character must all build up their respective armies from scratch as they work to fight the big bad. The upsides is that you don't need to be stingy yourself with buying more powerful units, as the amount of gold and gems you earn across a campaign far outstretch what you actually need to purchase them. But it does also mean that the rhythms of each campaign start to feel you're going through the motions again and again as you move from one to the other.
This feeling of déjà vu is kept at bay somewhat by the different battle styles of each army. Each have their own quirks to learn and exploit, and some campaigns are deliberately more puzzle-y than others. The first clutch of battles you fight with Anwen and her forest pals, for example, are mostly straightforward 'defeat the enemy' affairs to get you comfortable with its battle system. Godric and his knightly crew of Ghost & Goblin extras, on the other hand, bring more specific challenges to the table - hit a trio of archers who occasionally peek out from behind a bunch of pillars, for example, or strike two chains simultaneously to let down a gate. It's a welcome bit of variety, but these specific mission types feel few and far between overall. For the most part, you're still biffing large HP bars and trying to figure out how you can possibly one-up the extreme competence of your opponents.
Battles are played out on big grided tennis courts in Clash Of Heroes. Your opponent always rains down from the top, while you steam in from below. Apart from those challenge missions mentioned above, your most common objective is to lob attacks onto the other side of the board to hit that aforementioned HP bar that runs the width of the board behind their units. Sounds simple enough, but with attacks depleting in power over time as they fight through the hordes in front of them, attacks can often fizzle out before they can even get there, so you'll need to plan (as much as you can) accordingly to win the day.
All this is the same as it ever was, of course, with the same going for its unit types. Units come in various flavours that differ from army to army, but they all function more or less the same. Whack three of the same colour of your basic rank and file into a vertical column, and they'll start charging up to perform an attack. Arrange three of them horizontally, on the other hand, and they'll transform into a defensive barrier that sweeps forward to the top of your board to protect your lads from incoming attacks.
There are also 2x1 Elite units that need two of the same colour behind them to deploy, and chunky 2x2 Champions that need to inhale four accompanying units of their corresponding colour to really start bringing out the big guns. If you're short on lads for them to gobble up, you can spend one of your limited action points calling for reinforcements, or you can choose to remove a unit to match those threes elsewhere in your line-up, which will earn you back one of those points in the process. Finally, you can chain-link colour types together to do more damage by setting them up to attack on the same turn, and even stack them into columns of six to create a souped up version of them.
It's certainly not short on strategic variety, then, but for me at least, the friction comes from how far in advance these attacks are telegraphed. For example, even basic units can take two or three turns to charge up, with larger units taking four or five, or sometimes more. You can set things in motion all you want, but when reinforcements are constantly changing the layout and make-up of what's in front of you, planning anything long-term becomes almost impossible. Similarly, if there have been any substantial changes to the AI balancing in this Definitive Edition, you can bet it's going to be here, in their ability to plan, counter and defend against your moves, that they'll be most keenly felt (and also most likely to really muller things on the fun scale).
Your opponents are universally canny old bastards, you see, and will instantly set about blocking every attack you make - often with not one, but two stacked columns of their own units. They're particularly skilled in manoeuvring their units to chain similar colour types together, too, and almost always seemed to have better luck than me in the reinforcement draw. Whereas my units would typically arrive in what I'd almost describe as offensively bad colour combinations, or with oceans of small guys sitting uselessly in front of my larger units (who can only merge with them backwards, not forwards), their units would somehow always fall just so, either into neat little groups, or with elites first and other units behind. I'd then spend numerous turns just about sorting them all out into a decent attack order, while my opponent would have already queued up four chained attacks about to strike on the next go, and probably have a champion queued up to nuke me on the next one. A mild exaggeration, perhaps, but that's what it often felt like.
Again, it's possible that this, too, is the same as it's always been. Matthew (RPS in peace) assures me the DS version was hard as nails, too, and I certainly wouldn't want any new version of it to pander to modern sensibilities just for the sake of it. If it was this hard back then, then it should be this hard now, too. But I'm not gonna lie - the complete and utter walloping I've experienced while playing Clash Of Heroes - Definitive Edition has also come as something of a surprise to me, and I consider myself reasonably well-versed in both puzzle and turn-based strategy games as a whole. So I say this more as a warning than a slight - although if there have been changes made to the way it's been balanced, then it's most certainly a slight rather than a warning. Also, its excessive and seemingly constant loading screens can get in the sea. I literally have no time for them.
Despite all this, though, there's still a lot to like and admire here. I can see why people loved it so intensely at the time, and even now Clash Of Heroes feels like a true original. There's simply not a lot else like it - although given how hard it is, I can perhaps see why. Still, even knowing what I know now, if I was faced with the prospect of popping down £15 on a game I'd heard so much about for the last decade and a half, I'd honestly probably still give it a pop, you know? Loading times and all. I'd be more sceptical if it were double that price, say, but fifteen quid is a lot more palatable, and not so high that it wouldn't satisfy my initial curiosity for it. And if its online scene takes off (as it did with the HD remaster), then just experiencing it through multiplayer might lessen the problems I encountered in the campaign. A tentative recommendation, then, although probably more for strategy die-hards than casual toe-dippers.