Hero’s Hour (pre-release version 1.8.2)

Hero’s Hour is so clearly an homage to Heroes of Might and Magic (HoMM), especially HoMM3, that it’s impossible for me to play it without comparing the two. That’s both a strength and a weakness.

I love HoMM 3. I played so many hours of HoMM3 that it’s been etched into my brain in a way that few other games have matched since. I also played a number of other HoMM games—the first two, as well as HoMM4 & 5—and all of that trained me pretty well in the genre those games pioneered (and which few games have matched before or since). Heck, New World Computing, the makers of the original HoMM games, may have actually trained their audience too well given the mixed reception to their changes to the game for HoMM 4.

What I’m trying to say here is that making a sequel to the Heroes of Might and Magic series, even making an homage to the series, isn’t easy. A number of studios have struggled to do just that, most often creating new games that were mediocre imitators rather than improvements to the genre.

A little history, and maybe some perspective.

After New World Computing disbanded, Ubisoft continued publishing sequels from other developers, with a new developer for each subsequent game. Sometimes they even found a new developer for an expansion. I have no idea what that was like for the teams involved, but from an outside perspective that doesn’t seem like a good sign.

I played a little bit of some of those sequels. They were… fine? None of the ones I played went beyond simply feeling okay, none of them delivered quite the same flavor that pulled me into HoMM 3 and kept me playing it for over a decade. Some of them shared similar points of failure with Hero’s Hour.

This isn’t a struggle unique to those trying to recapture the appeal of HoMM. It’s happened with a number of different attempts to recreate the feeling of other 90s classics (like Master of Magic or Master of Orion). The best sequels and homages to those games that I’ve played all rely on finding some way to distinguish themselves, to be new and different and give themselves a way to excel, while still obviously following in the same vein as their predecessors. That seems like a universal rule for sequels, not only with sequels to these games.

But for whatever reason, most games I’ve seen that have tried to follow in HoMM 3’s footsteps haven’t managed to both recapture the feel and distinguish themselves well.

Sadly, I’m not sure that Hero’s Hour does either. Yet.

First, a caveat: I’m writing about an early version of the game (v.1.8.2). It’s available on itch.io, but isn’t out on Steam or GOG yet. I don’t know what will change with the wider release. Presumably some of the issues I mention here will be resolved. 

Now. Why do I have to compare Hero’s Hour to HoMM?

The game very obviously wants to be recognized by fans of HoMM. The hero attributes are the same, many mechanics are the same, a number of the factions (and the factions’ units) are either the same or within spitting distance of each other. Tromping around the map and upgrading your town is eerily similar to HoMM3 (more on that later), right down to the names, functions, and visual designs of many map locations. It’s all close enough—until you get to combat—that it’s achingly familiar. Familiar enough that I wouldn’t be surprised by an intellectual property lawsuit (though I don’t know who’d win that).

Combat, and the way in which those familiar hero attributes are used in combat, is where things are totally different. Hero’s Hour uses a real-time-with-pause auto-battle system, one that allows you to give commands to your various units, sling spells, etc. That’s a considerable departure from the hex-grid turn-based strategy of HoMM. I actually like how this change distinguishes the game from the originals. But it’s not especially clear to me how to learn the auto-battler’s systems, and it’s not clear I’ll be able to master it in the same way I did HoMM3’s battles. Like HoMM3, the underlying mechanics are a bit opaque; but 23 years have passed since HoMM3 came out, and I have higher expectations for system design and the presentation of information. Also, I want to feel a little less clumsy in the game’s battles. Maybe that expectation of mine, the idea that I might have finer control of the battle, is the problem here: nothing about the game’s battle aesthetics suggests much fine control would be available, as lots of little units hop around cartoonishly and bump into each other in bloody combat.

It’s cute, really. I wish I felt like I understood it better.

It also is unstable. I expect this to be patched out, but the game has crashed several times for me near the start of a battle. More rarely, it’s crashed at other points during the turn. This is a big problem. The game is informal and straightforward enough to keep me playing for a while, but it’s not addictive enough to pull me back in after a crash (let alone several). The game does have a reliable autosave feature, so I’ve never lost too much progress in one go, but I hope the instability is fixed quickly.

Now, back to the map.

Hero’s Hour’s visual design for its maps is fine, but compare it to the rich textures of the games it’s imitating.

This critique in some ways feels unfair to me, but: the visual design for the map feels lackluster. It’s bland. This is made worse by how obviously this game has been built in the image of the old HoMM games, and how it looks when I compare a screenshot of it with a screen from one of the old games. Hero’s Hour wants to remind players of those games (and does!) but its visual design doesn’t stand up to the visual design (or map design) of HoMM 2&3. HoMM2 had vibrant and inviting color, lots of texture, and map features that engaged the viewer. HoMM3 toned down the color palette very slightly—but it instead added more color variety, and paid even more attention to detail, making the various locations on the map pop. Both titles managed to make very full screens overflowing with tiny details that were still legible to the eye. Hero’s Hour has obviously put time into designing the map locations that players will look for and visit, and has ensured that all the various interactable locations and items are legible as such, but by comparison the background (which takes up most of the screen, and which players spend almost all their time looking at) feels neglected.

HoMM 2 looks lush and vibrant by comparison
And compare HoMM 3’s richly textured volcanic terrain to the detail available in Hero’s Hour

That critique feels unfair to me because I know there’s a solo developer (presumably with limited support from contractors) behind this project. For comparison, even at its smallest I believe New World Computing had three people. Yet while I know it’s a stretch to ask for more and better art—and better overall visual design—I do want more. I want varied texture for the backgrounds. I want the edges of the current texture swatches to be less blocky and more organic. I suspect that if this game’s map backgrounds received a little more attention—got a little more texture, more saturated colors, more places for the eye to explore—that would go a long way. I don’t expect this solo developer to outdo (or even match) HoMM 3’s visuals, but I really want a little more visual appeal.

And it’s clear that the dev knows how to do this! The Town screen is an excellent example. It’s detailed, colorful, and has lots of changing elements that develop as you build new structures (all hallmarks of the HoMM games). It’s obviously received plenty of attention. But this means that the dramatic difference in visual appeal between those Town screens and the map that I spend almost all my time looking at is even harder to ignore.

There’s another side to the maps which feels odd: area layout, map design, and initial expansion. This feels especially odd given how closely the “riding around on the map gathering resources and visiting locations” experience matches the old HoMM experience. Maybe this would feel different to me if I had better mastery of the battles, but early expansion in Hero’s Hour (with default settings) is harder and slower than I remember it being in HoMM3. The neutral armies guarding the ever-vital elements of the resource economy are a hair tougher, more wall than speed bump. And those guarded mines are spread further apart… indeed, it feels like the whole map is stretched just a bit wider than the old games. If this felt more deliberate, and if the game gave me more opportunities to *do* things while building up my army to conquer basic resource generators, I think it might feel different. As it is, I feel like I’ve spent more time wandering back and forth picking up minor collectibles and twiddling my thumbs than I did in the old games—which is saying something.

I suspect this comes down to random map generation.

Random map generation is neither easy nor simple. I’m not surprised that Hero’s Hour’s map generator is creating maps that feel less well-tuned than the custom made maps of HoMM3. That seems unavoidable, without a preposterously long development time. And playing Hero’s Hour gave me newfound appreciation for how finely the old HoMM team had honed their map-making skills. But it also makes me wonder whether this game would be better off with hand-made maps, at least at first. So much of the game is spent roaming around them, it matters when they don’t feel rewarding.

Unfortunately, the combination of visual design, less well-tuned maps, and slightly-clumsy battles leaves this game feeling a little more like an idle game and a little less like a deep and engaging strategy game. I think that’s misleading, because I suspect that approaching it more like an idle game will make it very hard to win. What’s more, I can see that there *are* deeper strategic options available, even if I haven’t yet learned how to really shine in the game’s battles so that I can reach them.

And I want to reach them. I love the genre, and I do still enjoy the game. I’ll probably play more again today, and will no doubt check in again as it is updated. But as the game stands right now, it’s not going to pull me in and feel rewarding for hours upon hours, unlike the games it’s so obviously trying to imitate. I want Hero’s Hour to do better, because I love those old games and I want more people to see how good they could be. And I want Hero’s Hour to do better because it’s already so close, it’s almost there. Good luck, dev(s).

Blood Bowl 2, for socializing with friends

This is not a recommendation, this is just me musing on a game that I’ve been enjoying with my friends for the past… COVID, really. We started playing together in the spring of 2020, when we realized that we weren’t likely to see each other for a long while. I’d never played Blood Bowl before, though I remembered seeing a couple painted minis for it when I was a little kid.

I thought those looked cool, like pretty much everything else that my older sibs touched.

Normally, my friends and I would all see each other in the summer while we worked at LARP camp. We’re also quite close, emotionally speaking; being able to talk to them regularly was (is!) sanative and restorative for me. Given that I’m bad at staying in touch with anyone I don’t see regularly or intentionally schedule time with, playing a semi-weekly fake sports match in a league with my friends was pretty ideal.

The game, however, was not easy to love. Blood Bowl is a satirical mashup of soccer hooliganry, American football, and rugby, and it’s about as violent as it is tongue-in-cheek. It’s also a troublesome beast, full of non-obvious rules and capricious randomness. You can absolutely play an excellent game and still lose because you were sufficiently unlucky with your dice. And you can win a game with a mere tactical victory, while most of your team lies broken and bleeding on the pitch.

In a strange way, I think Blood Bowl was a very appropriate game for me to start playing during the early stages of a pandemic. You have to learn equanimity to play well, or at least learn to recognize when you’ve lost that balance. You can only play your best, try to control what you can, and understand that there’s always something that simply isn’t up to you. In that way, it was quite good at teaching me to let go of trying to control absolutely everything.

Useful, given the world’s circumstances.

For a long time, perhaps over a year of playing the game, I wasn’t even interested in playing with anyone besides my friends. No matter how much fun I had playing, it was often still stressful. And the thought of playing with anyone I wasn’t close friends with—anyone I wasn’t LARP-camp friends with—had very little appeal. A lot of the joy I got from the game came from naming my team and players after good bits, things that I could play to the hilt and which I and my friends could laugh about. It helped that some of my fellow players were into pro-wrestling and convinced us all to indulge in the kayfabe and the creation of faces and heels for our league.

But I think I’ve finally turned a corner. I can’t say I’m likely to start playing games with randoms on the internet, but I’ve finally reached a point where the game feels more rewarding and less stressful. Maybe that’s from growing skill and familiarity, maybe it’s a shift in mental health and brain weather, or maybe it’s something else. Suffice to say, I do actually enjoy the game these days. I don’t only engage with it as a way of maintaining regular contact with my friends (though that is still something I treasure).

For myself, I’m looking forward to more seasons of Blood Bowl to come. And I can’t wait to see whether the Skraghaven Squigbitas can take down that uppity bunch of varsity kids, the Kronar High Neandertals. I plan to watch, and heckle, and root for my friends this Saturday while we find out what wildly improbable inanity will happen this time.

I think I finally understand what people love about rooting for their teams in real life sports. I won’t say that you should try the game, or that you’d enjoy it, but… you might?

Under the right circumstances, you might.

Tidbits to tide you over

Hello everyone!  This week I’ve set aside time to spend with my brothers, which means lots of role playing games and storytelling and laughter and yelling (also probably more food and booze than usual).  But because of all that, I’m unlikely to have much for you here.  I’m certainly unlikely to have full-scale reviews or such.  I’ll return with the usual stuff by next Monday, no worries.

But while I’m not writing as much about things, here, have a few tidbits!

Dying Light is a fascinating game: it has gameplay that I find fun and engaging, but a story and characterizations which so far repel me.  It is definitely fun playing with other people, running around the zombie apocalypse at high speed, leaping from building to building, and getting lost in the warrens while hungry monsters chase me.  But every time the story progresses, I shudder and feel that ugly cold spot in my belly; why the hell does the POV character have to be a tool?  Why do they have to make the villain choices they do?  Why did they think the misogynist themes would be worth including?  Why do I feel certain that the “strong female character” they’ve created is just going to be damseled within the next few missions?  For that matter, why are there two or three women survivors in the tower, and everyone else there that I meet is male?

As someone who loves and is fascinated by stories, I’ll probably keep watching the story cutscenes all the way through.  But that may just make me angrier and angrier about their writing choices.  It’s a good thing that the cutscenes are skippable and basically won’t matter in the long run.

On the other end of things, we have Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance, which I just finished.  The first time that I picked it up I bounced off the main character’s narration (a first for me with any of Bujold’s books).  But when I started it this time I fell in and couldn’t climb out… which is about what I expect from Bujold at this point.  She really is fabulous.  I’m going to leave my paeans of praise for another post, when I can give this book it’s due, but if you like the other Vorkosigan series books be sure to keep at it with this one, even if the start is a little disorienting.  It’s worth it.

Okay, that’s all for now.  Enjoy yourselves.

Europa Universalis IV: Becoming Leviathan

Leviathan_by_Thomas_Hobbes
Out of many, one.

I wrote a love letter to Crusader Kings 2’s intricate dynastic backstabbing a while ago, and I thought I should let you know about the game’s semi-sequel Europa Universalis 4.  I’ll even toss in a few tidbits about the myriad DLC available for both titles at no additional charge.

First, a brief introduction: Crusader Kings 2 is strategy-as-individual, a fascinating look at the intimately personal nature of politics and power, spanning the years from 1066 CE (867 CE with Old Gods DLC) to 1453 CE.  Europa Universalis 4 follows this with a shift from the myopically personal to the strictly national, covering the years 1444 CE to 1821 CE.  With both games and the appropriate DLC, it’s possible to convert a CK2 save game into an EU4 mod, letting you pick up the reins of your budding nation-state right where your Machiavellian ruler left them.

I loved CK2 from the start, even though it took a long time for me to feel like I could play the game without stumbling over my shoelaces.  Despite having an easier time learning how to play EU4, it took longer for me to really fall into it.  I think it was because the game is simply less personal.  It certainly wasn’t because of the interface, which has only improved.

In my first game of CK2, I was presented with a moderately ugly portrait of a lecherous Irish earl, told that that was me, and told that I really ought to get married.  I lived that earl’s life with gusto, trying (and failing) to better my position in the world, and I still have fond memories of him.  I identified with him, in much the same way that I have since identified with Queen Ximena and several other rulers of mine, and I felt connected.  EU4 simply doesn’t offer that experience, and at first I was dissatisfied.  I didn’t understand why I would want to play this grand strategy game without all the little people desperately trying to grease the wheels of power in order to ease their rise to the top.  I put aside the game and didn’t come back for a few weeks.

I’m still not sure what it was that pulled me back in, but I’m glad it did.  Despite looking so similar to CK2, EU4 is a very different game; it offers you the chance to shape a state as it transitions from the deeply personal politics of feudalism to the larger scale conflicts of colonialism, nationalism, and empire.  It gives you a chance to make Thomas Hobbes proud.

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Sir, You Are Being Alpha’d

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Your merciless foes

Jim Rossignol of Rock Paper Shotgun also runs a game company, called Big Robot.  For one month last year, Big Robot ran a kickstarter project to fund their game Sir, You Are Being Hunted (now available both directly from Big Robot and through Steam).  I backed that project.  This summer, just a few days ago in fact, Big Robot released an alpha of their game to their backers.  Can you see where I’m going with this?  Good.

What follows is a collection of my first impressions of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, a game about traipsing across faux-British countryside in search of important MacGuffins while being mercilessly pursued by a very large number of robots with guns.

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DEFCON: How about a nice game of chess?

DEFCON

Just kidding.  We all know you just want to play Global Thermonuclear War.  Poor Theaterwide Biotoxic and Chemical Warfare never gets any love.  DEFCON, developed by Introversion Software, offers all the Global Thermonuclear War you could ever want.  Its spartan and elegant graphics looks just as appropriate today as they did on release in 2006, with clean glowing lines showing up beautifully on the dark background of the world; Introversion took the design aesthetics of the global tactical displays from various Cold War nuclear war thrillers, and created a game that perfectly delivers their inhuman reductionism.  It is a cold, hard, unfeeling game that leaves you feeling challenged, rewarded, and maybe a little bit broken inside as you watch the megadeaths pile up and desperately hope that you can kill a few more people than you lose.

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Artemis Bridge Simulator Offers Arch Entertainment

Pun aside, this game is not about building bridges.  It is about being on bridges.  Spaceship bridges.  While it can be legitimately panned for its exceedingly high computer requirements (it isn’t demanding about system specs, it demands many systems), this game is a multiplayer gem of excellent quality.  I played it for the first time this weekend, and now…

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Even More Crusader-er Kings: Crusader Kings II

There’s another big expansion coming out for Crusader Kings 2 on the 28th of May.  So on Monday I sat down to bring myself back up to speed with the game and polish up my rusty politicking skills; several hours later, I remembered why it was that I had spent 100+ hours playing the game in the first place.  CK2 is a fascinating look into the convoluted hearts of power-hungry medieval rulers, and in order to succeed you must become one yourself.  I love it.

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