Lok-Tar Ogar, Warrior!
There’s a trend in fantasy that always marks something out as tired, derivative or (in the worst cases) just plain lazy. It’s when you take a perfectly decent and recognisable word and put a bit of extra sauce on it. Because nothing says ‘magical fantasy world’ than an extra syllable or two, or even (god help us) some apostrophes, right?
Wrong. A dragon is a dragon is a dragon. Don’t call it a drachyn or a Tragwrn or whatnot and then pretend you’ve just come up with the entire concept of a fire-breathing, hoarding reptile under the privacy of your own unwashed duvet.
The utter utter worst example of this in the past ten years, in my not particularly humble opinion, was the Star Wars prequel films. The young jedi get referred to as ‘younglings’, not just by the grammar mangle that is Yoda. Other characters do it too. In a film full of dismal dialogue, this was by far and away the worst bit for me. Making up words doesn’t evoke awe in the audience as they praise your linguistic creation of a different time and place. It makes them snigger and roll their eyes. Stop. Go home, shave your face and get a proper job, you overweight bearded loser.
In other news, a review.
Meanwhile, Back at the Farm
Heroes of Steel is a turn-based battling RPG, a genre I am deeply fond of. It particularly evokes a homemade campaign – a group of four heroes must battle the odds, slowly banding together as a team and improving their skills as they escape the dungeons of a cruel tyrant. The tileset is reminiscent of the myriad bits of card I’ve got mouldering away in various boxes round my flat. Even the trap-and-ambush laden dungeons you trek through, hoping to meet up with the resistance, could have come from a DnD starter kit. I’ve GM’d in my time, I know the score. And I can sing along to it quite happily for hours on end.
Calling these dungeons ‘The Underdeep,’ mind you, gets my eyes rolling along with the dice. As does the devs’ use of the words ‘Grim’ and ‘Dark’ on their website’s premiss of their game. And when I discover that Heroes of Steel features a green-skinned warrior race of brutal fighters called Orcin, well, my eyes get natural 20, critical shit.
They’re bloody orcs, okay? You could call them Bluchnch’drng’r and insist on a particular hand gesture to be used whilst saying it. I’d still heave a deep sigh and wonder why you bothered. I’m quite emo that way.
Heroes of Steel looks homemade. If the tiles give me a twinge of nostalgia for my gaming days, it’s the days when I expanded Heroquest myself with stuff I drew on the backs of cornflakes packets. That’s fine for the game; it’s like playing something on Roll20 – perfectly decent and very clear.
The character portraits, well, not so much. It’s like being in a GP’s surgery, looking at a poster that tries to convince kids it’s cool and exciting to be vigilant about scoliosis.
The gameplay is solid. Your four heroes fall into entirely satisfactory roleplaying cliches – sneaky thief, muscle-bound warrior, healy priest and bearded wizard. Each has a well-defined role in combat and a good range of skills to choose between. The fights, of which there are many, have some nice moments, with interesting locations to bash about in and tricky tactical decisions to make.
It’s also got a decent plot. The characters slowly reveal their backstory in cut scenes, and it’s well-crafted and intricate stuff. A lot of time has been spent developing the backdrop for the game. Even if it’s being told by static cutouts, there’s a good, if somewhat over-familiar, story here.
But it’s very slow. What might be good storytelling for, say, an evening of RPG around a table or the opening chapter of a book is leaden when you experience it one line at a time. There’s no interaction beyond clicking to produce the next line of dialogue.
There are plenty of fights. Fine, that’s what the game is good at. But they’re basically just the furniture down long, straight corridors. The dungeon exploration is particularly empty-feeling as a result. Given that it approaches story in the same way as a corridor shooter, forcing you down particular routes for the sake of plot, anything that’s not a fight feels dull.
Your characters might have lots of skills, but you can only have three of them on the screen at once, and none have tooltips to explain them. So you have to open a second screen to choose which ones you want or find out what they do.
This is worst with the thief character, whose exploration skills aren’t much use in combat but are vital for exploring, so I spent a lot of time tediously swapping them back and forth when the inevitable fights broke out. The relentlessly repetitive soundtrack doesn’t help, either.
Even one character death means starting again, either from the last turn or from a nearby checkpoint. Knowing that the characters are all so important to the story that none of them can be allowed to die makes it feel even more like a seaside donkey ride rather than the roller-coaster I’d rather be on.
This is a kickstarted game that’s making the hop from Android App to PC Game. It shows. The UI is clearly designed for smaller screens, and tutorial instructions refer to tapping on buttons rather than clicking. When starting the game up, I have the choice of playing Heroes of Steel in a window or full-screen. Same game, more room to wonder why the interface wasn’t improved.
Lord of the Wrongs
Overall, Heroes of Steel feels like the development focused in the wrong places. Although there’s a complex and thoughtfully designed leveling system underpinning competent tactical combat, playing it just isn’t as fun as you want it to be. It’s a bit tedious, actually. The story might be well told and the backdrop nicely imagined, but it’s also nothing that you haven’t seen hundreds of times before, stacked with over-used tropes and cliches.
There are plenty of other tactical combat games that you could better spend your time and money playing. For about £9 (9€ on Desura), this doesn’t have the flair or fun-factor I’d want to recommend it, so look elsewhere. The Banner Saga, for a recent (if more costly) example. Or Icewind Dale with the settings on auto-pause at the end of turns, for an older one. This might have promise, but doesn’t quite deliver.
- Solid combat
- Well-written story
- Thoughtfully crafted RPG system
- Littered with overused fantasy cliches
- Slow going at best
- UI not well ported to PC
- Graphically weak, especially on a large screen