You Should Play: Hero Academy

[These days, keeping up with games can be a full-time job. So how do you separate the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff, the Temple Runs from the Temple Jumps? Allow us to help by regularly selecting a game You Should Play.]

I don’t think I’ve ever lost at a game as consistently as I have at Hero Academy.

And yet, despite those manifold defeats, I’ve found myself subject to a strange compulsion: I can’t stop playing.

Why? It’s not as though the game is unique. It’s fantasy-themed and tactical, both genres that are well-represented on iOS. It borrows equally from chess—at which I consistently lost to my dad as a kid—and collectible card games—which I’ve avoided like the plague since an unfortunate high school incident that saw the theft of many of my then prized Magic: The Gathering cards. (Yes, I’m still bitter.)

And yet Hero Academy manages to hit the sweet spot. Facing off with your online opponent (either a stranger or one of your friends) over a battle grid, you attempt to destroy his or her crystals while protecting your own. Each turn you get five actions, each of which lets you place a hero, move one, or make that hero do something like attack a target or heal one of your other heroes.

Strategy enters the picture in deciding how to use your resources: You have a limited number of heroes and items in your “deck,” and each turn you can only pick from a random assortment of six at the bottom of your screen. After your turn’s over, you “draw” more heroes to fill out your “hand.” Each hero has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, and powers—it’s up to you to figure out how to combine them to the best effect.

Will you pump all your power-ups into your ninja and have him make a daring charge for your opponent’s crystal? Or beef up a defensive line of knights to fend off your opponent, hoping that the best offense is a good defense?

As it turns out, these are exactly the kind of tactical decisions that I’m rubbish at.

So what keeps me playing Hero Academy, three months after its launch and having suffered countless harrowing losses? I’ve narrowed it down to a few factors:

Charm: The designs of the characters in the game, their looks and their animations, are not only attractive, but consistent. All of the game’s elements do a great job of establishing a unified feel, tone, and texture. Hero Academy is hardly a game that’s steeped in narrative, but it still manages to convey a hefty helping of flavor.

Expandability: Unlike so many games that lean on in-game purchases for virtual currency or superficial customization, Hero Academy’s additional teams consist of new pieces that both look and act differently from their counterparts. The Dark Elves, Dwarves, and Tribe teams—which joined the Council set that comes included with the game—each have their own theme of play style, complete with unique powers and abilities. The Dwarves love explosives; the Dark Elves can suck life out of their opponents; and so on. Strange as it may seem, I’ve had no hesitation shelling out $2 for each of those teams when they appeared, though I somehow doubt I would have paid the same $6 for the game upfront. It's trying-before-buying at its best.

Quick: Even if you puzzle laboriously over your Hero Academy moves, taking your turn is rarely a matter of more than a minute or two. It seems perfectly timed for a coffee break, or even—and here I speak from experience—while you’re standing in line at the grocery store.

People: I’ve got half a dozen Hero Academy games going on at this very moment, and I’ve played several dozen others in the last few months. Outside of Draw Something, this is probably the most friends I’ve ever engaged with in a single iOS multiplayer game—and Draw Something rapidly fell by the wayside, thanks to a set of mechanics that, while entertaining, turned stagnant fairly quickly. The number of active, ongoing matches I still have in Hero Academy is a testament to the developer’s focus on constantly improving the game and rolling out new options.

Nuanced: There’s more than one way to win a game of Hero Academy. Sure, you’re ostensibly supposed to destroy your opponent’s crystals, but one of my friends has had great success with fighting a war of attrition, killing off my heroes one by one until my last remaining hero is entirely outnumbered. That variety of play styles doesn’t, however, come at the expense of the most import factor…

Fun: Because this is what it all comes down to. Despite the high total in my Loss column, I’ve managed to eke out a few victories here and there, and watching your team boogie after a hard-fought win is guaranteed to make you smile. Simply put, Hero Academy is entertaining—and isn’t that what we all, at the most basic level, want out of a game?

Developer: Robot Entertainment
Platforms: iOS
Price: Free (in-app purchases for additional content)

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