Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders turned out to be one of the most surprisingly successful games of 2004. By successful, we mean that it was a great game--especially compared to the series' mediocre beginning on the PC. The Crusaders wasn't quite a smash hit commercially, but the response from critics and fans must have been encouraging, because now, less than a year later, Phantagram has released a follow-up. Heroes doesn't take any chances with the Kingdom Under Fire formula, but it adds just enough to move the series forward--if only incrementally.
Heroes lets you test your battle strategy in seven different campaigns.
Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes borrows liberally from its predecessor when setting up the story for the latest game. Once again, racial tensions flare between the elves, vampires, orcs, and humans, resulting in widespread and violent conflicts throughout the land of Bersia. Since the Dark Legion was destroyed, humans quickly gained power. Eventually, the dark elves were united under the rule of the half-vampires, and together the newly formed Dark Legion set its sights on eliminating the humans and taking control of Bersia. The story in Heroes is the same kind of thing you'd find in any Tolkien-esque fantasy novel, with all kinds of fantastical beasts, magic, and heroes. Unfortunately, the story here isn't particularly interesting, because it unfolds through a series of poorly voiced and poorly written conversations accompanied by tiny, static character portraits. The story also suffers due to the awful translation in the game. The translation is so bad that talking with folks in the pub is completely useless and the information gathered is more of a joke than an addendum to the story. Even in the scrolling text that sets up the story as you wait for the game to load is full of nonsensical grammatical errors. For instance, you'll learn that one of the tribes in the game is "...engulped in war." And later you'll hear a man complain that he's "...already in war up to this neck." It's funny the first few times you see it, but it can be rather annoying when you're actually trying to make sense of the story.
Fortunately the story takes a backseat to the gameplay in Heroes. This game retains the same magic mix of real-time strategy and frenetic action of The Crusaders, but there are more characters and a few more units this time around. When you start a new game you can choose from seven different campaigns, although four of them are locked at the beginning of the game. You can choose from humans, dark elves, vampires, and orcs. Within each race you can also choose a leader, which functions as your main character throughout the campaign. Most races have one female and one male general, and if you played The Crusaders you'll recognize some of the characters immediately, like Gerald, Ellen, and Rupert. The campaigns each have unique storylines, but since all the events are taking place concurrently, the campaigns are all interlaced throughout the game.
Heroes retains the same careful balance of frenetic action and intelligent strategy that made The Crusaders great.
Be warned though, Heroes expects a lot from you when you start playing the game. The only tutorial is a brief couple of tips in the first mission of Ellen's campaign. Aside from that, you're thrown into battle where you'll have to rely on your familiarity with The Crusaders in order to survive. If you didn't play The Crusaders, then you might have a bit of trouble getting the hang of commanding troops, fighting enemies, and using special skills all at the same time. The system isn't too complex, but you do have to pay careful attention to everything that's going on and be able to quickly manage your forces accordingly. You'll control your main unit, plus as many as four other units. All of the battlefield strategy is handled on the minimap, which takes up about a quarter of the screen when you activate it. On this map you can direct forces to move or attack, cast spells, or you can get an idea of the lay of the land. You can't rely too heavily on the map though, since most of it remains hidden beneath the fog of war, which makes it easy to fall victim to ambushes and traps. While managing your troops, you can quickly switch between units with one of the trigger buttons, so you can then issue commands individually.
If your main character's unit becomes engaged in battle, you'll take direct control over the character and be able to hack and slash your way about the battlefield. This is when you really get the feel for just how chaotic battle can be. There are always dozens of characters onscreen battling it out, and you are able to jump right in and start hacking enemies to bits. Or, you can skirt the mob that's looking for the enemy leader with the hopes of taking out an entire unit with a targeted attack on an officer. Your character has a quick strike and a strong strike, and they can be strung together to form combos. You can also attack enemies while they are on the ground, or you can call on one of your officers to activate a special ability. The battle system is fairly basic, and you can pretty much just hop into the middle of a mob and go to town if you want to. The best part is just the sense of frenzy you get from seeing so many enemies fighting at once. You'll see elves shooting fire arrows at groups of enemies, cavalry running down infantry, paladins casting healing magic, and Wyverns circling overhead and dropping poison on troops below. You'll often see all this stuff happening at the same time.