Developer: Robot Entertainment
If you own an iThing and enjoy turn-based strategy, you should go download Hero Academy from the App Store. Heck, you probably already have. A team of ex-Ensemble Studios veterans delivered an addictive, approachable and nefariously deep multiplayer tactics game on the iPhone and iPad, packing the convenient asynchronous play-by-mail functionality of Words With Friends and Draw Something. Better yet, it's totally free to download - with adverts that can be removed by buying any of the IAPs. Hero Academy was a financial and critical success for Robot Entertainment when it released early this year, and after a short delay, it's now available on Steam.
We already know that Hero Academy is good. That cannot be denied. But a much more interesting question remains: is it worth buying on PC... or buying again? Basically, who's it for?
In case you're unaware of the premise, let's briefly review the basics. Hero Academy is a multiplayer-only asynchronous turn-based strategy game, designed so that you can conduct multiple battles at the same time and take your turns at your earliest convenience. After challenging a friend or searching for a random opponent, you'll deploy units onto a small rectangular grid, and proceed to move and attack using a limited number of action points. Win conditions include either wiping out the enemy team or destroying their crystal, leading a range of different tactical options. Thanks to a range of different unit skills and the ability to resurrect fallen allies unless they're stomped out of action, the relatively short matches (typically 10-20 turns) are unpredictable and ferociously varied by App Store standards. Plus, you can play it whenever you get a spare minute, with your completed turn forwarded to the opposing player. It's an engaging evolution of the ancient play-by-mail concept, and despite many players becoming bored after a few rounds, most tend to dip into it on an infrequent basis.
A finely-balanced roster of teams and units brings the depth. The default Council team rounds up traditional fantasy conventions into a straightforward mix of damage-dealers, archers, magicians and support units, who are equally adept at taking down enemies, assaulting crystals or falling back into defensive roles. More aggressive players will likely favour the Dark Elves, who excel at assassinating opposing units, while Dwarves favour defence or crystal assaults. Choosing the perfect team to complement your play style, then picking the right units and using them effectively, allows this deceptively simple game to absolutely shine from a strategic standpoint, providing the perfect framework for many dozens of unique, fraught engagements. Though the Council team is free for all players on all platforms, you'll have to fork out for the others, setting you back £11.99 in total.
The Steam version isn't free to download, but it does attempt to justify its inexpensive asking price. It essentially acts as a client that syncs your existing player profile along with any purchases, allowing you to continue your matches against players across both platforms - thus providing a massive player base at launch. The client itself is breezy and easy to use, the cross-platform multiplayer works well and the battle interface remains broadly unchanged. In terms of extra content, you'll receive a new Team Fortress 2 team, whose dynamic specialisations make for a versatile and flexible force. The Spy, for example, can cloak himself, while the Demoman dishes out explosive AoE grenades. Their team bonus allows players to get an extra action point by stomping on downed enemies, which will extend your turns through careful positioning and timing. All in all, they're a powerful new addition to the formula, but not unbeatable by any stretch of the imagination. You'll also get 7 Council avatars, 18 TF2 team 2 avatars and a natty piece of headgear for Team Fortress 2 into the bargain.
A note on pricing: it's worth bearing in mind that teams are cheaper to download via the iOS version, so since the Steam version syncs your purchases, canny cross-platform players will want to hit up the IAPs unless they desperately want a few (fairly useless) avatars.
Right. We've established that Hero Academy is well worth playing. To be honest, we established that in the first paragraph and I've taken an obnoxiously circuitous route to this point, but the question still remains: should you buy it on Steam?
If you're already a fan of Hero Academy on the iPhone and don't own an iPad, this will suit you down to the ground. Not only will you net a new team, but playing it on PC is a lot more comfortable than on a handset, especially when it comes to chatting to other players (a virtual keypad is no substitute for the real deal). Being able to enjoy Hero Academy on the iPhone during the daily commute and then continuing your battles via the PC client is a natural evolution of the gameplay experience, and one that thoughtfully slots the experience into your daily life.
Should you have an iPad, however, the decision is much more difficult. The tablet's whopping screen and touch gestures makes light work of the gameplay, so coupled with the cheaper cost of IAPs, free download and a sweet spot between portability and screen size, this Steam version becomes fairly redundant. The iPad is definitely the Hero Academy platform of choice, hands-down, and doubling up becomes a fairly unattractive proposition. If you have the choice, buy on iPad - or just try out the free base version and see where it leads.
But what if you don't already own Hero Academy? When stacked up against other PC games, what excelled as an app in a predominantly casual-centric ecosystem can feel more than a little limp and limited. The small maps and team sizes pale in comparison to any number of PC strategy games, from RTS games to turn-based grand strategy titles, and the asynchronous multiplayer proves to be infinitely less satisfying than a full-fat round of the likes of Shogun 2 or Crusader Kings. Frozen Synapse, which released last year, already delivers a much more fully-featured take on the concept, providing a thriving social network and even eSports functionality on top of its play-by-mail setup. There are vastly superior offerings available on the home of strategy games, the majority of which deliver more depth, flexibility and thrills alongside a steep learning curve.
The lack of which, of course, makes Hero Academy a great gateway game: an easy-to-learn and accessible first step into the world of turn-based strategy. What is often a notoriously impenetrable and intimidating beast for newcomers becomes simple, streamlined and easy to relate to. The comparison to Shogun 2 and its ilk was unfair, perhaps, since instead of locking into countless hours of continued play, you'll dip into the experience every now and again to arrange new turns or seek out new foes. It's very much an accompaniment to your core gaming life; a strategy snack if that complements your existing game diet.
Before long, you'll learn transferable skills to take into any number of deeper games, and many players will find themselves itching to try something new. Perhaps it will lead you into X-COM, Tactics Ogre, Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics? Maybe you'll discover a love for grand strategy, or delve into the cut-throat world of Frozen Synapse? Veterans may scoff, but Hero Academy fulfils an undeniably important niche, and will doubtlessly inform the next generation of armchair generals.
- Cross-platform multiplayer, synced iOS purchases
- Easy to learn, hard to master
- Convenient play-by-mail setup
- Outgunned by most PC strategy games (both downloadable and retail) in terms of depth and scope
- Fairly pointless for iPad owners
- DLC cheaper on iOS, with free base version download
The Short Version: Hero Academy's Steam version acts as a streamlined and friendly gateway into the turn-based strategy genre, providing convenient and dynamic multiplayer match-ups despite failing to provide the same 'wow' factor that it did on iOS. It's a tasty strategy snack that's best enjoyed alongside your full-fat gaming diet.
If you already own Hero Academy on iPhone, you'll have found yourself a neat new way to play... but iPad owners will will have little reason to invest.
Note that this review and score pertains specifically to the PC version.