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With only one month to go before the end of 2009, Ubisoft unleashed an A-list title sure to be remembered as one of the top DS games of the year…if enough people play it. Despite a heavy load of varied challenges, great characters and unreasonably addictive battles, Clash of Heroes may suffer more than it gains from its franchise prefix, Might and Magic. Unlike the title suggests, you don’t have to be familiar with Might and Magic’s lore. Heck, you don’t even have to be a fan. You can hate it, love it or know nothing about it, and still fully enjoy this unique tactical RPG.

After a tragic introduction, the game tosses you into the role of Anwen, an Elvin hunter and one of the five orphaned heroes you’ll play throughout the game. As each of these young heroes, you can pick up sidequests, purchase troops and wander about from one designated node to another in order to collect resources that, well, buy you more troops. And believe me, you will need more troops. They have an uncanny way of dying.

Then again, how many of your troops perish is all up to you and your whit. As commander, you direct a range of soldiers, all stacked into even rows and eagerly awaiting their inevitable deaths on the touch screen. Since the battles are turn based, you have three moves to manipulate your guys, using the stylus or the D-pad – your choice.

You can think of the battles as deadlier versions of Red Rover. Troops are not only attackers but also the main line of defense. If the enemy breaks through your troop’s defense, your HP suffers. To make sure that doesn’t happen, you command three types of soldiers that willingly stand in the way of you and certain death.

First, you’ve got the Core units. Each hero receives different types of Core units with varied abilities, but they’re all pretty much the same. They’re pawns, cannon fodder to block the way of oncoming troops or squeeze that last hit point out of your foe. Your goal is to stack them into a column of three of the same color, charging an attack. After one to three turns, they’ll plow forward into enemy lines, either dying on impact or breaking through and tackling the enemy commander’s HP. You can also squish ’em into a row of three or more, rather than a column, creating a nice wall of defense. Of course, the enemy can and will do the same.

Then there are Elite and Champion units, purchasable at their particular Unit Dwellings or given to you as you play the game. These guys are badass in combat, but hard to use. To charge an Elite unit, you place two Core soldiers behind him. Champions require four. But unlike the Core units, their abilities greatly differ and can seriously turn the tides of a battle. Say you’re playing as Fiona, a dead human noble whose fall into the necromancer’s world turns her into a not-so-dead-but-kinda ghost. Her Death Knights wield a mighty blow after six turns while her Dragons, which take one less turn, deal extra damage for every idle enemy they chew up along the way to the other side.

Of course, merely moving and stacking troops, no matter what awesome abilities they may have, would be downright boring. But, as commander, you’ve got a few tricks up your sleeve. For one, you can remove a unit, getting rid of that obnoxious blue guy smack in the middle of three perfectly stacked greens. You can also align like-colored troops to charge and attack at the same time, causing a link and increasing the damage dealt. So pretend you have a green Deer that takes four turns to attack. Diddle about for two turns with your other troops and then stack together three green archers, a unit that only charges for two turns. Viola, a link! You can also double up a charged unit, stuffing three of the same colored soldier behind another three. Viola, a fusion! This increases the troop’s defense and strength.

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Now imagine you place a unit so that he completes not only a column, but also a row of three. With one move, you’ve created a wall and a charged attack. Even better, the game grants you an extra move, giving you four total instead of three. But it’s not over yet! You can equip handy artifacts that grant you special abilities, often saving your hide.

The gameplay may seem daunting, but rest be assured: You’ll get the hang of it and then you’ll never put down your DS. Ever. To test your skill, you can participate in Battle Puzzles along your journey, perhaps the best and most frustrating part of the game. Each puzzle, you have three moves to kill every enemy planted on the other screen, using links, fusions and everything else you’ve learned.

Most likely, the game itself won’t be enough of a challenge. Don’t get me wrong. Many of the battles are hard, especially the side quests. But the enemy seems to make mistakes that a human wouldn’t, mostly when it comes to defense. Several times, when I had an attack lined up, ready to blast off in one turn and completely wipe out the rest of the baddie’s HP, my virtual opponent wouldn’t attempt to block, even when he could have easily avoided defeat. You may even begin to predict the enemy’s strategy. Thankfully, there’s multiplayer. Just convince your buddies to get the game and you’ll sit around, noses plastered to the screen, battling away the hours until dawn. Your friends will thank you.

As the first installation in what Ubisoft promises to make a series, this game is a great start. On top of some awesomely challenging battles and hours of gameplay, Clash of Heroes even has a unique story wrought with tragedy, betrayal and demon-on-demon slaying. Great art, decent music and a good cast of characters certainly help too. On the other hand, playable content beyond hours and hours of battles would have been nice. And yet, any game that doesn’t make me use the stylus is good in my book.

Bottom Line: Without the elves and demons, you could easily mistake this title for another puzzle game. But whatever you choose to call it, Clash of Heroes ought to be remembered as one of the year’s top titles for the DS.

Recommendation: If tactics, puzzles and complex battle systems don’t sound like your cup of tea, then this series probably isn’t yours either. At the same time, I have a very difficult time admitting that this game may not be for everyone. It’s a sleeper-hit and you should get it, plain and simple.

Meghan Watt thinks Red Rover is a good way to dislocate shoulders. The DS is a much safer route.

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