Book of Heroes is a new wave of RPGs that have been coining the term ‘Social RPGs’. Essentially they are MMOs that function in a manner similarly to Facebook in that they are a single player experience that can be enjoyed and evolved with the addition of friends without having to form parties and being stuck out in the cold for content like a traditional MMO if you can’t get a group together. They’re lighter fare than most RPGs and have less of a focus on story, but dilute the fighting, questing, leveling and world saving down into a comfortably fun package that you can play casually. That’s not a dirty word by the way, casual gamers make up a huge portion of the market now and RPGs fit in wonderfully to that gimmick of pick up and put down gaming because the grind lends itself to exactly that kind of play.
Book of Heroes (BoH) is a free to play game from a group called Venan, and I don’t think they’ve made any other games before or since this one from what I could find out about them. They’ve struck gold on their first attempt if that is the case though because BoH is by far one of the best social attempts at diluting something as complex as an MMORPG into a handheld device I’ve seen. In truth I installed the game on my 3Gs when I first went looking through the iStore years ago, played it for an hour and deleted it because I’d discovered the ports of Shining Force and Phantasy Star. I shouldn’t have done that however because I re-installed it last week on a whim for a bit of fun and haven’t put it down since. Since then I’ve co-opted some of my friends into a Guild and we’ve all been casually playing together.
Visually it’s like nothing else I’ve seen on a mobile device, a halfway house between the faux-card game that many RPGs seem to be trying to go for on mobile devices and the first person styling of Eye of the Beholder. Art is cartoony but in a western sense rather than looking like a Manga, and everything is illustrated in game no matter how small. The whole thing has a professional polish I’ve not experienced in a free to play title of this kind with minimal loading screens and menus that are easy and intuitive to use. Bearing in mind that this was produced when touch screen games were a new thing, and many studios floundered with how to make them work, Venan have managed to craft something special that holds its own against many of the indy titles being pushed out today.
Sound and Music fare just as well, the title screen has a rousing theme that sets the heroic tone of the game perfectly and adds overtones of epic quality before fading into a background drumming that doesn’t make you cringe for interrupting those around you because the sound is on. The maps you explore have a quaint little theme that is peaceful and feels relaxed, though it later hints at tension. Battles (and the large part of the game is spent in battles) have a fast paced theme that implies an urgency in the player that turn based casual games usually lack. Sound is less successful though, with some dull clicks for menus and underwhelming attack noises. I like my sword slashes to sound deadly, not fall limp and be drowned out by the music.
Combat is the games strongest feature, with each of the three classes (warrior, rogue and mage under in-game names) available being radically different to play as. Its turn based with real-time countdowns between attacks triggering, slightly similar in nature to the system seen in Grandia, allowing for tension and speed to make a difference. Special attacks fall into multiple categories and include single to multiple targets with lasting or timed effects after they have been fired. Stacking effects or multi-casting to lengthen timers is also possible. Weapons and armour equipped change up your attack power as does a number of other factors, but the management of foes and their own methods of attack makes the whole system quite addictive.
Traditionally the game works in a basic flow. Receive a quest in town, leave town for the overworld and select a location to visit. Battle a series of enemies until you have cleared the dungeon (in steps based on waves of enemies), slain a particular foe who can turn up at any time in that area, gathered resources from kills or slain enough of a racial type. Return to town and cash in the quest for money and experience. You can have many quests on the go at one time and locations are varied, as are the monsters you will face. Quests have story framework but you can ignore that if you so choose.
Leveling a character means they can equip better gear and get more HP to play around with, but you will need to spend Hero Points in multiple areas to fully customize your avatar, these include Melee, Critical and Magic Resistance, etc. Anything your character wears appears on them in-game and each slot for equipment can be added to by slotting in runes for bonus stats. All in all quite a package that would give Bioware’s Dragon Age a run for its money in terms of flexibility between different builds. There’s the capacity to make Guilds with friends and share in-game real-time chat whilst going on raids together that function as everybody collecting independently toward paying off a bigger quest with bigger rewards. Clans can also gather items in their downtime which add up to bonuses for the whole clan, such as ‘building a medical caravan’ that adds a communal +5%HP total to all members. A PVP arena is also available with its own rewards scheme and tiered fights against other players in real-time all over the world.
So on to the ‘free’ aspect of the game. For many what I am about to say is a downer that could make or break the game for them so listen closely. I haven’t spent a penny on it. You get 12 points of free energy each day to spend on doing quests and 12 points to spend in the arena for PVP, once used up they refill at a generous rate that encourages a slower style of play. HP also heals slowly over time but you can use in-game cash to immediately heal yourself if you wish. There are gold shields that are very rare to see dropped but are not essential, these can be used to buy limited time items in the store that are themed or particularly good but do not impact on the PVP arena by breaking it. Overall its a fair and balanced system that plays into the social aspect of the game and the casual slow pace it inspires.
In summary this is a fine social game to have tucked away on your phone. It doesn’t need a Venan account to play, but they are free and allow you additional character slots and the added benefit of uploading your character to a server for switching between phones and different devices. It also needs to be online, which means you can’t really play it anywhere you aren’t connected to the internet – a pet peeve of mine but not a deal breaker. If you like RPGs and don’t want the hassle of going into a full blown MMORPG for the social experience try Book of Heroes, it might just impress you.