Fusions of Match-3 mechanics and RPGs have been a prevalent sub-genre since ‘Puzzle Quest’ first thought to do it, and the mobile market has been swarmed with a multitude of similar games. Some, such as ‘Spellfall’ play it straight but do so with a degree of polish that makes them stand out, whilst titles such as ‘Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes’ have developed their own very unique takes on the formula. Hero Emblems is similar to what the ‘Dragon Quest’ franchise might have produced.
Sticking rigidly to the match-3 mechanics of games such as ‘Bejewelled’, but playing more heavily into the JRPG aspects of the games design, Heat Pot Games have produced a level of quality rarely seen in this sub-genre. It may be too rigidly conventional in its make-up for some players to fully enjoy, with balancing of difficulty between matches sometimes dependant on luck of icon placement, but players of games such as ‘Dragon Quest’, which has maintained traditional JRPG mechanics into the very latest iterations, will feel that this only adds to its charm.
Graphically the game is beautiful, with 2D illustrations in place of pixel art and multiple layers of parallax scrolling that adds a depth to the environments. The screen is usually split neatly into two halves, with the top half showing the party and what’s happening to them whilst the bottom half shows the icon grid for playing or dialogue in story sequences. The games map takes up the full screen with a handy wondering image of the party at the bottom that transition seamlessly to the top half of the screen when a location is selected. Graphical polish is certainly a selling point for the game and its use of a streamlined, Chibi art style plays to that strength. Character designs are fairly generic (Wizards, witches and knights all looking like you’d expect) but the simplicity of everything feeds into a storybook-like setting.
Music uses synth to good effect, aiming for an ‘Ocarina of Time’ feel that it manages to pull off with some success and feed into the good-natured feel that the setting uses. These loop after a fairly short period of time or fade to silence, in the case of the title screen doing both. Whilst not every button press illicits a sound effect, those that are used for the menu system are marginally out of time, often occurring a fraction of a second after you’ve touched a button. Sound on the whole is a little uninspired, with some fairly weak sounding effects in battle that serve to undermine the otherwise pacy violin and drum based battle theme, though the victory fanfare feel like something straight out of a ‘Tales’ game and is nicely played.
The games narrative is unusually strong for this genre and sees four friends, Howard (the knight), Alston (the Paladin), Else (the Witch) and Trista (the Healer) earning a position within the royal palace as guardians for the princess. She’s an adventurous sort and her father has agreed that she can explore the kingdom in the company of a squad of heroes such as these. After a period of getting used to their roles the princess is suddenly nabbed by a strange red demon and it’s up to the four of them to run around trying to rescue her with the aid of their mentor. Getting her back entails accidentally releasing a part of a sealed god’s power that has been separated into many small pieces and the adventure escalates from there. Whilst the over-arching plot is clichéd, it’s written with a great deal of wit and just the right amount of inter-character banter to make the story enjoyable and enough to drive the game on when some elements of gameplay become repetitive.
Gameplay is less inspired than it could be, with map-based world exploration between dots on a map being broken up by lengthy dungeon segments and random encounters that can range from a stack of three battles all the way into the twenties should you take a wrong turn inside a dungeon. Dungeons serve as plot points and usually include bosses and narrative sequences, making them a highlight, though moments when you have to choose a route can be tricky as often a wrong choice will see you fighting overpowered monsters for your level or having to circle around and try it again once you’ve fought an additional three battles. The dungeons are a satisfying element however, as is the ability to stumble into random smaller battles on the map, preventing you from having to take on longer play sessions if you just want something to do on the fly. Combat itself sees each of the four characters tied to a different icon (or Emblem as the game refers to them, explaining the title neatly) and matching three of these will cause that player to use their standard move. For the knight this is a physical attack, the mage a spell, the paladin boosts your defence (which acts as a damage buffer for your health) and the healer restoring lost HP. Matching 4 icons does the same but leaves behind a little glowing version that boosts attack power, and boosting by five or more creates a special emblem that can be paired with any other single icon to trigger a master attack of that type for devastating effect. At least in theory, as many monsters are immune to physical or magical attacks, meaning that a mixed group hit by one of these blows may still have several monsters left standing. Monsters count down moves till their attacks and hit hard, making preparation and/or attention important. A nice touch however sees chests drop keys onto the map that must make it to the bottom of the screen in a set number of turns to earn items as a reward, and the fact that having full defence means that the paladin attacks instead leaves you feeling like he’s useful at all times. Outside of battles you can buy items to use in the fight for healing, etc and equipment for heroes from towns. Health is fully restored after each battle, severing the need for inns completely. Sadly there are no NPCs or optional dialogue sequences to flesh out more story.
Overall, Hero Emblems is a well-crafted title that does things very much by the book in terms of its gameplay, offering up no real surprises but supporting that with luscious graphics and a fun story that will keep you entertained. The balance for battles can be slightly out of sync with the party’s level at times and the games difficulty curve is a little steep, which may be off-putting to newcomers to the genre, but otherwise there are hours of solid DLC free play time here.