Once upon a time there was an amazing game called ‘Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes’ that showed the world that match-3 RPGs could not only be good, but they could be exceptional. After seeing an original release on the DS it was given the HD makeover treatment in a lush edition for PlayStation 3 and was subsequently ported to iOS, Android and Steam. Sadly, despite being a paragon of the genre, a sequel was never made. Enter King . . .
Addressing the Elephant in the room; yes this is 100% a straight rip off of the gameplay and general aesthetic of Ubisoft’s subliminal match-3 RPG. King has made a fortune out of taking existing ideas and repackaging them as thinly veiled reskins loaded with free to play trappings. It wouldn’t be a hard-sell to paint King as the devil, with them straight-ripping off the original Candy Crush creators and attempting to trademark the word ‘Saga’ and issuing cease and desist orders to other games studios (including the highly respected Banner Saga). The trouble is that Ubisoft haven’t released a follow up to Clash of Heroes of any kind, and as of this month the Android app has also disappeared from the store (presumably replaced by their new Might and Magic mobile title), so the question becomes ‘at what point is somebody else taking this gameplay and doing something with it acceptable?’. Initial plans from King were announced some time ago with screenshots and a limited test release of a science fiction take on the same thing called ‘Stellar: Galaxy Commander’, which honestly looked more promising and separated itself a little more from the original game by having a completely different setting. We’re going to attempt to minimise the damage that comparing Solgard to Clash would have by limiting comparisons to this preamble and the final statement of the review, better allowing players to assess what the game is rather than what it is not.
Graphically, Solgard uses 3D models on a 2D plane that produces a good sense of depth. The character models are well detailed and cartoony in their design, zooming in and out successfully without losing what makes them unique. Sadly, for the most part the designs are fairly unoriginal, aiming for a generic fantasy feel and not really capturing a Nordic vibe. The screen can also look a little packed at times, with the way menus are presented to pop in and out and the amount of characters on screen making things look hectic. There’s a bright and vibrant colour palette on display and a wonderfully designed map that showcases world-enriching details however, and players won’t have any trouble in working out which buttons to press from the outset due to streamlined design.
Music is well orchestrated and manages to carry the Nordic fantasy vibe that the game is aiming for far more successfully than the visual style of the game implies, using subtle instruments and through-lines to create melodies that hold the game together. These can be lost underneath the sheer volume and repetition of the sound effect, which can be non-stop in battle and somewhat reminiscent of the audio for Candy Crush.
Unusually for a hardcore Free to Play title, Solgard does managed to maintain a plot. As a Nordic world is threatened by Ice Giants who are invading through portals to their own homeland, a sentient squirrel uses an ancient artefact to summon the last descendant of the heroes who long since fought in the war of Ragnorok. A young maiden appears and is quickly entrusted with the responsibility of fielding a ragtag army of lower-ranking Nordic monsters against the Ice Giants and their newly-arrived Dragon. Setting the game in a post-ragnarok environment makes for an interesting choice, as by its nature the gods of this world are gone and the player is in unexplored territory, though the game is exceedingly linear by design with occasional dialogue sequences pre-boss to forward events. This isn’t Shakespeare by any means, and much of the writing is of the ‘go here and do this’ kind, but the effort of any kind is appreciated in a field where little to no story is the norm. Don’t expect to see a conclusion of any kind however, as the narrative is open ended enough in its design to never move forward in any significant manner, with defeating each boss simply leading to either their escape or a new boss appearing.
The most solid element of this title is the gameplay, which sensibly is pushed to the forefront. Battles take place on two grids directly opposing each-other and each with their back to a ‘gate’ that has its own HP total. Damage dealt to the gate can be blocked by monsters you field, and reducing a gate to 0HP leads to victory or defeat for its owner. Monsters are scattered randomly across 4 colours/types that can be grouped in threes vertically to create a single strong attacking monster or horizontally to create a wall to block more damage. Grouping in a block of 4 creates a larger variant of the single attack, whilst using L and + shapes have their own effects and bonuses. All attacks have a countdown till they occur, so nothing is immediate and actions can be countered and reacted to. Both sides act in a turn by turn manner and usually battles continue until a victory has been achieved. Kinks in this system take the form of additional monster rules on the opposing side of the battle, such as multiplying ghosts, terrain rules, gates that open and close to block damage and bosses that hop around the playing field. There’s a lot of ways to keep the basic combat fresh and monsters can be upgraded to become more powerful in addition to new variants for each colour being unlocked in a gattcha style. The world map is essentially a single string of events lined up on a path that makes up the campaign mode, dotted with the occasional chest and boss encounter, but there are additional features such as raids on a treasury and challenges to undertake. There are frequent adverts to ‘buy now’ on limited time deals and incentives to rate the game as quickly and often as possible in a standard Freemium manner, as well as an energy system to take into account that limits play. The touch controls work really well on this title and the gameplay style (originally developed around a stylus, then a controller and then a mouse) really feels at home on a touch-screen device.
Overall, Solgard is a generic King title that happens to use the basis of one of the best Match-3 titles ever produced as its foundation. This elevates it significantly over many other efforts in the genre that have been more experimental or reliant on the template set out by ‘Bejewelled’. Don’t approach this game expecting the sheer ‘roleplay’ that was on display in Clash of Heroes however, the games map and campaign is extremely linear and the characters are cardboard cut-outs with little of note to say or do. The campaign is a template to give players a logical reason to progress, and not an attempt to tell an epic story. Freemium elements may also put some off and difficulty spikes designed to make players pay out are frequent, but with the lack of a real sequel to Clash makes this spiritual successor more palatable for those who just want to have more challenges in that style. There are also crashes and problems connecting the game to accounts to save progress that need addressing in the short term. In a nutshell; if you already own Clash of Heroes and want more, download this game. If you don’t purchase that instead, it’s better on every level.