It might be too early to call Might & Magic: Clash Of Heroes a game of the year contender, but it's certainly the best DS title of the year so far. The last time we clapped eyes on such an unheralded gem was at E3 last year, when Scribblenauts burst out of the ether and charmed everyone to bits. Even then, its cover was immediately blown and it was marked up as a bright flashing blob on the radar. Might & Magic has had no such fanfare.
Its stealthy arrival only serves to amplify its loveliness. The quickest of glances provides all the dungeons and dragons stereotypes and you'd almost be duped into thinking this is yet another Tolkien tribute. Pointy eared forest dwellers recruit dragons, deer, unicorns and even trees, then march into a vaguely defined war against their hitherto peaceful neighbours, before joining forces with them when it turns out they've been tricked into it by the local demons. God, not another fighting fantasy. Didn't you just read the Aragorn's Quest preview already, for goodness' sake?
Stench Of Success
On top of that, it has a very peculiar look. There are two states, a battle mode and the exploration mode. The former looks to be a mess of units and special powers arranged in loose columns on the battlefield, while the latter is all sprites and linear travelling. The characters don't even face the direction they're walking in. But the way to tackle Might & Magic is to shut your eyes, hold your nose and take the plunge.
Imagine those travel programmes where dusty presenters with needlessly expensive neck scarves discover weird and wonderful foods which appear rank but are delicious delicacies. Might & Magic is the durian fruit, whose stink is barf-inducing. Its aroma might put a lot of people off, but its taste is completely at odds with its smell.
As you travel through the land you'll happen upon a variety of battles, and the screen dissolves into the confrontation set-up, as per normal turn-based RPG fare. Your forces are arranged on the touch screen, your enemy's on the top screen. The basic aim is to smash through enemy forces to strike the enemy commander's protected zone - that is, anywhere along an imaginary line behind his troops to reduce his health. All units are arranged in vertical columns, and what you must do is shuffle different coloured ones around until three of them match. When you do this, you allow that combo to charge up, ready to attack the other side.
That's the basic premise. The development team has managed to pull off the clever trick of also adding all kinds of subtle extras to the mix, while still maintaining balance and never overloading you with too much complexity. You can link attacks together by creating multiple columns of the same colour, giving you a bigger punch, and you can fuse attacks by arranging two columns on top of one another for an even bigger attack, though this is dependent on the charge time for each attacking unit. Some take only one turn to reach maximum potency, while larger units can take five or more.
Strategy can be as deep as you want it to be for the early scraps, but as you march on you'll find you need to balance attack with defence, and finely tune your forces so that they contain a blend of fast charging, weaker units and longer, heavier hitting ones. Might & Magic manages to create almost the perfect challenge-reward curve, digging its claws in at just the moment when the ante is upped. Your head will throb but you won't for the life of you be able to put the game down.