Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders turned out to be one of the most surprisingly successful games of 2004. By successful, we mean that it was a great game--especially compared to the series' mediocre beginning on the PC. The Crusaders wasn't quite a smash hit commercially, but the response from critics and fans must have been encouraging, because now, less than a year later, Phantagram has released a follow-up. Heroes doesn't take any chances with the Kingdom Under Fire formula, but it adds just enough to move the series forward--if only incrementally.
Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes borrows liberally from its predecessor when setting up the story for the latest game. Once again, racial tensions flare between the elves, vampires, orcs, and humans, resulting in widespread and violent conflicts throughout the land of Bersia. Since the Dark Legion was destroyed, humans quickly gained power. Eventually, the dark elves were united under the rule of the half-vampires, and together the newly formed Dark Legion set its sights on eliminating the humans and taking control of Bersia. The story in Heroes is the same kind of thing you'd find in any Tolkien-esque fantasy novel, with all kinds of fantastical beasts, magic, and heroes. Unfortunately, the story here isn't particularly interesting, because it unfolds through a series of poorly voiced and poorly written conversations accompanied by tiny, static character portraits. The story also suffers due to the awful translation in the game. The translation is so bad that talking with folks in the pub is completely useless and the information gathered is more of a joke than an addendum to the story. Even in the scrolling text that sets up the story as you wait for the game to load is full of nonsensical grammatical errors. For instance, you'll learn that one of the tribes in the game is "…engulped in war." And later you'll hear a man complain that he's "…already in war up to this neck." It's funny the first few times you see it, but it can be rather annoying when you're actually trying to make sense of the story.
Fortunately the story takes a backseat to the gameplay in Heroes. This game retains the same magic mix of real-time strategy and frenetic action of The Crusaders, but there are more characters and a few more units this time around. When you start a new game you can choose from seven different campaigns, although four of them are locked at the beginning of the game. You can choose from humans, dark elves, vampires, and orcs. Within each race you can also choose a leader, which functions as your main character throughout the campaign. Most races have one female and one male general, and if you played The Crusaders you'll recognize some of the characters immediately, like Gerald, Ellen, and Rupert. The campaigns each have unique storylines, but since all the events are taking place concurrently, the campaigns are all interlaced throughout the game.
Be warned though, Heroes expects a lot from you when you start playing the game. The only tutorial is a brief couple of tips in the first mission of Ellen's campaign. Aside from that, you're thrown into battle where you'll have to rely on your familiarity with The Crusaders in order to survive. If you didn't play The Crusaders, then you might have a bit of trouble getting the hang of commanding troops, fighting enemies, and using special skills all at the same time. The system isn't too complex, but you do have to pay careful attention to everything that's going on and be able to quickly manage your forces accordingly. You'll control your main unit, plus as many as four other units. All of the battlefield strategy is handled on the minimap, which takes up about a quarter of the screen when you activate it. On this map you can direct forces to move or attack, cast spells, or you can get an idea of the lay of the land. You can't rely too heavily on the map though, since most of it remains hidden beneath the fog of war, which makes it easy to fall victim to ambushes and traps. While managing your troops, you can quickly switch between units with one of the trigger buttons, so you can then issue commands individually.
If your main character's unit becomes engaged in battle, you'll take direct control over the character and be able to hack and slash your way about the battlefield. This is when you really get the feel for just how chaotic battle can be. There are always dozens of characters onscreen battling it out, and you are able to jump right in and start hacking enemies to bits. Or, you can skirt the mob that's looking for the enemy leader with the hopes of taking out an entire unit with a targeted attack on an officer. Your character has a quick strike and a strong strike, and they can be strung together to form combos. You can also attack enemies while they are on the ground, or you can call on one of your officers to activate a special ability. The battle system is fairly basic, and you can pretty much just hop into the middle of a mob and go to town if you want to. The best part is just the sense of frenzy you get from seeing so many enemies fighting at once. You'll see elves shooting fire arrows at groups of enemies, cavalry running down infantry, paladins casting healing magic, and Wyverns circling overhead and dropping poison on troops below. You'll often see all this stuff happening at the same time.
When you aren't caught up in the awesome and violent chaos of battle, you can customize your troops for future battles. As you fight, you earn gold and experience points. While at a base, you can spend the experience points to level up your officers. As the officers level up certain skills, their troops will become stronger in those same skills. When you meet specific level and skill requirements, you can change the job of your troop. For example, as you level up in melee, you can upgrade your infantry to heavy infantry or cavalry. Each race has different jobs, and some have more than others. However, they are all fairly well balanced, and it's great to be able to adapt your strategy based on what types of units you have at your disposal. There are dozens of different unit types available, from bone dragons and scorpions to ghouls and mortars. There are also four new elemental units: ice maidens, earth golems, thunder rhinos, and flame wraiths. It takes a bit of work to create one of these, but if you put in the time you'll find out that each of these units is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. After allocating experience points, you can also spend your gold to outfit your troops with weapons, armor, and secondary items such as other weapons or shields. You can also spend gold to hire mercenaries and create new units. The customization system is actually easy to use and it's a lot of fun to build your army to fit your battle strategy.
If you've played The Crusaders, then you'll quickly recognize that most of what makes this game so much fun is taken directly from The Crusaders. In fact, some of the missions in Heroes are almost identical to ones you've already played in the previous game. However, the biggest improvement in Heroes is the online play via Xbox Live. You can now take the battle online with up to six players. You can have a free-for-all battle or you can team up and take to the battlefield and test your strategy against other players. You also earn experience as you fight online, which you can then use to level up your online-specific units. There are several battlefields to choose from, but they aren't quite as complex or detailed as most of the battlefields in the single-player missions. We also noticed a bit of lag when playing online with six players, but if you have a good Internet connection you shouldn't have much of a problem. One minor problem with the multiplayer is that between battles your troop arrangements reset, so you have to reconfigure your troops between each match. If you forget, you'll end up in battle with only one unit, and you'll likely get slaughtered.
Heroes looks about the same as the previous game in the series. All of the characters are detailed and they animate fairly well in battle. While the units usually move in a set formation, in battle you'll see that each character will act individually. And even with dozens of characters onscreen at once, you'll only notice a slight drop in frame rate. The battlefields are all huge and they're filled with hills, forests, and rivers. You can't really see much of the battlefield, though, since everything is covered by a thick fog. It would be nice to be able to look off into the distance to spot an oncoming attack, but that isn't really possible here. Whether it's a limitation of the game or a representation of the fog of war, the persistent haze does detract from the visual experience on the battlefield. The camera is also a bit uncooperative at times. You can control the camera with the right analog stick, but it's often difficult to get a clear look at what's going on around the battlefield because the camera is usually focused too closely on your troops.
The sound hasn't changed much either. The same hardcore metal guitars and relentless drums pound away at your ears throughout each battle. How much you enjoy the music depends entirely on your musical tastes. If you're looking for a cinematic orchestral score to accompany your large-scale battles, you won't find it here. The sound effects are well done, with plenty of battle noise like clashing weapons, heavy explosions, and all kinds of grunts and war cries. The voices in the game are the weakest point in the audio of Heroes. The dialogue is delivered in flat, unemotional tones, and the constant and repetitive onfield commands of your officers will make you want to mute the voices, which thankfully you can do in the audio options. You can also opt to listen to the original Korean voice track, which is a much better option even if you don't know the language because all of the dialogue is subtitled anyway.
Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes isn't much different than The Crusaders. That's to be expected, though, since Heroes was released less than a year after the previous game. Basically Heroes keeps the same solid gameplay and adds just a little bit more in the form of new campaigns and improved online features. Although Heroes feels only slightly improved over the last game, its new features are more than enough reason to play.