In the market for a humorous turn-based strategy game but don’t own Windows 8? Then Skulls of the Shogun isn’t for you, excellent as it otherwise is. A more Windows-agnostic take on That Sort Of Thing is Highborn, a fantasy battle game from the co-creator of Command & Conquer. I’ve just spent the day with it. But not the night, of course. Not on a first date.
Highborn got briefly passed around the RPS team like a two gigabyte hot potato, all of us deeply suspicious of it due to describing itself as “wacky” with impunity. It even says “wacky” twice in its official summary, though at least it doesn’t go Full Zany. Unfortunately it is indeed wacky, hurling terrible jokes at a rate of twenty-five million per second, as though someone’s combined every RPS comments pun thread ever into one agonising assault on language. Some of you may think that’s a positive, but frankly all things in moderation. There are actually a few decent gags in there, but they’re drowned out by stuff presumably stolen from a box of Christmas Crackers from the 1970s.
To its partial credit, it’s self-aware, regularly having a good old kick against the fourth wall to complain about heroes who exposit too much and having to click through endless dialogue boxes. And then does those things anyway, because it thinks acknowledging how irritating it is buys it a free pass to be irritating. Survey says no. Thank the lord that this is contained to text, because were it voiced it would be nightmarish. Or at least uncomfortably like Impire.
Anyway, I just clicked through that unrestrained nonsense as quickly as could, and got on with the game. Which isn’t a bad game at all. I mean, it’s basically Warcraft III as a turn-based game in terms of visual style and unit types, but let’s not kid ourselves that Blizzard invented fantasy warfare. A purely singleplayer game, it’s a series of carefully-arranged and usually large maps in which your primarily human side, the titular Highborn, faces off against the undeady Decay, encountering werewolves, dragons, death-worms and the Lich King or (whatever they’ve renamed him to) en route.
I think the aspect of Highborn I dig the most is that each level starts off looking near-impossible, because there are enemies everywhere but you’ve got about three guys to somehow walk along the threat-packed roads. However, it’s carefully arranged so that you gradually accrue a surprising substantial amount of reinforcements as you painstakingly capture forts, towers and temples. Capturing a building grants you one extra unit (of a pre-ordained type), which if killed will be replaced two turns later, so it’s not a matter of knowing that if you grab structure x you can spam as many of unit y as you like. Instead, your army gradually grows as you move across and conquer the map, and all of sudden you’ll reach a tipping point where matters seem the very opposite of impossible. Then you charge at whatever the map’s boss is and give him what-for with joy in your heart.
You’ll invariably succeed. Highborn is one of those games that positively wants you to emerge victorious because it’ll make you feel good – which isn’t quite the same thing as being too easy. It isn’t too easy, as it requires strategy and patience, but it’s certainly not big on punishing errors.
The main thrust of the strategy is understanding what different unit types do, what’s most likely to kill or be killed by them, and which are most expendable. For instance, you can regenerate the pitchfork-clutching militia quickly enough if your fortress doesn’t get swiped, but if one of the cannonball-lobbing, vaguely Da Vinci-esque Fliers is gone, it’s gone. Thus, you need to take a guesstimate on likely damage in a fight, as every attacked unit gets a revenge attack unless it’s killed outright. Burning a militia on causing some initial damage so that a Flier or Wizard or Hero can finish the foe off safely is a smart thing to do.
Highborn’s a lot like a flabbier, infinitely less amusing Skulls of the Shogun. It’s lacking the neatness and focus, and most of the time levels wrap up by simply throwing everything you’ve got at a high-hitpoint boss rather than picking who does what, from what angle and where they go to afterwards with extreme caution, but like SotS it’s strategy streamlined without actually ditching the strategy. Particularly, capturing buildings without getting wiped out requires some careful thinking, as they’ll pummel you with arrows or fireballs as you do. Worse, attack an enemy who’s standing near one of their buildings and the structure will lend its attack to theirs. This turns in your favour too – capture a few adjacent buildings, then kite enemies over to them and you’re laughing.
Finding out that Highborn’s developer Jet Set Games is headed up by Brett Sperry, co-founded of Westood, made an awful lot of sense – this game finds a very similar sweetspot between challenge and gratification to the early Command and Conquers. Good to see that his strategy mojo hasn’t left him.
In terms of its phone origins, I probably wouldn’t have guessed if I hadn’t know. The interface works just fine, it scales up to silly resolutions quite happily and it’s got anti-aliasing options. Nothing to write home about (though I’d love to see the look on my mum’s face if she did receive a letter about V-sync and texture quality) but fine, standard. The game’s not much of a looker on a technical level, but it’ll pass muster and it’s got some character. What is a problem is a strange slowdown effect which, on my PC, sees the framerate drop to under 20 after a period of play, which can only be rectified by restarting my bally PC. It might well just be me, but it drove me spare and because I’ve got no-one else to moan at about it right now, you’ll jolly well have to put up with my griping.
That and the – aargh- wackiness aside, I had a pretty good time with Highborn. It’s totally throwaway but it knows it, and doesn’t use it as an excuse to avoid being finely-balanced, and the upshot is a semi-casual hybrid of Advance Wars and Heroes of Might & Magic which comes together with solid confidence. Let’s hope it isn’t successful enough to warrant a sequel, because you just know they’d decide to make it fully-voiced and then I’d have to kill myself.
Highborn is out now.