From the player’s perspective, five moves per turn are never quite enough in Robot Entertainment’s turn-based multiplayer strategy. From a design standpoint, five moves per turn is the perfect amount, ensuring that even expert tacticians will be forced to leave a niggling flaw in their masterplan.
Hero Academy’s UI draws comparisons with Zynga’s iOS output: neat lists of ongoing and completed games, push notifications and customisation options. The field of play is similarly tidy, an arena of square tiles uncluttered by numbers and bars, with reserve troops arranged in a line at the bottom, and the state of play clearly displayed at the top. It might all be a little sterile were it not for the characterful art style, with robust cartoon combatants slumbering on the sidelines, swaying gently while awaiting orders, and breathing heavily when wounded. Knights are beefy and lantern-jawed, elderly mages wear cloaks and carry gnarled staffs, while the kindly smile of a support unit pegs her as the group’s healer before a couple of taps confirms it in writing.
The objective is to either smash your rival’s crystals before he or she destroys yours, or to defeat all their heroes. You drag units and items into play, your row of six randomly assigned reserve options topped up after each turn. Potions heal downed allies; scrolls, swords, shields and helmets provide buffs, as do marked tiles; area-effect spells deal damage or heal. You'll need to remove unconscious enemy units by standing on them, otherwise their commander has a turn to revive them. Sensibly, you can reverse all moves before you submit your turn, so you can see which plan proves most efficient before confirming your orders.
The free download restricts your team choice to the Council, a slightly bland collection of fantasy stereotypes. With that in mind, and the promise of an ad-free experience, it’s hard to imagine anyone resisting the £1.49 outlay for the Dark Elves, whose units look more exciting and offer a wonderfully disparate set of skills. Crucially, despite their ability to leech health from opponents and produce phantoms from fallen fighters, they’re no more powerful than the Council. Avatar customisation, however, ushers in a less welcome brand of in-app purchase: asking users to pay to select uniform colours is rather brazen.
In its present form, Hero Academy is a fairly lightweight confection, but it digs its nails in until you find yourself impatiently anticipating the notification alert, and then starting a fresh battle with a random opponent to shorten the wait. Expansions have already been promised; if Robot Entertainment can maintain the game’s delicate balance through sensibly-priced updates, then Hero Academy could become a more permanent distraction for smartphone strategists.