'Heroes Above' takes asynchronous PVP to the skies

MANILA, Philippines – I first saw Heroes Above at the Tokyo Game Show this year. It was the creation of Unlibox, one of the teams of developers hailing from the Philippines. Though I did not get to try much of the game during my short time with them, it left me with a good first impression. It was a unique asynchronous strategy game that looked great and well-polished. (Read: Filipino game developers showcase titles at Tokyo Game Show 2016)

But of course, a quick session with them wouldn’t be enough to really understand and appreciate the game. Fortunately this time, I got in contact with Sid Cardenas, one of the co-founders of Unlibox and I was able to not only fully explore the game but was also able to gain his insight regarding the development and mechanics of Heroes Above

After a couple of days of learning the game and battling against other players I quickly found that this fun gem is a great underrated game that just needs a little fine tuning. 

An interesting concept that’s both familiar and unique

Heroes Above is an online multiplayer strategy game set in a charming fantasy world. The battles take place in flying ships with magical floating crystals that serve as the main objective. In order to win the battle you must be able to destroy your opponent’s crystal by managing your crew members and your ship. Because this game is asynchronous – meaning it connects players but they don't have to be online simultaneously to battle – the strategy is basically to outwit the enemy ship’s defense. 

There are a handful of character types for your crew members. So far I’ve encountered the Priest, Archer, Barbarian, Bouncer, Infiltrator, and Pyromancer.  

These character types can be evolved to tougher and more complex characters during battle. A Priest can become a Paladin which can go on board the enemy ship and attack enemy crew members while providing support to their fellow crew members. An Archer can start with plain arrows and, when the player chooses to, evolve into a Poison Archer mid-game that can rain toxic arrows on the enemy.

While the game is asynchronous, it isn’t turn-based. So it’s up to you to decide when is the best time to place a crew member on the ship, or when is the best time to upgrade them. You do have to keep in mind your mana supply. It generates at a steady pace and in order to summon or upgrade your crew member you must have a sufficient amount.

Your central hub of floating islands serves as a place to train, heal, and scout crew members. It’s also where you can store your gold, and buy ships. Upgrading your hub’s buildings will make it easier for you to gain resources that are required for training your crew. 

According to Sid, the game was inspired by Plants vs Zombies’ gameplay and Clash of Clans’ art style. However, instead of the classic tower defense, Sid and Unlibox wanted to focus on strategic PVP battles. To achieve that they did away with the tower defense concept and made it a “troop vs. troop” game with the same number and set of heroes available to both players to emphasize the need for a good strategy.  

Some of these mechanics will be familiar to both hardcore mobile gamers and gamers in general, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As someone whose primary choice of gaming platform isn’t a smartphone, I find that the unique combination of familiar mechanics of Heroes Above makes it a fun and interesting game that is easily accessible for gamers of all backgrounds. 

Fun and quick battles that will occasionally bring you to the edge of your seat

Most of the battles are quick, fun, and relatively relaxed. Because it was easy enough for me to understand what can be done in the game, I fell into a default strategy that I would tweak from time to time. I got into the habit of playing a quick round while working because of how fast and easy the battles are set up. It won’t make you addicted like some of the more popular mobile games, but it’s enough to give you a fast break from the stress of the daily grind. 

But it isn’t always easy. Yes, there were times where I encountered enemies with higher level crew members that I beat quite easily. But there were also other times where I was bested by enemies with lower level heroes.  

Sid shared that even though a player may have crew members with a higher level than yours, your strategy is still crucial to winning the fight. 

“It is really possible to win against an enemy with high level heroes given the right strategy. It is up to the attacking player to 'solve the puzzle' of the enemy's defense by adjusting on the fly – meaning choosing which hero to summon, when to summon and where to summon,”

“For example, one strategy I usually do is to distribute the damage dealt to my units by summoning heroes in a timely manner. If let’s say my archer is about to die, I can summon a barbarian in front of it to soak the damage, or evolve the archer to increase its HP,” he explained.  

And he’s right. Some of the players that I met had complex strategies that were difficult to figure out. There were fights that got me wondering how to break through the enemy’s defense. I’ve even had slightly nerve-wracking battles where I thought I was winning until my opponent brought out an additional crew member to wreak havoc on my ship.

Matchmaking is a little confusing 

Heroes Above’s matchmaking isn’t perfect however, and it is perhaps one of my only gripes with the game. The challenging matches I had weren’t very common so there were times when I felt that the game was stagnant.  

It could be because Heroes Above’s matchmaking works a little differently. “Matchmaking is based on prestige – which you acquire by winning battles. You are matched with enemies within the same prestige range,” Sid explained.  

That’s not a bad way to base matchmaking, however after going through a few of the prestige ranges, I realized that a majority of the active players do not understand that they should also update their ship’s defenses. I figured this out after I ran into three ships with the exact same strategy. I checked my own ship and found that we have been using the default tutorial strategy all this time. 

Sure, attacking enemy ships and winning is the most fun part of the game, but the challenge of the Heroes Above is dictated by how sophisticated an enemy player’s strategy is. If matchmaking is based on your wins and will not take into account your defense matches then it’s no wonder why many of the battles I had felt like a breeze. 

This could pose as a long term problem. If most of the players stick with the default tutorial defense set-up, then other players who actually do take time and effort to improve their crew to attack may find it useless to do so in the long run. 

Perhaps when more players get to try Heroes Above, more people will realize the importance of upgrading their ship’s defense. But until then, there should be a way to provide a variety of challenges to the player to avoid stagnation. 

It gets a little “tiring” after awhile

This is perhaps another side-effect of the matchmaking plus a mechanic that is a tad annoying if you’re the type of mobile gamer who can’t stop playing. 

In the game you get to battle three times before your crew members have to run back to your hub and heal for a couple of minutes. While it does provide you a healthy break, not all players will appreciate being forced to stop playing a game especially if they’re on a winning streak. It breaks momentum and the rhythm of playing three rounds and resting for 15 minutes becomes ironically tiring.

There’s a way to go around this though and that is by preparing two sets of crew members that you can rotate. But it isn’t exactly practical, especially if you’re a starting player with fewer resources who wants to create a formidable crew.   

A freemium game that won’t hurt your wallet

Heroes Above is a freemium game but as a gamer, I appreciate how purchasing items with real currency may never feel necessary. There are three resources in Heroes Above and they’re free and easy to obtain, except for Gems. To earn Gems you either reach milestones in the game or you purchase them with real money. 500 Gems, the lowest number of Gems you can buy, will cost you $4.99. 

Expending Gems will make certain tasks and upgrades finish immediately. However, the timers are never long enough for me to feel the need to purchase Gems. Early on it’s also easy to reach certain milestones so Gems aren’t hard to come by as you start playing the game. 

By the time you finish your first three hours in the game you should have enough to instantly upgrade many of your crew members levels and unlock their different forms, as well as improve your buildings. 

If you manage to be quite the hardcore Heroes Above player, then that’s when you’ll probably want to purchase hundreds of Gems. 

A solid mobile game that deserves more attention

All in all, I feel like Heroes Above is an underrated strategy game that needs a larger following for it to reach its full potential. It’s a fun and easy game to understand, even for one who isn’t a hardcore mobile gamer. The battles are quick but will keep you on your toes despite it being an asynchronous game. 

From time to time the game will feel stagnant and lacking challenge, but this is due to the fact that some players haven’t completely taken advantage of the game’s features. 

It’s a freemium game that will not give you a disadvantage should you choose not to purchase anything in-game. And the waiting times aren’t long enough to force you to buy anything. 

It’s also worth mentioning that the game runs smoothly all throughout on my iPhone and I haven’t encountered a bug so far. I stand by my initial impression that indeed it is a great looking game that is well polished. If you’re into online strategy games then I highly encourage you to download the game on iOS. 

What’s next for Heroes Above and Unlibox? 

Sid admits that there is much to improve and add for Heroes Above. While the game currently has 300 local active players, they have received a fair share of praises and criticisms. Generally, gamers see this as a mobile title with a lot of potential but there are areas that can still needs tweaking.  

Aside from keeping in mind player feedback, the team will also be adding key upgrades before the global launch of the game. 

“We plan on launching the game globally next year, along with key updates like allowing ship skills to be equipped. We also plan on making improvements to the battle based from feedback we got from our players.” 

The game will also be released for Android devices. 

As for the Unlibox team, they have two more games coming up and they’re applying their Tokyo Game Show experience to improve the way they develop their titles. Sid says their experience in the different international expos and competitions have taught them that there is still much to learn.    

“We learned that we still have much to learn, actually. Going to SG, Germany and Japan was very humbling. You see the games these guys are able to make, they are geniuses of hardwork and dedication. We've learned to be faster, more practical, focus better on UX (user experience) and art style. We're applying this to all our 3 games now.”

They have another international event set in their sights and this time it’s a competition. Heroes Above was recently nominated in the International Mobile Game Awards Southeast Asia (IMGA SEA). The game is one of the 79 titles that made it to the 2nd round of screening and on November 8 they will find out if they won in any of the categories. 

Want to help their team? IMGA SEA has a voting page set up so you can throw your support for Heroes Above. – Rappler.com