Slitherine has really established itself as the premier developer/ publisher of serious strategy games on iPad. It is releasing games at a rapid rate, and from titles such as Pike & Shot and Battle Academy 2 through to the likes of Commander: The Great War and Panzer Corps, the quality has been consistently high.
Hell is a deviation from the norm, though. A swords-and-sorcery fantasy strategy game, rather than the team’s traditional historical wargame, Hell was developed in collaboration with another genre specialist in Hunted Cow, and while it’s an admirable effort, there are a couple of thematic issues with this one that lets the underlying mechanics down.
Hell is, as the name suggests, meant to be a desperate struggle between the forces of humanity and invading legions of demons from hell. From the lowly foot soldier through to mighty griffin riders, pitching wits against demons, imps and hell hounds, Hell aims hard for a Warhammer-like vibe, but there’s a dryness to the presentation that lets it down.
Environments look like a Ye Olde version of Battle Academy 2, with maps split up into a grid of squares in the same way as Battle Academy 2, and each square can host a small unit of soldiers, just like Battle Academy. Squads of 1-5 soldiers (depending on the type of unit) will move around, and as they take damage in battle the squad size will shrink. Lose enough of them and they will flee, and lose them all and the unit will die.
The plot is threadbare, and introduced in much the same was as it is in Battle Academy 2. In fact, if you took Battle Academy and replaced the Allies with graphics representing knights in shining armour, and replaced the Germans with graphics representing demons, you’d have Hell. And as such, the overwhelming impression that it is a simple palette swap from that game is hard to shake. The demons look demonic enough, but they move around and attack in nice neat formations, and there’s no context to their behaviour. Cut scenes that showed the impact of the demons on the local population, or even static images representing the horror that demons get up to would have gone a long way to contextualise the notion that these things are meant to be an ultimate evil.
There are two campaigns that form the game’s core story telling. One where you play as the humans looking to defend against the demons, and then the other puts you in control of the demons looking to repel the humans. The battles all play out the same way, where you’ll be looking to capture key objectives and out manoeuvre the opponents. The core combat is as engaging as ever for Slitherine games, where there are morale systems in play, as well as mechanics that encourage units to ‘gang up’ and support one another on individual enemy units. Ranged units are less common than in other wargames, and therefore a more valuable resource, and more critical to use well to assist a melee push. Maps themselves are large enough to move around, and encourage flanking and hammer-and-anvil strategies.
Units also obtain experience as they battle, eventually becoming veteran units and vital resources to the ongoing war effort. The combat is balanced in such a way that these veteran units are as powerful as they should be, but losing them is a crushing blow, so you’ll still measure the risk to sending them into a horde of the enemy, even if they’ll cause havoc before being taken down. A greater variety in the actual missions would have been appreciated, but there are enough of them for a solid few hours of play on each side, and then three difficulty levels to give yourself an additional challenge later on.
There’s also a skirmish mode which randomises environments and lets you customise your own forces to an extent, which serves as good practice before you head into the online multiplayer, which, as is standard for Slitherine games works on a play-by-mail basis. The AI is generally decent, though you’ll really want to find regular human opponents to make the most of the game.
It’s almost worth calling Hell a reskin of Battle Academy and its sequel. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, because Battle Academy is a fine franchise, but in the reskinning process, Slitherine and Hunted Cow haven’t quite managed to tweak the engine so that the experience matches the theme. Or to put that another way: this is the most sterile take on an invasion from hell that we’ve had for some time. Strategy buffs will enjoy it nevertheless for the tactical brilliance the engine enables, but more casual fans would be better off sticking to Battle Academy, where the theme and gameplay are more closely entwined.
– Matt S.
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