The tactical RPG, particularly its JRPG variation, has always been about options. You take the basic fighting system of a JRPG and add the variable of terrain movement and exponentially increase the ways that you can develop characters. The appeal of such games is in tinkering with all the different strategies available and seeing what obstacles that the game can throw at you. Majesco’s Dawn of Heroes is a curious game in this vein because it seems to mostly be interested in simplifying itself. With a simplicity that’s on par with the Pokemon games, it seems to effectively remove everything about a tactical game that makes it tactical.
The game is set up like a JRPG. Your heroes have stats and magic points, these go up as you increase in level, and there are three kinds of attack: physical, magic, and green magic. Your armor and character class will vary up your resistance to these types of attacks as well. An enemy can be clicked on to see their weaknesses, and you plan accordingly. Buff abilities are added automatically. Dying takes you out of a battle unless you’re resurrected, but there is no penalty for doing so since all experience is shared communally. New heroes are automatically leveled up to match everyone else in your party. There are the usual spells for befuddling opponents alongside physical attacks and various weapon options. You find new weapons, but they tend to only improve stats. This all leads to a very straightforward tactical game that turns into the player maxing out a character’s attack and sending them after whoever is weak against it.
By far, the weirdest quirk in the game is that you can only attack an enemy twice. After that, you have to hit someone else or figure out something else to do with the character. I’m guessing that the idea behind this decision was to force the game into being more strategic than it is, but it is basically a band-aid on a gigantic problem. Beating the crap out of people is the most effective tactic in the game, and the design imposes an arbitrary rule that prevents you from doing it. The result is that the healers have more time to keep people alive, the wizards fire off more befuddle spells, and all the battles in general take a lot longer than they need to. Conceptually you could maybe get away with calling this “interesting” for a battle or two, but the entire game is defined by it. It would be one thing if the battles were simply challenging and forced you to think outside the box, but the issue here is that the “two strikes” rule doesn’t bother to replace the traditional form of play with anything else. It’s still a simplified tactical game, so other than using status attacks to slow someone down, there is no extra strategy to the game. It just takes longer.
Visually the game is very pretty by DS standards, and the animations are charming. You can customize characters’ appearances and dress them up to your tastes. In terms of progress, the game is just a matter of moving from point A to B on a map by clicking. Then, a scene plays out and a fight starts up. You can choose between going to one battle or the other, but all roads merge at the same point eventually. Your quest is to defeat six evil barons and then their bigger, eviler boss. Scattered around are lots of bonus missions and challenge quests that will take a lot of grinding before you’ll stand a chance in succeeding in conquering them.
In terms of narrative, the game is probably targeted for a younger audience so I’m not the best judge of how successful the plot is. There’s no melodrama here, and the game doesn’t take itself seriously and tries to lighten things up with lots of gags and visual humor. It never struck me as funny because none of the people in the story have any real character. There’s the dumb one, the greedy one, the angry one, and so on. They get into formulaic arguments about formulaic things. There’s just nothing to really latch onto since the game design doesn’t really get more sophisticated than “hit weakness” and the plot has no dramatic tension to speak of.
On paper, I think that a simplified tactical RPG probably sounds like a good idea. Games like Pokemon have shown that the formula can deliver to younger audiences. It even does this by imposing an arbitrary “one monster at a time” system. The reason that Dawn of Heroes bombs by contrast is that it doesn’t really pay attention to what the player wants to do in this type of game. The two strike hit, along with the limited combat options, effectively cut off the natural impulses that a person has when playing a strategy game. You want to apply overwhelming force on a weaker enemy. Dawn of Heroes removes this option, and as a consequence, it’s hard to ever really feel like you’re “doing it right.” The game never replaces this strategy with anything else.