Franchise Festival #98: Heroes of Might and Magic

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be memorizing the history of Heroes of Might and Magic. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

While I cite specific sources below, I am especially indebted to the Celestial Heavens website and the work of YouTube channel GaminHD for their overviews of the series. Any errors, of course, are my own.

Table of Contents

Background
Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest (1995)
Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars (1996)
Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia (1999)
Heroes of Might and Magic IV (2002)
Heroes of Might and Magic V (2006)
Might and Magic Heroes VI (2011)
Might and Magic Heroes VII (2015)
Spinoffs

Background

Jon Van Caneghem, Michaela Van Caneghem, and Mark Caldwell founded New World Computing in 1983. The studio became well-known throughout the 1980s for Might and Magic, a dense role-playing game (RPG) property inspired by Wizardry (1981) and Ultima (1982). Between Might and Magic II (1988) and Might and Magic III (1991), series creator Jon Van Caneghem opted to branch out into the strategy genre.

New World Computing’s King’s Bounty was initially released for the Apple II, DOS, and Commodore 64 in 1990. As a spiritual successor to Chaos: The Battle of Wizards (1985, Europe only), a ZX Spectrum strategy title by X-COM (1994) creator Julian Gollop, King’s Bounty focuses on large-scale high fantasy battles rather than the travails of a small party of adventurers. The player creates an avatar based on one of four character classes – barbarian, knight, paladin, or sorceress – and seeks to save King Maximus by recovering the Sceptre of Order from a sinister dragon.

The battlefield in King’s Bounty (seen here) would be echoed closely by that of Heroes of Might and Magic. Source: MobyGames

Turn-based exploration of King’s Bounty’s four continents occurs from a distant overhead perspective in the style of Ultima. The player character can enter cities to recruit new military units, however, and pick up contracts that guide them to one of 17 villains or 8 mystical artifacts scattered around the world. Each of these villains and artifacts must be found and respectively defeated or acquired in order to reveal the randomized location of the Sceptre of Order. Turn-based battles, which occur either as urban sieges or combat across open fields, are likewise depicted from a bird’s eye view and sees grouped units in the player character’s army attempting to reduce the numbers of enemy troops through ranged and melee attacks.

Battles look different in Heroes of Might and Magic: Quest for the Dragon Bone Staff, but make no mistake: this is a direct remake of King’s Bounty. Source: MobyGames

King’s Bounty’s poor sales did not stop the development of ports and remakes for a wide variety of later platforms. A 1991 Amiga version updates the visual design, a Mega Drive/Genesis port swaps out turn-based combat for real-time mechanics, and a PlayStation 2 remake called Heroes of Might and Magic: Quest for the Dragon Bone Staff (2001) replaces sprites with 3D polygonal graphics. As the name of its PlayStation 2 iteration suggests, King’s Bounty is perhaps most famous as the precursor to a long-running spiritual successor.

Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest (1995)

Though King’s Bounty had been a passion project for Jon Van Caneghem, its dismal reception forced New World Computing’s return to traditional RPGs for the next half-decade. Fan requests for a follow-up persisted, however, along with entreaties by Michaela Van Caneghem herself. New World Computing finally relented, beginning work on a strategy game called Heroes during the mid-1990s. Heroes was then renamed Heroes of Might and Magic during development in an effort to improve its commercial prospects by directly linking it to the studio’s flagship Might and Magic franchise.

Once it was renamed, the game was retroactively rewritten to include the setting and some characters from Might and Magic. Other challenges remained, however, including the creation of a new strategy game engine from scratch and uniformly negative playtester responses during much of the development process. Lead programmer Phil Steinmeyer and designers Jon and Debbie Van Caneghem rose to the occasion, working diligently to incorporate recommendations while refining the game’s balance. A handful of tweaks during the last three weeks of development – difficulty reduction, faster pacing, and more generous character movement – finally led to approval by Peter Ryu’s quality assurance team. Heroes of Might and Magic was released on the DOS PC platform in September 1995.

The hero screen allows players to customize their hero’s skills, spells, military units, and equipment. Source: MobyGames

As in King’s Bounty, players select a hero from one of four options at the start of the game – warlock, sorceress, barbarian, or knight – but can recruit additional heroes to command armies as they accumulate wealth. In the standard single-player campaign, the player explores a world map from an overhead perspective and seeks to defeat three rival factions – each represented by their own hero or heroes – while improving his or her home castle and defending it from invasion. Navigation involves moving heroes up to a maximum number of spaces on an overworld and then waiting for AI-controlled factions to move their own units. Heroes are strengthened through leading troops from the sidelines in battle or through acquiring and wearing artifacts.

Overworld exploration looks and plays similar to early 4X PC titles like Civilization (1991). Source: MobyGames

Heroes can claim towns to engage in commerce and recruit new units, besiege castles, establish control over resources like ore, collect treasure, and fight rival armies. When enemies are encountered, play shifts to a 2.5D side-view depicting a battlefield and stacks of military units. Each stack moves on a turn-by-turn basis and uses ranged or melee attack commands to reduce their opponents’ numbers. Unit types include standard medieval soldiers as well as mythical creatures like genies, hydras, centaurs, and dragons. If the player’s hero has memorized any combat spells, they can be used to inflict damage or heal wounded troops.

Improvements to the player’s city offer various enhancements, including the opportunity to recruit new units. Source: MobyGames

While the campaign’s story follows Lord Morglin Ironfist, an exiled knight who finds himself at odds with the three other aforementioned heroes in the world of Enroth following his flight through a magical portal, additional scenarios offer alternative gameplay objectives. These include, among others, the defeat of a powerful dragon guarding a central unaffiliated city and the acquisition of key artifacts. Heroes of Might and Magic’s 1996 port to Windows 95 also introduces a map editor and random map generator, enhancing replayability still further.

The combat screen offers a closer look at the player’s colorful troops. Source: MobyGames

New World Computing’s first entry in the Heroes of Might and Magic series was critically and commercially successful, receiving largely positive reviews and selling over 100,000 copies by the end of 1995. Though criticism was directed towards its appearance, as colorful hand-drawn sprites appeared somewhat outdated in the face of the pre-rendered computer-generated graphics in contemporary strategy titles like Command and Conquer (1995) and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), the game’s traditional approach to visual design has caused it to age more gracefully than rivals considered cutting-edge in the mid-1990s. Since its initial releases on DOS and Windows 95, along with a disappointing remake on the Game Boy Color in 2000, the game has been made available in numerous compilations and remains accessible to new fans on CDProjekt’s Good Old Games (GOG) digital marketplace.

Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars (1996)

New World Computing was acquired by The 3DO Company in July 1996 and 3DO’s comparatively deep resources were brought to bear on Van Caneghem’s increasingly popular turn-based strategy franchise. By reusing the prior game’s underlying engine, New World Computing was able to dedicate more time to the writing and art design of Heroes of Might and Magic II than had been possible for its predecessor. Following an exceptionally smooth development period, the game was released for Windows PC and DOS on October 1, 1996.

Heroes of Might and Magic II’s narrative picks up 25 years after the series’ preceding entry. Lord Ironfist has died of old age after founding the Kingdom of Enroth, precipitating a struggle between heirs Roland and Archibald. The player’s in-game avatar, the Commander, has the opportunity to side with either of the two princes in unique campaigns set during the ensuing Succession Wars. At the start of a campaign, the Commander has the opportunity to choose one of six heroes to lead their army. Heroes of Might and Magic’s four returning hero classes are joined by a wizard and necromancer; each bears unique attributes, recruitable units, and skills or spells.

Secondary skill acquisition articulates as a binary choice upon leveling up. Source: MobyGames

One of the most noteworthy new gameplay wrinkles is the addition of secondary skills. These include Archery, Ballistics, Diplomacy, Eagle Eye, Estates, Leadership, Logistics, Luck, Mysticism, Navigation, Necromancy, Pathfinding, Scouting, and Wisdom. Secondary skills are acquired by heroes as they level up by leading their forces in combat, improving their associated abilities. The spell mechanic is likewise updated from its implementation in Heroes of Might and Magic, as each hero now has a pool of points used to cast spells rather than needing to memorize individual spell uses in the style of Dungeons and Dragons

While the overall presentation is nearly identical to that of Heroes of Might and Magic, unit sprites are more detailed and the battlefield is slightly larger than before. Source: MobyGames

Most other updates are cosmetic or iterative. Heroes of Might and Magic art director Julia Ulano is augmented here by a larger team of artists, including character animators April Lee and Tracy Iwata, resulting in a significantly more polished presentation. Bonus campaigns featuring small-scale and large-scale maps are more numerous than those of the preceding game, the map editor from Heroes of Might and Magic’s Windows 95 port is included in Heroes of Might and Magic II’s initial release, and multiplayer is made possible through hotseat play on a single device or the use of modems.

Overworld navigation (left), combat (center), and city management (right) in the Game Boy Color’s Heroes of Might and Magic II are startlingly faithful to its PC origins. Source: MobyGames

The series’ second title was a critical and commercial success, receiving more positive reviews and selling dramatically more copies than its predecessor. An expansion pack titled The Price of Loyalty (1997) offers additional scenarios and the ability to recruit ghosts, which had previously only been encountered as neutral enemy types, but lacks any new heroes or units. Conventional ports to the UK’s Acorn 32-bit PC and the Macintosh operating system in 1997 were followed by a surprisingly successful stipped-down adaptation to Nintendo’s Game Boy Color in 2000. This colorful portable release includes elements from Heroes of Might and Magic, Heroes of Might and Magic II, and Heroes of Might and Magic III. While this curiousity has been out of print for nearly two decades, the PC original remains available through GOG at the time of writing.

Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia (1999)

Numbering approximately 50 individuals at its peak, the group that worked on Heroes of Might and Magic III was more than three times the size of Heroes of Might and Magic’s development team. Jon Van Caneghem and Rob King retained their respective roles as main designer and music producer and at least half of the programming staff were veterans of Heroes of Might and Magic II, but many of the remaining leadership roles were filled by relatively new faces. Director David Mullich, fresh off of a 1995 collaboration with author Harlan Ellison on a point-and-click adventure game adaptation of Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” for studio Cyberdreams, would be highly influential on the future direction of the series; he had been recruited to New World Computing by former colleague and Heroes of Might and Magic programmer John Krause and interviewed directly by 3DO president Trip Hawkins. The role of art director passed from Julia Ulano to Phelan Sykes, one of the artists who had worked on Heroes of Might and Magic II, though Ulano’s ongoing presence on the art team ensured continuity. A somewhat fraught development process rushed to completion by increasingly precarious publisher 3DO was stressful, but would not undermine the ability of this talented team. Heroes of Might and Magic III was respectively released for Windows, Linux, and Macintosh platforms on February 28, December 20, and December 21, 1999 to widespread critical acclaim.

Heroes of Might and Magic III opens with the franchise’s first pre-rendered cinematic cutscene. Source: The Author

The game conspicuously sets itself apart from its predecessors with a pre-rendered introductory movie featuring a fully voiced monologue from lead character Queen Catherine of Enroth. Catherine sets sail for her homeland of Erathia pursuing rumors that her father, King Gryphonheart, has been assassinated. When she arrives, she discovers that marauding armies under the banners of Nighon and Eeofol have indeed laid waste to Erathia. Throughout the plot, the player alternately controls Catherine and other factions as they wage a war for the future of the continent.

The overworld of Heroes of Might and Magic III is more detailed and less color-saturated than those of its predecessors. Source: AbsoluteZero

The single-player portions of Heroes of Might and Magic III are more robust than those of earlier series entries. Its story mode is split into seven separate campaigns featuring unique maps and missions, while dozens of standalone scenarios offer one-off adventures. Two expansions, Armageddon’s Blade (1999) and The Shadow of Death (2000), expand the story through additional campaigns and introduce dozens more standalone scenarios. As in Heroes of Might and Magic II, a map editor is likewise present in all versions of the game.

Heroes of Might and Magic III‘s battle screen is more detailed but mechanically identical to the battlefields of Heroes of Might and Magic II. Source: MobyGames

Its gameplay, while broadly adhering to the structure of its two predecessors, is likewise more complex than anything that New World Computing had yet produced. Each map is now divided into surface and underground layers that can be switched between using subterranean gateways or whirlpools. Hero classes – divided into the physically-oriented Might and the spell-focused Magic categories – include knights, rangers, alchemists, demoniacs, death knights, overlords, barbarians, beastmasters, clerics, druids, wizards, heretics, necromancers, warlocks, battle mages, and witches; planeswalkers and elementalists brought the total number of hero classes up to 18 when added as part of the Armageddon’s Blade expansion. Factions, each associated with two classes and a set of military units, include the Castle, Conflux, Dungeon, Fortress, Inferno, Necropolis, Rampart, Stronghold, and Tower.

The futuristic Forge faction, whose city is pictured here, would have introduced the cyborg and technician hero classes. Source: Heroes of Might and Magic Wiki

A ninth faction called the Forge was planned for Armageddon’s Blade but abandoned during development. Created by lead designer Greg Fulton, this would have introduced science-fiction elements to the series and tied into the plot of Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor (1999). Fans were unhappy about this direction following its initial reveal at E3 1999 and the intensity of their outcry, including a death threat submitted to New World Computing, led to Fulton’s departure from the studio when management failed to take the harassment seriously.

The modest visual enhancements of Ubisoft’s HD edition are not enough to offset the loss of the game’s expanded campaigns. Source: Stylosa

In the interim, though, Heroes of Might and Magic III rapidly grew into the franchise’s most successful title. It sold spectacularly well during its first year and was followed by a compilation that brought its expansions to Linux and Macintosh for the first time in 2000. Heroes of Might and Magic III: Complete Edition remains the best way to play the game and is still available through the GOG marketplace. Current IP owner UbiSoft released a graphically-enhanced high-definition (HD) version for PC in 2015, though Armageddon’s Blade and The Shadow of Death are omitted due to the loss of their source code; the apparent rediscovery of this code in 2017 has not prompted any revisions to UbiSoft’s controversial port at the time of writing. Questionable corporate treatment aside, Heroes of Might and Magic III has retained its fan-favorite status and remains a crowd-pleasing staple of online streaming platforms two decades after its release.

Heroes of Might and Magic IV (2002)

3DO was in a dangerously uncertain financial state by the early 2000s, depending on risky loans and layoffs to survive years of diminishing profits. While some of this can be attributed to market forces, including the expenses associated with producing 3D games for sixth generation video game consoles, much of the fault was down to poor management by 3DO executives. The studio infamously required that new games be released on an annual basis and sometimes programmed in less than ten months. According to Jon Van Caneghem in a 2004 interview with Computer Gaming World’s Jeff Green, “the decision process at 3DO regarding which products to produce and develop was completely controlled by the head of sales!?! Here is how it went: The development teams and execs at 3DO made lists of products they would like to make or could make, the sales department would estimate how many of each of these hypothetical games they could sell, and this would determine the budget of the title—or if it was even worth developing. Madness!” This had a detrimental effect on the ability of subsidiary New World Computing to maintain a consistent level of quality.

The overworld is now presented from an isometric overhead angle. Source: MobyGames

Might and Magic IX lead designer Tim Lang, who collaborated frequently with the Heroes of Might and Magic team, also attributed part of the studio’s downward trajectory to Van Caneghem’s lack of interest in an interview with Might and Magic fan website Celestial Heavens; the studio co-founder and Might and Magic creator was largely preoccupied with his amateur racing career after contributing to Heroes of Might and Magic IV’s planning phase. In his absence, director David Mullich and lead programmer/designer Gus Smedstad were left to lead production on a followup to the franchise’s most polished title in an unreasonably short period of time. Van Caneghem’s efforts to hastily retool the project during its final weeks of development in 2002 were understandably met with resentment by a staff who had been “working unpaid late nights and weekends for 80-90+ hour weeks while Jon was off racing cars and not showing up to work.” For better or worse, the game met its deadline and was released for Windows PC on March 28, 2002; a Macintosh version followed eight months later.

Heroes of Might and Magic IV’s story, penned by Terry Ray, is among its most successful elements. In a pre-rendered introductory cutscene, the world of Enroth is obliterated in a massive explosion known as the Reckoning and refugees escaping through recently arisen portals find themselves in Might and Magic IX’s world of Axeoth. Each of the game’s six campaigns features a different protagonist rebuilding one of the game’s core factions: Haven, Academy, Preserve, Necropolis, Asylum, and Stronghold. The first five of these factions are respectively aligned with Life, Order, Nature, Death, and Chaos schools of magic while the Stronghold faction is focused on physical strength.

Heroes, like the one in the lower-left of this battlefield screenshot, are stronger than average troops but must be protected from enemy attacks. Source: MobyGames

Heroes of Might and Magic’s fourth entry represents a more significant graphical and mechanical overhaul than any prior release. Its overworld and battles are now presented in an isometric perspective, while a wider battlefield makes use of small squares rather than a hexagonal grid. This suggests a grander scale, though much of the series’ characteristic whimsy is lost.

In a decision that was controversial even among New World Computing staff, heroes now directly take part in combat through the use of melee or ranged attacks. The ability to recruit additional heroes and add them to a squad means that, for the first time, it’s possible to engage enemies using a team composed entirely of heroes rather than stacks of creatures or rank-and-file soldiers. Heroes moving off the sidelines also increases risk, since the death of the player’s primary hero instantly ends the combat encounter.

The acquisition of certain secondary skills eventually allows characters to gain a specialized advanced class. Source: MobyGames

A number of more iterative changes likewise alter the tone of any given campaign. Creatures and soldiers can be set to patrol the player character’s domain rather than being parked in a town or castle. Each faction has fewer recruitable unit types, which streamlines army customization but also reduces opportunities for army customization. Hero customization, in contrast, is enhanced through an advancement system which allows basic classes to grow into one of 40 advanced classes as characters level up and the player assigns points to specific skills. For example, a hero who specializes in Order Magic and Nature Magic will become a druid while a hero who specializes in Death Magic and Scouting will become a ninja.

Unfortunately, Heroes of Might and Magic IV marks the turning point for this series’ fortunes. Fiercely negative reviews for its two expansions, The Gathering Storm (2002) and Winds of War (2003), preceded the game receiving Computer Gaming World’s satirical Coaster of the Year award in 2003. Much of New World Computing’s staff was laid off in April 2002 and the studio was dissolved upon 3DO’s bankruptcy in May 2003. Thanks to the last-minute sale of the intellectual property (IP) to Ubisoft, however, Heroes of Might and Magic would live on.

Heroes of Might and Magic V (2006)

Heroes of Might and Magic V began development at New World Computing prior to the studio’s dissolution. Aware that his absence had had negative consequences on its predecessor, Van Caneghem took a more hands-on role in the process. His vision involved a redesigned game engine that took its cues from Heroes of Might and Magic II and III and a greater emphasis on strategy rather than role-playing mechanics. While this version was prototyped by New World Computing and considered by Ubisoft when it acquired the IP, it was eventually discarded in favor of a series reboot by Russian Ubisoft subsidiary Nival Interactive. The game was released for Windows PC in May 2006 and ported to the Apple OS X in March 2007.

Art and renders for New World Computing’s abandoned Heroes of Might and Magic V prototype, like these creatures drawn by Tracy Iwata, circulate online. Source: Heroes of Might and Magic Wiki

Six campaigns are set in the entirely new high fantasy setting of Ashan. Returning factions Academy, Dungeon, Haven, Inferno, and Necropolis are joined by a new elvish society known as the Sylvan. Each faction has its own heroes and units with a mechanical specialization: Academy, led by wizard Zehir, wields combat magic; Dungeon, led by dark elf warlock Raelag, manipulates enemy units; Haven, led by Queen Isabel and knight Godric, emphasizes military training; Inferno, led by demon lord Agrael, summons ephemeral allies from portals known as gates; Necropolis, led by necromancer Markal, recruits fallen foes to its cause; and the Sylvan, led by ranger Findan, engages enemies at a distance using projectiles. 

The Heroes series finally received a fully polygonal makeover with its fifth entry. Source: MobyGames

Nival Interactive took its cues from New World Computing’s work, offering a gameplay experience that broadly resembles earlier series entries. Each campaign sees the player controlling a hero attempting to complete an objective or defeat a rival faction by exploring an overworld map, improving his or her towns and castles, claiming resources, and engaging in turn-based combat. The latter still occurs on a separate battlefield screen that appears when the player’s hero encounters enemy armies. Heroes gain additional skills by leveling up or discovering certain facilities on the overworld, though they are again limited to commanding troops from the sidelines rather than directly participating in combat.

Cities, including the floating settlements of the Academy faction, are more richly detailed and atmospheric than those of any earlier Heroes of Might and Magic title. Source: khalbrae

The most conspicuous change to the series under Ubisoft’s direction is a vastly revised presentation. Nival Interactive’s Silent Storm game engine renders the series’ characters and environments in polygonal 3D for the first time, offering shifting perspectives and more dynamic animations during combat. Returning composers Rob King and Paul Romero, the only returning series veterans, also deliver Heroes of Might and Magic’s first soundtrack based on recurring cinematic themes rather than individual melodies.

The overworld’s new appearance resembles those of contemporary PC strategy games like Civilization IV (2005). Source: MobyGames

Two expansion packs, Hammers of Fate (2006) and Tribes of the East (2007), add campaigns respectively centered on the new Dwarf and Stronghold factions. Bugs and inconsistent difficulty did not keep Heroes of Might and Magic V from being received well by critics at the time of its release and selling over 350,000 copies by the end of 2006. While its reputation is not as strong as Heroes of Might and Magic III, the game remains accessible alongside its predecessors on the GOG marketplace.

Might and Magic Heroes VI (2011)

Ubisoft shifted responsibilities for Heroes of Might and Magic to Budapest-based Black Hole Entertainment in 2008 as Nival Interactive began work on a 2011 follow-up to the recently revived King’s Bounty series. According to an online report by an anonymous Black Hole employee in 2012, the studio’s initial excitement about the opportunity was tempered by mismanagement by its publisher. Ubisoft is said to have heavily interfered in the development process by mandating frequent changes with unreasonable deadlines, delivering the game’s story to Black Hole three months late, and forcing Black Hole to dip into its own finances to finish the project when the publisher’s budget ran out. Even the addition of Germany’s Limbic Entertainment as contracted developers midway through development couldn’t salvage the project, as Might and Magic Heroes VI launched to generally negative critical reception on Windows PC in October 2011.

Due to behind-the-scenes turmoil, animated cities were replaced with the static imagery of earlier series entries. Source: MobyGames

Beginning 400 years before the events of Heroes of Might and Magic V, the game’s story sets political struggles in Ashan against a backdrop of angelic scheming and demonic invasion. Anastaya Griffin’s assasination of her father Duke Slava Griffin, who the player controls during a set of tutorial missions, kicks off a civil war between five factions. Old favorites Haven, Necropolis, Stronghold, and Inferno are joined by Sanctuary, a faction based on Asian cultures and ruled by humanoid serpents called nagas. The player has the opportunity to lead every faction, each with its own gameplay mechanics and military units, through a unique single-player campaign.

Might and Magic Heroes VI‘s overworld and underworld are the most richly detailed in series history. Source: MobyGames

While all factions are led by a primary hero, additional heroes can again be recruited and developed through acquisition of experience points and equippable artifacts. Skill trees featuring might and magic abilities offer character customization as heroes level up. The returning advanced class system is now based on the accumulation of reputation, a choice-driven morality system in which heroes increase their tendency towards either blood or tears. Heroes with enough points in either of these categories can ascend to an advanced class using a town’s Chamber of Judgment.

Neutral and enemy settlements can be converted to the player’s faction when conquered. Source: MobyGames

Might and Magic Heroes VI’s greatest triumph is likely its presentation, as its Romero/King score is characteristically strong and the graphics represent a major step forward from Heroes of Might and Magic V’s comparatively simplistic models. The overworld is rich in detail, while every stack of units features unique idle and attacking animations during combat. Pre-rendered cutscenes remain sparse – likely due to budgetary constraints during development – but in-engine cutscenes are more frequent than in earlier titles and dialogue sequences are enhanced by extensive voice acting. Even city improvements can now be reviewed from the overworld map rather than being reflected only in a separate city window.

Environmental features now have a significant impact on the flow of combat. Source: MobyGames

Unfortunately, the impressive audio/visual design could not mask Might and Magic Heroes VI’s more serious mechanical issues. The reputation system is shallow, online multiplayer is poorly implemented, technical hitches are numerous, and Ubisoft’s mandatory digital rights management (DRM) software requires a constant connection to the company’s servers if a player lacks the technical expertise to modify his or her system files; this intrusive DRM led to a notorious scenario in which players could not access their single-player content while Ubisoft updated its online infrastructure. Neither Shades of Darkness (2013), an expansion by Singapore-based Virtuous that incorporates Heroes of Might and Magic V’s Dungeon faction, nor two downloadable content (DLC) packs by Limbic Entertainment were able to restore the reputation of the series’ least popular entry so far. Poor sales and alleged mismanagement by Ubisoft led Black Hole Entertainment to declare bankruptcy in 2012, leaving the series’ fate uncertain once again.

Might and Magic Heroes VII (2015)

Based on its success with Might and Magic X: Legacy (2014), Limbic Entertainment was tapped to produce Might and Magic Heroes VII following the dissolution of its erstwhile Hungarian collaborator. Limbic CEO Stephan Winter and his team developed the game in Unreal Engine 3 with the support of contract artists in China. Though they hewed generally to the template of what had come before, simplifying elements where possible, the designers sought to incorporate fan feedback by making resource acquisition and management more complex. Might and Magic Heroes VI’s always-online requirement was likewise dropped from Ubisoft’s implementation of its Uplay DRM system.

While Might and Magic Heroes VII‘s camera can be overly fussy, the ability to zoom in on lovingly-crafted creatures during combat is pretty impressive. Source: MobyGames

Seven four-part campaigns are set roughly two hundred years after Might and Magic Heroes VI: Shadow of Darkness and 100 years before Heroes of Might and Magic V. The first four factions designed – Haven, Academy, Necropolis, and Stronghold – are joined by Sylvan, Fortress, and Dungeon as a result of fan polls conducted through the game’s promotional website; in a first for the series, no new faction is present. Each campaign is framed as a story told by an advisor to would-be emperor Ivan of Griffin in an effort to prevent him from giving up his claim to the throne.

Rather than introduce any major overhauls, Might and Magic Heroes VI instead offers refinements and streamlined versions of prior titles’ mechanics. Hero development is less granular than it had been in the series’ last three entries and advanced classes are entirely omitted. Combat instead pivots on the player’s choice of military units, tactical planning, and manipulation of battlefield terrain. A strength disparity between magic- and might-oriented heroes, which had plagued the series since its origins, is partially addressed through the addition of new melee attacks that can be initiated from the sidelines by the latter.

The map editor is incredibly versatile, though it can be challenging to use for those without a history in 3D game design. Source: MobyGames

In spite of a strong effort by Limbic, the September 2015 Windows PC release of Might and Magic Heroes VII sold fewer units in its first year than any recent series entry. Press outlets criticized the game’s numerous bugs and lackluster visual design while noting that its highly traditional design was unlikely to attract players who lacked prior experience with the franchise. Standalone expansion pack Trial by Fire (2016), which reintroduces the dwarven Stronghold faction alongside two new campaigns, represents the core series’ last piece of content. Ubisoft issued a statement on October 5, 2016 announcing that it was ending its partnership with Limbic Entertainment and discontinuing updates for Might and Magic Heroes VII, leaving many of its technical issues unresolved.

Spinoffs

Though originally a side series to Might and Magic, Heroes of Might and Magic has produced many of its own spinoffs over the last 25 years. Since its PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Color quasi-ports Heroes of Might and Magic: Quest for the Dragon Bone Staff, Heroes of Might and Magic, and Heroes of Might and Magic II have been covered above, this section will exclusively cover independent titles.

It’s not hard to tell that Heroes Chronicles is built directly on Heroes of Might and Magic III. Source: MobyGames

Built by New World Computing on the Heroes of Might and Magic III game engine, Heroes Chronicles consists of eight adventures released in a combination of disc-based and downloadable formats. Each of the episodes – Warlords of the Wasteland (2000), Conquest of the Immortal (2000), Masters of the Elements (2000), Clash of the Dragons (2000), The World Tree (2000), The Fiery Moon (2000), Revolt of the Beastmasters (2001 as part of The Final Chapters), and The Sword of Frost (2001 as part of The Final Chapters) – sees protagonist Tarnum taking on different classes and leadership roles with the franchise’s assorted factions. Though it initially seems to be its own standalone plot, the conclusion of Tarnum’s story directly ties into the events of Heroes of Might and Magic IV. A collected edition was finally made available for modern operating systems via GOG in 2011.

The Android version of Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, like other ports, crams the DS’ two screens into a single image. Source: MobyGames

Heroes of Might and Magic’s next story-driven spinoff, the anime-influenced Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, was developed by Capybara Games and published by Ubisoft on the Nintendo DS in December 2009. While it serves as a prequel to the events of Heroes of Might and Magic V, its gameplay is distinct from the core series. Heroes navigate the overworld by moving between nodes on a zoomed-in map and combine individual units into vertical columns in combat rather than directing pre-assembled stacks. Turn-based battles more closely resemble the puzzle genre than Heroes of Might and Magic’s strategy origins, as vertical columns of allied troops on the DS’ bottom screen are pitted against vertical columns of enemy units on the top screen once arranged; numerical strength and a rock-paper-scissors-esque type advantage system tends to determine the outcome of these confrontations. The game was widely praised at the time of its release and received ports on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC, iOS, and Android platforms.

The isometric presentation of Might and Magic Heroes Online superficially resembles an animated version of Heroes of Might and Magic IV‘s overworld rather than any of the series’ more recent core entries. Source: Heroes Zone

Two browser-based massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) were respectively released under the names Heroes of Might and Magic Online and Might and Magic Heroes Online in 2009 and 2014. Heroes of Might and Magic Online was developed by TQ Digital Entertainment and exclusively published by NetDragon Websoft in China, while Might and Magic Heroes Online was developed by Blue Byte and published by Ubisoft worldwide. Both are free-to-play isometric strategy RPGs featuring real-time overworld navigation and turn-based combat, though Heroes of Might and Magic Online is set in Erathia and Might and Magic Heroes Online is set in Ashan. While the former went offline in 2014, the latter was ported to Windows and Macintosh platforms in 2015 and remains playable at the time of writing.

Heroes Kingdoms was a pretty by-the-numbers browser-based strategy game. Source: MMOHuts

Another free-to-play browser-based strategy game, Might and Magic: Heroes Kingdoms, was developed internally by Ubisoft’s Chengdu studio and published exclusively in France in November 2009. This competitive turn-based title, which eschews overworld exploration for static screens focused on resource management and combat, has more in common with Flash-based contemporaries like Evony (2009) than other Heroes of Might and Magic releases. Ubisoft discontinued support for the game in 2014, leaving no trace aside from player-captured videos and screenshots.

Conclusion

Heroes of Might and Magic started with a bang in 1995 and ended with a whimper in 2016. This hugely successful turn-based strategy series, which had itself been inspired by Julian Gollop’s Chaos: The Battle of Wizards, influenced strategy RPG franchises as disparate as Disciples (1999-2010) and The Banner Saga (2014-2018) before succumbing to the corporate mismanagement that had dogged it since the late 1990s. While it outlasted New World Computing, no Ubisoft-published entry ever matched the critical acclaim of its first three titles. Outside of free-to-play online spinoffs, it seems that the sun has set on Heroes of Might and Magic for the foreseeable future.


What do you think about Heroes of Might and Magic? Which is your favorite or least favorite game? How about your favorite playable faction? What could Ubisoft do to make the series relevant once more and which studio would you like to see handling the IP? When will the Villains of Might and Magic get their due? Let’s discuss below.


Here is a tentative list of upcoming Franchise Festival articles:

  • #99: The Sims – September 11
  • #100: Tetris – September 25
  • #101: Dead Space – October 2
  • #102: F.E.A.R. – October 9
  • #103: Dead Rising – October 16