Given the rich heritage Sega owns from its past as a console manufacturer with countless classic franchises, it's somewhat puzzling they really haven't tried to leverage it beyond some kart racing titles and a tennis game. Oh, and the odd retro collection (typically just acknowledging the Mega Drive era).
So it's with more than just a passing interest that we picked up Sega Heroes - an action-RPG puzzle fighter starring characters from a bunch of storied Sega franchises. For a Sega fan of three decades, it's quite the treat to start a game out with the unlikely pairing of Ax Battler (Golden Axe) and Amy Rose (Sonic's girlfriend). It's pretty nuts, but apparently, there's a villain that's up to no good, cloning friends and enemies from various Sega franchises. The likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Golden Axe, Shinobi, Phantasy Star, Jet Set Radio, Streets of Rage, and Super Monkey Ball are included at launch.
And the heroes range from known quantities like Sonic and AiAi to older more forgotten ones like Lassic (original Phantasy Star), Big the Cat (Sonic), and Gillius Thunderhead (Golden Axe). There is naturally plenty of room to expand the roster and we'd like to see Crazy Taxi drivers, Shenmue and Yakuza characters next. You unlock characters by collecting shards (these are then also used to upgrade said characters) and they come in various tiers and rarities. Ultimately this is a deck-building game and one where you'll want to collect as many characters as possible.
The gameplay mechanics are rather simple. In a fairly basic match-three puzzle setup you've got five colours to match. Four correspond to the four characters you've got equipped and launch their attacks. The fifth (purple) builds an overall damage multiplier. Match four or five (or more) blocks of the same colour and you create special blocks. It's always a case of risk-reward when trying for large combos or setting up even greater combos and your damage multiplier for later.
The characters have very varied attacks and abilities, each one has a special that charges as you clear blocks, and there is one ability for clearing a small star block (created by clearing four blocks) and one for the big star (five blocks or more). Some characters can heal themselves or others and Phantasy Star's Rolf uses megid - tech that robs your squadmates of some health in favour of sizable damage to enemies. There are also immunity states you can conjure as well as taunt, and the enemies you face all have similar skills.
Each stage can last between one and six rounds, in the latter case, it becomes important to build up your purple bar early. If one of your characters goes down they can be revived by clearing blocks of their colour until their bar is full. At times it's a race to fill one such bar as your last character is clinging on to life.
Sega Heroes comes with an array of currencies and artificial friction, there's coins (used for upgrading characters mainly), diamonds (speeds things along, unlocks content in the store), shards (character unlocks), and energy (so you can't grind levels endlessly). Then there are reagents to upgrade the skills of your characters. It's what you'd expect from a free-to-play title and it takes a little time to grasp at first, but after that it's fairly decent. It should also be noted that there are event stages (lots of them every day) that don't take energy to play and energy replenishes as you level up, so you can play a lot without opening your wallet. You also receive plenty of diamonds just from playing, but it should be said that by design from launch you had to spend a little real money to get in on every event as there was no other way to unlock all the characters needed for every event. It's likely how new character sets will be introduced too, so be sure to have some diamonds set aside if you want to get in early on new character sets.
There is multiplayer of sorts and a ranking ladder to climb, it's not real-time and instead, people will face your squad in asynchronous combat. What's interesting about this is that in this mode, while you face an AI using the squad of a real player, both you and the AI make use of the same blocks. This makes the game very different as you need to consider how to prevent the opponent from scoring big combos with the next move. When playing events or the campaign the board is all yours and you can set yourself up for big combos without having to factor in the opponent. Guilds are planned for a future update, which would add a much needed social aspect to the game.
Overall, Sega Heroes is a highly addictive experience for longtime Sega fans. We've yet to unlock the Jet Set Radio crew and we can't wait to unleash the beats of the legendary Professor K. The match-three mechanics work well, even if we would have loved for a sixth colour block to let us heal characters (instead of relying on the special abilities of certain characters). We also feel as though the game could have rewarded long chain combos even more than it does, making more reliant on skill as opposed to stats. It's a great concept, but one that's a little held back by the nature of free-to-play mechanics and friction. Still, it's well worth a download if you're a Sega fan.