So, here’s a juicy secret for all of you: To the best of my knowledge, I’m the TouchArcade staff member who has played Clash of Clans (Free) the least. It probably seems odd that a writer for a major mobile site hasn’t played much of one of the most popular games on the platform, and you know, I can’t argue with that. I’d like to say it’s just because I’m busy covering other stuff, but the truth is, I don’t really like games that emphasize competitive multiplayer. While the game has some single-player content, it felt like a complete afterthought and wasn’t much fun to play. You might think my lack of Clash of Clans experience would make me a poor candidate to review the Clash of Clans-inspired Battle Champs (Free), but I think it allows me to offer a different perspective on the game. You see, I don’t think I’m alone in finding the idea of playing Clash of Clans unappealing in spite of its obvious quality. If you’re like me, you might want to give Battle Champs a try. It does an excellent job of extending an olive branch to those who might otherwise shy away from the genre.
If you’re a big fan of traditional Japanese console and handheld games, the obvious lure here is in the star names attached to the project. The art director, Akihiko Yoshida, is well-known for his work on games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and Bravely Default. He was given a degree of free rein on Battle Champs that he’s never quite had before, resulting in a look that is both instantly recognizable yet refreshingly unique. Art is a subjective thing, but I feel like a lot of the games in this particular genre have visual designs that border on repulsive. It’s one of the things that Clash of Clans does much better than its competitors, in my opinion. Like that game, Battle Champs opts for a cartoony style, but gives it a solid Japanese fantasy twist. They’re cute more than they are comical, giving the game a real sense of character almost immediately. Nothing personifies that more than main character Nia, an alchemist who manages to make a mad scientist look practically huggable.
Nia serves as your narrator and advisor in the game, but she also participates in battles in various avatar forms. These work like job classes from traditional JRPGs, and once you’ve unlocked a job, you can freely switch to it before any fight. Each one offers different abilities and stats, and gain levels independent of one another. Looking past Nia, the regular units, called Champs, show a similar approach. Each Champ has obviously had a lot of thought put into their designs, with evolved forms whose appearances change in sometimes unpredictable ways. Considering that most of the characters aren’t much more than little specks on the battlefield in gameplay, it’s impressive how much effort appears to have been put into them. The same can be said for the backgrounds, which have a great deal of detail worked into them.
Yoshida isn’t the only famous talent on this game, however. He’s also joined by frequent collaborator Hitoshi Sakimoto, the famous composer who not only worked on most of the same games as Yoshida, but also did music for games such as Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, Odin Sphere, and Valkyria Chronicles. He brings his flair for epic orchestral tunes to Battle Champs, lending the game’s presentation an additional layer of richness. The main battle theme is a particularly lively romp which prominently features a conch, an instrument I’ve rarely heard in game music before. Perhaps it’s because of his long association with strategy games, but I’ve always associated Sakimoto’s music with clashing armies and military settings. Battle Champs feels like the composer is slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers as a result.
The welcoming presentation certainly helps bridge the gap, but it’s the structure of Battle Champs that makes it work for me where others have failed. While its core gameplay is real-time strategy very much in the vein of Clash of Clans, the game has been infused with a lot of the best elements of Japanese social RPGs. Developer BlazeGames has picked many of the aspects of that genre that work well, taking things like unit growth and evolution almost note-for-note. Yes, this means you’ll need to farm materials at certain points to bump your characters up a rank, but it never feels terrible excessive. A friend system allows you bring a unit from another player into battle with you, allowing you to fill in gaps in your own roster. Unfortunately, it also brings in a stamina meter and minor irritants like inventory caps that can be expanded with premium currency. One thing it surprisingly doesn’t adopt is a random draw system for the Champs. Instead, you earn them by completing missions, or you can buy them directly from the in-game shop.
I think the most important thing it borrows from Japanese social gaming is in putting in a significant amount of single-player and co-op content. The story missions have a nice, smooth difficulty curve which teaches you how to play the game while slowly doling out new Champs to round out your forces. You’re tasked with destroying enemy bases and occasionally fighting a large boss creature. Nia will make some kind of comment on each stage, and the first and last stages of each set further the story. The Champs each stage gives you are often useful in the following battle, so you can immediately see their strengths and weaknesses. Beyond the story missions, there are also excursion missions. These are single-player maps that rotate every so often, giving you a chance to earn materials, gather resources, unlock new Champs, or just learn more advanced strategies. It’s a great way to get to know the game while leveling up your characters and building your forces, but it’s also satisfying content in and of itself.
As for co-op modes, the Giant battles put you and a potentially massive number of players up against a huge boss enemy. Depending on the number of times you defeat the Giant in the time limit allotted, you’ll earn some nice prizes. These battles are a lot of fun because they demand an entirely different team build than the regular stages. The other co-op mode is the Team Trial mode, where you team up with other players in real time to take on various challenges. Depending on the time of day, it can be tough to find people to play this mode with. Obviously, if you have a dedicated group of friends or have joined a Crew, you can just play through with them, but you can also play with random pick-up players. Once you’ve found a group to play with, this mode is really enjoyable. You can only bring two units into battle with you, along with your avatar. The idea here is that everyone hopefully covers one another’s weak points to take down the various stages. Once again, you’re rewarded with resources, materials, and Champs.
Essentially, even if you’re not the sort that goes in for competition, there’s a lot to do in Battle Champs. If you are into battling against other players, however, you’ll certainly find your huckleberry here. The game’s tournament mode allows you to attack other players’ bases, claiming resources and furthering your position in the rankings. In spite of the rather wide spread between the players across the world, the matchmaking in this mode is quite fair. You’ll generally be squared off against players of similar level to your own, so you don’t have to worry too much about getting blown out. The large number of Champs allows for a variety of strategies, and no base is going to be impregnable to every approach. Of course, the same goes in reverse. Build your base sensibly, but don’t be too predictable, lest you lose valuable resources to other players.
The two main resources are charms and bubbles, which are basically gold and mana. You’ll also earn rubies, which are the premium currency in Battle Champs. Rubies can be gained by clearing stages or simply by logging in daily. They can be used for a variety of purposes, including buying new Champs or costumes for Nia, increasing your inventory capacities, buying new builders, speeding up construction time, and more. The game is incredibly generous with rubies. Within a few weeks, I was able to accumulate enough of them to max out my builders, which is probably the main use you’ll find for that currency. You’ll probably want to raise your inventory caps too, but that doesn’t cost a lot. Sexy swimsuits for Nia? Yes, that will cost you dearly. Such is how these things go.
Generally, the flow of the construction part of the game is quite familiar. Your base level determines the maximum levels of all of the other things you place, along with determining which defenses and buildings you can place to begin with. Before long, construction on these buildings will take literal days to complete, so you’ll want to keep at least a couple of builders free to do yard work on your airship and so forth. You’ll also need to work on training your Champs and Nia’s avatar forms as well, however. Champs level up by being fed other Champs along with some bubbles, while Nia can train using bubbles alone. Leveling up her avatar forms unlocks new abilities you can assign to use in battle. You can unlock new avatar jobs by leveling up the associated building. Nia’s avatar forms also gain experience when they’re used in battle, so if you don’t feel like sinking bubbles into her, you don’t have to. I found the avatar business really picked up once I unlocked the freelancer equivalent, allowing me to customize my own set of abilities drawn from any other forms I had already leveled up. This particular aspect feels very much like Final Fantasy 5 and Tactics, and that’s not bad company to keep.
When Champs hit their maximum level, you can evolve them into a higher form provided you have the materials to do so. This will increase their stats and give them a new appearance. You can also fuse them with other Champs of the same type to increase the maximum number of units you can field with that Champ on your team. You’ll want to make sure you’re keeping up to date on a variety of Champs, as each one serves a slightly different purpose that you might find yourself needing. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, and at times the UI isn’t quite up to the task. It’s intuitive enough once you get to know it, but the first impression is overly busy and not terribly visually pleasing. Managing your Champs is easy enough, at least, and most of the construction elements are handled well.
A funny thing happened while I played Battle Champs. After playing a lot of single player content and frequently engaging in co-op Giant battles, I decided to dip my toe into the co-op mode. After playing that for a while and getting used to having other humans in the game, I ended up feeling comfortable with the competitive multiplayer mode. I still generally prefer the single-player side of Battle Champs, but it’s impressive the way it prepares you for the other play modes without you even realizing it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever muster up the moxie to try and climb the tournament rankings, as the top-level players look quite ferocious, but I’m certainly not opposed to dabbling here and there. Battle Champs opens itself up in a very measured and satisfying fashion, and even after playing it for quite a while, I still haven’t felt the need to pay any real money into it. I’m not sure if that’s good for BlazeGames or not, but it works for me.
I can’t speak from the perspective of an expert Clash of Clans player, but at least from where I’m sitting, Battle Champs is a terrific game. The production values are stellar, the gameplay is fun and varied, and the progression is excellently-designed. This is not typically my genre of choice, but I’ve had a blast playing this game and will certainly continue to play it for the foreseeable future. Even if you don’t usually go in for games like Clash of Clans, you’ll want to give Battle Champs a spin. It’s a particularly nice gateway game for fans of classic JRPGs thanks to the presence of the aforementioned legends, but it also shows its roots in its very gameplay structure and difficulty design.