Highborn Hands-On Preview, with Video

We recently got our hands on a preview version of Highborn, an upcoming turn-based strategy title from Jet Set Games. After giving a few maps a spin, we can report that the game positively drips with personality, and we’re really looking forward to playing the final version. Read on for the details.

In Highborn you command an army, lead by Archie, a blond, musclebound knight who’s as confident as he is clueless. You set out across a series of maps to destroy the evil forces of Decay by advancing and attacking the vermin one turn at a time. It’s as if Advance Wars was transported to a tongue-in-cheek fantasy world.

Before doing anything on each level, you’ll thumb through some very witty dialogue between your hero character and the boss of the map that lets you in on your objectives for winning. In the first map we played, the goals were to capture two monoliths and a monastery, and then defeat the wretched minotaur, who only appeared after figuring out what to do with his kids, who were accompanying him on bring-your-child-to-work day.

The maps are set up on a brick-like grid that your troops can traverse according to their movement range. You’ll also encounter different types of terrain that affect how your troops can advance. Forests slow down your movement but keep you hidden from far-away enemies, while streams can’t be crossed by land-based troops unless they have a boat.

When your troops come within range, you can initiate combat with enemies. The actual fighting is a hands-off affair, as your troops will attack, killing off a certain number of enemies, and then the remaining bad guys will attack you. After combat, you’re booted back to the map to continue your turn.

Since Highborn takes place in a fantasy setting, magic plays a big part in the combat. You learn spells primarily by capturing monoliths, so it’s a good idea to target those first if you have a choice of where to go on a map. Once you initiate combat, the first thing you’ll be asked is if you’d like to use a spell. Spells give you an advantage because they’re cast before the rest of the fighting occurs, although you’ll have to wait out the spell’s cool-down period before using it again.

The one thing we weren’t crazy about were the graphics during combat. Instead of sticking with the gorgeous hand-drawn art that makes up the rest of the game, the developers opted to use 3D polygonal graphics for the fighting screens. The polygons are jagged and lacking in detail (think early PS1 games), and we thought they looked out of place in an otherwise great-looking game.

Another strong point of Highborn is the variety of units available, including knights, archers, dwarves, catapults, and mad wizards, to name a few. Each type has its own movement range, attack range, and amount of health. Tapping for more info on a unit brings up additional facts about it, like what kinds of damage it’s strong and weak against. There’s a lot of depth to the gameplay, which should satisfy hardcore strategy fans, but not enough to overwhelm the more casual crowd.

Aside from the main campaign mode, round-based multiplayer via Facebook will also be an option. This means that your opponent doesn’t have to be playing at the same time as you, so you can take your turn at your leisure. You’ll also be able to have multiple games going at once.

None of the stuff we saw was particularly original in the world of turn-based strategy games, but we were impressed by the blinding sheen of polish on everything from the gameplay to the graphics and touch input. The developers are planning to submit Highborn to Apple this week, so look for it soon.