You will often come across a game that really wants to be funny, throwing jokes and anecdotes all over the place. Seldom do you come across that game only to find it trying too hard and ultimately bursting into a horrific blaze of awful jokes. Still, at times it might squeeze a chuckle or two out of you. Add turn-based strategy and that’s Highborn. While this game is chock-full of constant attempts at comedy, it’s a good thing its humor is only a single aspect of the game, which is much better by comparison. In its transition from mobile device to PC, the well-received Highborn received the 3D graphics treatment and kept everything else intact, for the most part. However, is this revamped version on Steam worthy of your time?
Highborn is a self-proclaimed “witty, wacky, turn-based strategy game.” Whether or not it’s funny is debatable, but its gameplay is much more accessible. Essentially, Highborn is for the casual gamer, acting as more of a gateway into the strategy genre. It may not have the grand presentation of Civilization, but the TBS fundamentals are still present. You’ve got your units with unique abilities and strengths like knights, archers, sorceresses, wizards, the three heroes, and more. Nothing new is brought to the table, but it’s well executed. By the end of the game, you will likely become a seasoned tactician, grasping which units are better for which situations.
While the strategy gameplay has been simplified, it still manages to put up a fair challenge in later levels; although the final level in particular has a steep and sudden spike in difficulty that feels out of place with all the prior levels. Because every level prior was fairly easy on Normal, once I reached the last mission, I finally encountered the fact that you instantly lose the game if any single one of your three main protagonists falls in battle. In stages like the final level where you have all three of them at your disposal, this only proves to be frustrating when you must have plenty other units that can pick up the slack and finish the level, but you are forced to start over just because one hero was ganged up on. Sure, it adds tension and implores more strategic tactics, but it’s a little unreasonable. I would personally feel much more satisfied if I somehow came out victorious with just one weakling unit left. Permanent death feels much more significant in more story-driven strategy games like Fire Emblem, but when you are given new units every mission, and the plot is as weak as it is in Highborn, this feature is just an annoyance.
The level design plays an integral role in how each mission plays out, but some of them hurt the game’s pacing, specifically Mission 5. The game had already felt like it had been dragging and this level seemed to be the pinnacle of that dread. While it was cleverly designed, the game’s slow mechanics ultimately make it a chore to trudge through. Other levels, however, have a more carefully designed set-ups, making for swifter and more enjoyable battles.
The most interesting feature of Highborn is how you start out with a small regimen, eventually growing and recruiting more units until you have a small army to defeat whatever creature awaits you at the end of the level. Some levels though, like Mission 5, give you a huge amount of units to traverse the stage, which would be fine if you didn’t have to sit, click, and move every single unit one by one and the camera back and forth repeatedly. This would be a lot less thankless if the camera could zoom out a lot more, but fortunately, this is the only stage where this is a big problem. Unfortunately, that is also the most lengthy and, quite frankly, boring stage. I was practically begging for a fast forward button to skip past every single combatant taking a boat to the opposite side of the map. By the time I finished the level, I felt neither satisfied nor accomplished. Luckily, the levels that follow were the best in the game.
On the more technical side of the game, I was met with a slew of bugs the first time around. I say “first time around” because I had to reinstall the game; in its initial state, the game would just break, sticking my units in place, halfway through Mission 3, making it impossible to progress. In another instance, the first stage opened with no units, allies or enemies on it. Completely empty and completely unplayable. Then, as if I already had previous problems with the camera not zooming far back enough, the camera once zoomed so far in that it went beneath the level.
One reinstallation later, the game actually worked fine. Still, with the game running properly, the frame rate would still drop. My PC may not be a graphics powerhouse, but it can still run Batman: Arkham City with minimal problems. The fact that Highborn had sporadic drops in the frame rate while rendering nothing particularly impressive or complex seemed a little absurd to me. Highborn may have started out as a mobile game, but its Steam version still feels like one. The low production values aren’t usually a big problem, but this barrage could not be fully immersed in the world of Highborn.
It’s just such an inconsistent game, through and through. At the beginning, I was utterly turned off by its presentation. Each character’s respective portraits are discomforting as they range from a drawn illustration to a crudely rendered, computer generated image that looks like it came straight out of a 1998 adventure game. Even the main menu has the logo covering the face of one of the characters. That may have been the point as a joke, but it looks more like a negligent error. I can see that Highborn wants to be hilarious, but the jokes about gas, Mexican food, and countless pop culture references almost all seemed to fall flat, not even worthy of a facepalm. I will admit though, one that I liked was when one character found an autographed picture and asked something along the lines of “Wait, when she has the wig on is she Miley or Hannah?”
You’re likely to find reference to other things you love like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Portal, and Captain America, but they’re all jokes that would belong in a Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer film, and that’s not a good thing.
For $9.99, you’ll just get Chapter 1. When you can find the mobile version for your Android device for $0.99, this Steam version seems like a rip-off, for more or less the same game. There’s not enough content here to justify the ten dollar price tag. Aside from those eight levels, there is nothing else to do in Highborn, aside from probably read the characters’ synopses. With just one campaign, there isn’t a lot of replay value here, but it’s still an enjoyable, little, episodic strategy game, provided you can look past its weak presentation. If you can withstand Highborn’s relentless barrage of tired and groan-inducing jokes, you’ll have a good time, if just for a little while.
In all, Highborn has a humor that I found extremely repelling, but younger gamers might get a kick out of the juvenile humor; that is, if they even know what the game is referencing. Beyond inconsistent pacing and difficulty, this is a simple and solid turn-based strategy game. I would recommend you stick with the mobile version; it’s cheaper and less obnoxious. I had a strong disdain for this game at the beginning, but once I got around some technical problems, it wasn’t that bad. Not as bad as Friedberg and Seltzer films at least. Highborn has an excellent amount of potential, but at the moment, it just feels like Amateur Night at the Apollo.
[+Solid turn-based strategy gameplay] [+Accessible to casual gamers] [+Good variety of units] [+Clever level design] [+Wilhelm scream] [-Bad first impression] [-Awful, juvenile humor] [-Overly priced] [-Inconsistent pacing and difficulty] [-Feels unfinished] [-Buggy] [-Instant game over when one of three heroes are defeated] [-Frame rate drops for no reason]