I played a game in time gone by…

It’s easy to romanticize the past too much, especially when it comes to video games, but sometimes the games in question really were as cool as we remember them. Case in point: RPGs, circa the 16-bit console era. The new freemium iOS RPG Heroes in Time does a pretty great job of recapturing some of that magic in portable form, taking players back to when fantasies were final and, um, chronos were triggered?

The Kingdom of  Maxima is the backdrop for the unfolding story. In the game’s opening sequence, we learn that the king is about to have twins. He’s convinced in disturbingly quick fashion by his witch-like confidante Pela that this is a bad thing, and that one of the newborns must die. Fortunately for the sake of there actually being a game to play, another advisor decides to sacrifice himself so the boy can live.

Several years later, the king and his sons Caesar and Carl stumble upon the boy while hunting. He’s a feral lad, having been raised by wolves, but the kind-hearted Carl convinces the king to allow him to take the boy in. Caesar grows up to be the Crown Prince, Carl ends up as a civic leader, and the grown up wolf-boy Mikhail – that’s you – seeks his own destiny as a soldier in defense of the realm.

The adventure springs forth from there, with Mikhail battling enemies of all kinds while trying to avoid being engulfed by his past. He can battle as one of four classes, two melee (the defense-first Knight and the attack-minded Warrior) and two ranged (the fairly self-explanatory Archer and Wizard). Four dedicated game save slots make it easy to try out all of them.

Heroes in Time

Controlling Mikhail is also fairly simple with the on-screen d-pad and buttons. The largest button activates his basic attack, while items or abilities can be dragged onto the others. They’re responsive to even multiple quick taps, which is essential during the many times you end up hacking or blasting away at groups of attacking enemies.

Those battles are in 2D and in real time, like a supercharged version of the original Zelda. Money and items drop from defeated enemies, and there’s surprising depth to the loot for a game of this type. Armor sets can grant extra bonuses when completed, and there’s even a rudimentary crafting system to improve the quality of weapons and gear.

Quest variety is also a pleasant surprise. There are the obligatory kill and pic- up tasks, but there are also escort missions, boss battles and other types of departures from the norm. The story is woven into all of them in fairly seamless fashion, even modifying your quest goals when necessary.

That’s if you can find your way to those goals. The game’s one true annoyance is the tiny and generally unhelpful mini-map. Small white portals leading from one screen to another aren’t consistently marked, and it’s not always clear where you are supposed to go. The world map is better, clearly showing where your next objective is located, but even then the number of screens in each zone is often a mystery.

Lengthy cutscenes can be skipped if the occasionally cheesy dialogue bothers you, but the plot has enough twists to hold your attention if given a chance. Character designs also shine through during the close-ups that accompany conversations. Anime touches abound, including some archaic fan service (Mikhail meets Carl’s well-endowed assistant for the first time when she runs into him breasts-first).

Heroes in Time

Visuals during play definitely hearken back to the Super NES days, though things can be cramped on the iPhone. The 2x button is an option for iPad owners, but clarity suffers. It would have been nice to see what developers at CH could have done if they had optimized Heroes in Time for the bigger screen.

I’ve made it this far in the review without mentioning the cash shop, and that’s because the game refreshingly doesn’t make it a necessity. There are helpful items to be had, but nothing here feels like a blatant money grab. It’s perfectly possible to get a great gaming experience without spending anything on the premium in-game currency, which is a welcome departure from the majority of what’s out there on the market.

There’s nothing revolutionary enough in Heroes in Time to think it will become an all-time classic RPG, but it’s a very good addition to the genre, even without considering the limitations of the iOS platform or its low price tag. Don’t be hesitant to put on your rose-colored glasses and try out this particular throwback.