Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hinterland (Impressions)

12:15 a.m.
1:30 a.m.
2:15 a.m.
1:10 a.m.

That's how late I stayed up (on consecutive nights) playing Hinterland last week.

In total, I've put in 15+ hours now, so I'm ready to post impressions. Here's the game description from the Tilted Mill website:
Loot, level and build with fast paced RPG combat and strategic base building!

Having a hard time understanding exactly what that means? So was I, so let's talk about how the game works.

You're a hero.

Okay, that's been done.

You fight bad guys.

Okay, that's been done, too.

You save a kingdom.


So why am I playing this every night until I can't keep my eyes open? Well, because even though it's been done, it's different this time.

In a traditional Diablo type game, gameplay is very narrow--kill enemy, move toward next enemy, kill next enemy, repeat one million times. Sometimes a game will do a masterful job with this formula--Fate is my favorite example--but all too often, a game in this genre is too repetitive, because face it--it IS repetitive.

The entire purpose of those kinds of games, though, is to build up your character, because it's very much a Spaghetti Western kind of world, where your hero stands alone. In Hinterland, that's the fastest way to lose, because it's not possible to win the game with just your character.

That's where your town matters.

Yes, there's a town--multiple plots of land that can contain craftsman, hunters, herders, doctors, priests, etc. They come to your city as visitors, and if they like what they see (of your fame, town quality, and infrastructure), they're willing to stay.

Why should you care? Because those craftsman can make weapons, and priests (both light and dark) can create spells, and every single person in the town can help gear you up to become more powerful. They can fight with you, too, but if they're adventuring, they're not performing their task in town, so you have difficult decisions to make.

Oh, and those townspeople? They can also defend the town when it's attacked by raiders, and it will be. Run-of-the-mill bandits, maybe, if you're lucky. If you're not so lucky, well, you need to find out for yourself. I'll just say this: there are bad things out in the wildnerness.

That's the core mechanic of what makes the game so addicting. It's a constant balancing act, because goals are usually zero-sum affairs. While you're out adventuring, you can build up your fame (if you don't get your ass kicked, because if you do, word gets around) and increase your gold, but you might miss an important visitor to your town, and there's no way to manage what's happening while you're gone.

Oh, and someone needs to defend the town in case the raiders come. So if you're too far afield (where the best loot can always be found), the town is more vulnerable.

Conversely, if you just hang out in your city, it's easy to manage what's happening, but your character won't level, and the only way to increase your fame is by fulfilling a relatively infrequent request from the king.

That's the essence of interesting gameplay, being forced to make imperfect decisions, then adapting. That's exactly how Hinterland works.

Much has been made of replayability, but I didn't really understand how it could work. Now I do, though, so here's a rundown. There are three difficulty levels and three map sizes. In addition to that, though, there are fifteen character classes to choose from, most of which are relatively unique (in addition to the standard knight, magic user, etc., there are administrators and merchants and lots of others). Each class requires significantly different strategies--playing as an Assassin is an entirely different game from playing as a Mercenary, for example.

To win the game, you must clear the camp of "bad guy nests," for lack of a better term. With a large map, there are 50 areas to clear, and the areas have widely varying levels of difficulty. Doing this while protecting your citizens from raiders and steadily trying to improve your town is a totally engaging balancing act.

The gameplay is so much fun that I haven't even mentioned the cosmetics, but art and sound are both outstanding, and at a level far above what you would expect from a game that's priced at $19.99. It's quite an attractive game, and there's a nice level of detail.

That's all the good stuff. Now let's talk about the rest, and thankfully, it's nothing major.

There's no question that combat can become repetitive when it's "Diablo style," and Hinterland is no exception. I think the key when using this kind of combat mechanic is to provide more variety in what we see. As an example, the game has critical hits, but I don't see anything different in the animation to suggest that I've ever struck a critical blow. If there was some kind of definite animation (lopping a head off, for example), I think I'd be more willing to stay and fight in adverse situations, hoping for a miracle. Right now, even if a miracle does happen, I don't see it happen, and that makes a difference in how I play.

It's also more difficult than it should be to right-click on enemies to attack them, and when a significant amount of the game is combat, it's a problem. I've missed my intended selection far too often, and in an engine that features fast combat resolution, that can be the difference between winning and losing a battle. Having the ability to slow the combat animations slightly would be a nice feature as well, because I'd like to have more time to see a battle.

I'd also like to see more "secrets" to discover. I did stumble on a treasure chest in-between areas once, but there's generally no reward for exploring the map--it's just running to the next enemy camp, basically. I'd like to see a few random drops as well as a few random enemies, just to increase both the risk and reward of moving over open terrain.

In terms of game balance, the raiders can be overwhelming at times. When raiders attack, if your health goes to zero, you're knocked unconscious and wake up at the city center with half health. The problem, though, is that the raiders are still there, and it's easy to get knocked silly three or four times in the same raid. Every time this happens, your fame drops, and in a single raid, you could lose so much fame that it's almost impossible to continue (the king can relieve you of your duties, plus citizens can abandon the town as well).

This makes the game more difficult, but in practice, it doesn't work very well. There's no abandon option (as far as I can tell), so if you're in a totally hopeless situation, you still have to go through the next five days before the king sacks you.

There's an option to turn raiding off, but I think the raiding is a great part of the game, contributing an element of risk that makes everything considerably more interesting. And I want the challenge--I just don't want my fame to drop to -100 if I'm knocked out several times in a row (I'd argue that fame should never drop below 0).

In terms of visitors coming to your town, if you want to bring in some new visitors, you can "advertise," which is an excellent bit of design, because advertising costs you gold. However, if you have enough gold and don't like the 4-6 visitors that showed up, you can just advertise again, and new visitors show up immediately. So you can just click repeatedly until you find exactly what you want, and later in the game, you may well have enough gold to do that. I'd really like to see the fee for advertising go up if you use it too often. I'd also like to see a delay between advertising and the visitors actually arriving. Even a small delay, like twenty seconds, would be an improvement, because once you've paid the advertising fee, you'd have a few seconds to think about who you hope arrives. Plus, if you're in desperate straits, that waiting period will be agony, which is good drama.

Finally, I'd really like to see a more exciting ending. After winning the game on Medium difficulty, there wasn't much of a reward. After clearing the map, I was really hoping for some kid of encounter with a single, mythic beast--an end-game phase where I needed to upgrade my town and its residents, all working together to create some uber-equipment and a high-level battle party.

As a plot device, maybe all those enemy camps were serving to keep the beast in check, but now that I've cleared the map, there's nothing to stop him from going on a rampage, and he's headed for our town. I think that works in a dramatic sense, and frantically trying to make my town more secure as he's headed in our direction would be very tense in a gameplay sense.

Now, do any of the weaknesses I've mentioned make the game less than compelling? Not at all, because this is a tremendously fun game, and it is jam-packed with the all-important "just fifteen more minutes" quality. It's one of my favorite PC games this year, and the game itself is a tremendous platform that would support all kinds of enhancements and expansions.

$19.99 on Steam. Big, big recommendation. Have fun.

Site Meter