Hinterland Review

By Scott Parrino 22 Oct 2008 0

It?s easy to understand how Hinterland came into being. If you were a part of Tilted Mill, the newly-independent studio made up of people who have been making Caesars and Pharoahs and Children of the Nile games for the last decade and a half, you?d probably be looking to make something different. I can imagine the designers at their first meeting after severing ties with their publisher, with the world spread out before them. They get out the whiteboard and one of them picks up a marker. He steps to the board and says ?Right, we?re going to make a new game. Let?s bounce some ideas around,? and immediately, in unison, the entire design staff shouts ?NOT ANOTHER %#^& CITY BUILDER.? Fair enough. Hinterland it is.

Hinterland, Tilted Mill?s first full-fledged game as independent developers, was released via Steam a few weeks ago for $20, a price considerably beneath the ceiling most new releases adhere to. The reason is that Hinterland is billed as a lunch-break game, an endlessly repeatable cute little fantasy hack-and-slash with some town management thrown in. It?s utterly novel as a concept and even though it?s still a bit rough around the edges, well worth the expense.

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Caesar Diablo

Before the player has even begun the game its dual focus is already apparent. Among the numerous character classes players can choose from are some who give bonuses to town income and food production but are weak fighters. Others are strong bruisers able to take loads of damage and deal out even more, and the player also can choose from more traditional fantasy roles like magic users and archers, with their own styles of combat and their own unique set of benefits to explore. Tilted Mill, leveraging the phenomenally rapid update capacity of Steam, has already released a couple of small bug fix patches and a larger content update, which adds more classes to the game. More are reportedly on the way.

The premise of the game is simple. The player has been sent by his lord to wrest the land on his frontiers from bandits, orcs, wild beasts, and dark elves. He starts with a basic town hall in the middle of a tiny plot of buildable land in the extreme southern corner of the map, and to the north, east, and west the land is teeming with generic fantasy enemies. The player has a sharp stick and a tattered shirt. His mission is clear.

The early part of the game sees the player clearing away the low-level monsters on his town?s periphery and netting some crappy loot. After all of the dastardly paper-stacks of the Dark Forest have been tipped over and their treasure stolen, the player has enough resources to permit settlers to settle. This system works in a frustratingly random fashion, in that the player?s town hall can only permit a certain amount of visitors to stick around at any given time. These visitors, who can be seen milling around the town square, range from simple farmers and ranchers to priests and necromancers. Farmers are cheap to recruit and produce food, which is essential to keeping everyone happy. Without enough food your followers- farmers, hunters, blacksmiths, whoever- will leave. And eventually, you?ll starve to death. Necromancers raise legions of the dead to fight in your service. They both require a building to practice their trade in- the farmer?s hovel is cheap and the necromancer?s spire is ruinously expensive. For much of the early game, players will be paying to settle hunters, farmers, trappers, an innkeeper and maybe a blacksmith or two. Later on, these buildings can be upgraded. Farms grow larger, inns grow more expansive and luxurious, and cattle ranchers can go from raising cows to raising dragons which will fight alongside you in your adventures.

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In addition to paying settlers to set up shop, players have to manage the gold intake from inns and merchants, dig wells, plant herb gardens, hire guards to defend the town, upgrade their town hall from a simple shack to a keep, and defend the town from raids. Town management is involved, but it?s no Caesar. Placing buildings never amounts to anything more than plopping them down on a pre-set grid. There are no roads or aqueducts or complicated production chains to build. It?s a minor diversion compared to the core of this game, which is Diablo­-lite.

Combat occupies the lion?s share of the player?s time. Movement is done Ultima-style, where clicking and holding down the mouse button makes the PC move in that direction. The camera, which is isometric, is completely fixed. Graphics, which are handled by the Torque middleware system, are competent if not particularly detailed.

From the start of the player?s time in the game he can recruit his followers to accompany him on his adventures into the wild. The first few areas can be cleared by the PC working alone, but in the later stages of the game fighting without aid is impossible. Players can outfit their followers with dozens of different weapons and pieces of armor, either built by the player?s own blacksmith or scavenged from dead enemies. Bows, axes, spears, halberds, plate mail and swords are all available, in various states of repair and with various magical benefits. The combat system itself is fairly un-nuanced. You click until the enemy dies. There are critical hits, but no blocking, and only a very few status effects (?dazed?, ?poisoned?, etc). The stats which players can increase after attaining each new level are only three in number (attack, defense, health) and the list of ?perks? players can choose is similarly short.

But Hinterland isn?t attempting to emulate D&D, or even any other serious RPG system. It?s attempting to be fun to play while you?re killing time, and in that capacity it?s an unqualified success. Here?s hoping Tilted Mill?s gamble for independence bears more fruit like this in the months ahead.

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