Lately, I have noticed that alongside the giants of the games industry, preoccupied with milking successful franchises (think Rambo 12 here), a number of indie producers sometimes come out of the "dungeons" to release a low-budget and sometimes delightful title. Such a team rich in ideas (although not so “underground” as you would think) is Tilted Mill Entertainment, whose designers asked himselves one day “What would it be like if you could control the village in Diablo, the one where you change your oil and sharpen your sword?”. And so Hinterland was born.
An action-RPG / city builder hybrid, Hinterland looks promising at first: you loot, level, and build. A king with nerve lets us know that we need to build a successful village and gain fame in order to gather as many followers as we can. I said “nerve” because due to the lack of any storyline whatsoever it is unclear who’s king is he, if we are under attack of if we are part of an empire of some sort. It just so happens that we find ourselves in a landscape populated by monsters and since there’s nothing else to do, we might as well start cleaning up the countryside.
The main character can be selected from a large list, and can be a knight or an archer for instance, each one having its own strength and weakness. Usually a combat bonus means an economic drawback. However, towards the endgame any character can ultimately improve its combat prowess while filling the gold pouch as well, so the initial selection is more a matter of taste than a tactical decision.
When you level up, you get the chance of increasing one of the three character attributes – attack, defence and health, along with a skill that in turn further increases one of these attributes, such as an attack bonus or more hit points. However, there are no numerical values, only a small sword, shield, and heart, so the only way to correctly asses your strength is to carefully count these small icons, or go and smack an enemy upside the head in combat and see what happens.
The combat looks and smells a lot like the one in Diablo: there are several locations on the map, guarded by more or less fearsome mobs, but nice enough to drop an enchanted sword or armour as they die. All you need to do is find them and start right-clicking. Caution, results may vary.
These locations may be simple enemy camps or sites that will be useful for your village, such an iron mine or hunting grounds. The weapons at your disposal are varied and also have a few parameters, such as damage and speed, but there is little room for subtlety: the biggest weapon is probably the most useful one. Potions add a bit of spice to the otherwise dull combat, but not a lot.
The city building part of the game is a bit more refined. The main resource to be obtained, aside from gold, is fame. This is gained with each kill and given by the king if certain tasks are completed on his behalf (usually gathering resources or gaining control of a certain area).
Also, the visitors transiting through your settlement can be convinced to set up shop inside your town, contributing to the overall prosperity according to their skills. Farmers and Herders produce food to support increasing number of inhabitants, the Blacksmiths craft various armours and weapons, and the Herbalists can make potions for you to use on your adventures.
The visitor’s level depends directly on your fame and not all of them will agree to join you unless certain criteria are met by your town, such as pre-requisite buildings and quality level, not to mention that they don’t do charity work. Furthermore, not all of them can be hired unless certain locations are controlled (iron mines for the blacksmith, or gardens for the alchemist) or certain items are acquired during combat (crystal ball for the fortune teller or the harp for the bard).
Also, during your adventures, certain objects that improve the worker’s productivity can be found, such as a trap for the hunter or a new staff for the priest.
Most buildings can be upgraded once conditions improve, namely overall village quality or town size, increasing their production or specializing in a certain area. Blacksmiths can be set to produce only weapons or armour, the priest may pray to a good or evil god, and farms become real food processing plants.
The economic system is implemented in a dynamic and interesting way, and we can see how a real economy starts to shape up. The blacksmith forges weapons and armour which can be used by the player (although the loot drops tend to be a little better), the potions the alchemist can make are of real help and the pet dragon the herder breeds may accompany you in your travels. If you find no use for the final products of your subjects, you can sell them at the market for a profit or use them to equip all your citizens.
It’s also a good idea to equip some followers with quality gear, as you can take three of them by your side to give a hand in combat. While their AI makes them jump into the lion’s mouth with little regard for personal safety (and their death can hurt your economy) they can be a useful addition nonetheless. The most suited for this task is the guard, but you can also take a farmer, replace his gardening tool with a mace and train him up to be a fierce fighter. In combat, each follower will act according to its village job, as the priest will cast healing spells and the hunter will use his bow.
From time to time, bandits will attack your village, plundering resources and killing inhabitants, a small addition to an otherwise dull combat action, considering that these raids are less than dangerous.
The Torque Game Engine Advanced is not demanding regarding system resources, but the graphics are modest at best. The textures are “dusty”, the environment looks old and outdated, and the animations, while functional, provide little entertainment. The producers admitted that graphics were not a priority, but still, there is a great need for improvement in this area. The interface on the other hand is ok, and the same can be said about music and sound, although there is nothing spectacular to be heard here.
Although the city buiding component is interesting enough, the game suffers from lack of purpose. There is no enemy to speak of, no real goal to be achieved, no princess to be saved, to galaxy to conquer. The game ends abruptly, with a handshake from the gloomy king and an invite to start over. When I did, I found myself playing roughly the same game as before.
I then wondered why should I pay 20$ for a game experience that lasts a couple of hours, with very little to no incentive to play again? Multiplayer might have improved things, but it’s nowhere to be found.
And so, Hinterland remains a nice little game, with a low price, relaxing gameplay, dusty graphics, and a questionable replay value.