Though traditional wisdom has advised to the contrary, gamers and reviewers frequently fall into the practice of judging a game by its cover or at least by the first 10 minutes of gameplay. That would truly be an injustice in the case of Hinterland, an independently developed title from Massachusetts based Tilted Mill Entertainment. At first glance, Hinterland appears to be a simple hack-n-slash game with a hint of city building. But after some quality play time, it reveals itself as an accessible yet deep-reaching strategic adventure.
Welcome to Your New Home
Perhaps the greatest quality of this game is its unspoken story line. The overview provided in the manual is a one liner: "The king has charged you with taming a wild territory of his realm, by building a prosperous town and conquering all enemy sites in the region." It sounds simple and even generic, but once the game begins, the full weight of the player's task sets in. The first choice presented is that of character class and there are myriad choices with accompanying strengths and weaknesses. For example a Yeoman is greatly skilled in agriculture and food production, but starts with meager equipment and resources. In contrast, a knight arrives with the equipment and ability to lead heroic quests into the wild, but knows nothing about running the town so food production will be slow. And while the character class descriptions are by no means deep, they have significant implications for replayability. Once the choice of character class is made, the player finds himself alone (though regularly visited by a few passing tradesmen) in a strange land with rudimentary supplies and a small plot upon which to build the newest annex of the kingdom. Immediately, the player is confronted with the realities of running this fledgling town including the need for food and defense against outside attackers.
These immediate needs thrust the player into his role as a city planner. If he wants to eat, he must make accommodations for a farmer. Fortunately, many of the passing visitors are farmers and herders who can be invited to open up shop in your little burg. And this applies to other town needs as well including weapon production, defense, town quality, and revenue generation. All these needs can be filled by passing travellers
and while it would be great to have everyone set up shop in your little backwater, they require both food and the fulfillment of one or more conditions. In other words, they are asking "What's in it for me?" This is where fame and town quality come into play. Let's face it, a man with a sword in the middle of nowhere isn't exactly a solid bet when it comes to settling down with a new business. And for this reason, the player must prove himself by gaining fame within the kingdom. The easiest way to accomplish this is to go into the wilderness and introduce the local beasts to your boomstick. Each enemy killed bolsters the player's fame within the kingdom and once that fame is high enough, visitors will start taking you seriously.
Visitors set up shop, take their daily ration of food, and provide goods and services to the town. But these are dangerous times and a townsperson must be willing to join you in the fight for self-preservation. And since you don't have an army on your side, the next best thing is to hand your farmer, blacksmith, and innkeeper a weapon and invite them to join you on a quest for survival. These quests include clearing out wooded areas for your town's hunters, taking control of local resources like fresh water, and full-on elimination of nearby enemies who are prone to sending raids upon your struggling hamlet.
From time to time, the king will send you requests for food, supplies, and cold hard cash. Fulfilling the king's demands results in a boost to the player's fame, but sometimes it is impossible to accommodate his majesty. In this case, you can decline and take a potential hit to your fame or put off his request for a few days while you try to scrape together whatever it is he needs. Sometimes you must sacrifice fame for the survival of your city, another great element of subtext in Hinterland. And once your town is self-sufficient with the ability to feed and defend itself from raiders, it's time to start thinking about victory in your region. Victory is achieved by obtaining undisputed control over the surrounding area, the size of which is determined when choosing a difficulty level at the start of the game. And winning the game, while immensely satisfying, immediately begs the question: "Could I do it again at a harder difficulty level? And with a different character type?" It should be noted here that there are 17 character classes to choose from. Talk about replayability!
There are basically four elements to the gameplay in Hinterland: Coaxing visitors to join your efforts and build within your town, providing for your town and its people, fending off waves of attacking raiders, and questing to take control of the lands surrounding your town. As described earlier, gaining new townspeople relies heavily on your fame rating. And some visitors will have demands that cannot be met until a later point in the game. In this case, it is best to shoo these visitors along making room for one or more new visitors to stop by. If nothing else, money is required to construct a new home for invited visitors so balancing the town budget is key. Layout of the city is painless as new structures slot directly into a number of pre-cut plots of land.
A bigger town means greater demand for food and many times the player is faced with a race against the clock to provide rations for all. If there isn't enough food to go around, don't be surprised if citizens start to close up shop and move out of town. Therefore minding the food stores as well as supply and demand are important roles of your character.
Waves of raiders are inevitable (you're not the only show in town), and providing defense for your citizens is crucial. Better yet, bring your citizens on quests with you and train them to defend themselves! There's nothing better than watching your farmers put down their plows during an enemy attack and turn on a group of invaders. Classic street justice.
And finally, questing involves wandering into the wilderness either on your own or with your jolly ragtag crew. As expected, equipment looted from enemies can be used to outfit yourself or another townsperson. And if nobody can use it, the equipment can be sold to fill the town coffers (provided you've invited a merchant to set up shop).
No one aspect of the game is overly difficult, but the balancing act played by you as the local mayor, banker, and hero is daunting and engrossing.
The artwork in Hinterland fits the story and style of play perfectly. This isn't an epic RPG, this is the story of a guy (or gal) making a name for him/herself. Buildings and structures feel cozy and inviting and even a small town feels quite lively. Characters are humble in appearance, but nicely detailed and the user interface is simple yet attractive and adequately informative. Combat animations aren't terribly complex, but then again this isn't a game based purely on combat. The wilderness environments range from beautiful to foreboding and most importantly, they invite further exploration.
Sound & Music
The game is supported beautifully by its musical score all the way from the main menu into the town development and questing stages. The musical style and instrumentation feel like that of a minstrel band playing their hearts out in a warm firelit pub. It's just a matter of time before the urge to dance around playing air lute overcomes you. Environmental and ambient sounds help to bring a substantial level of immersion to Hinterland and combat sounds provide a good sense of impact.
The greatest pleasure of Hinterland lies in its combination of simple mechanics to form an engaging and brisk gameplay experience. And my rating is adjusted to reflect bang for the buck. As of this writing, it can be fetched for $20 USD via Steam, Impulse, Direct2Drive, and GamersGate. In Hinterland, Tilted Mill has created an accessible, addictive, and deceptively deep experience with tremendous replay value. And in a sea of epic blockbusters, the overwhelmed gamer can find respite in the bite-sized play sessions that Hinterland has to offer.