In past blog entries, I've brought up the game Hinterland as one of my favorite games to play, but I don't believe I ever sat down and actually wrote up an analysis of it. Hinterland was developed by Tilted Mill and was their second game I believe to be released. Like Children of the Nile before it, the game tried to do something different and while it succeeded in some areas, it also failed in others.
The plot is that you have been tasked by the king to take a land filled with all kinds of monsters and make it habitable, while keeping up with the demands of the king. Before you start playing, the map is randomly generated, but the player can determine how easy or hard it is (with a higher score bonus for harder maps.) Lastly, the player chooses their class from a variety of options, which affects starting equipment and some other factors.
Gameplay is split between basic city building and Diablo 1 style exploring. Every few minutes a group of immigrants will show up at your town hall looking to set up shop. Each person has a profession which determines what they'll do in your town and a level which affects their stats in the field. Everyone in your town (excluding you,) requires food daily from farmers. When you go out to explore you can take up to 3 of your villagers out with you as your party, whomever you take will of course not be providing services back at your town.
While you are out adventuring, you'll have to take care of your party. If someone takes enough damage, they'll try to flee back to your town to recover, but if they get surrounded by monsters they could die. Once someone dies they are gone for good and they'll house will become open to someone of the same profession. The reason you want to keep someone alive, is that having someone level up will provide greater stats compared to just getting someone of the same level to settle down.
As you explore the world you'll find items that can boost the capabilities of professions back at your town and rare resources that can convince new professions to settle down. Each person in your town is taxable and is another source of income besides finding it off of monsters. Every few days the king will demand a tax and if you fail to provide the money, you'll be evicted.
What I loved about Hinterland was that it used a dual progression model in which the player's town affects their supplies and people available for questing. While questing provides the needed resources to expand and improve your town. Very few games go this route and the ones that get it right are considered some of the best around, like Star Control 2 or X-Com UFO Defense. Unlike those previous games, Hinterland provided randomized resources with its map generation. Looking at X-Com, the player follows a general path each game, while Hinterland allows the player to mix up what resources are available each game.
Even with how much I liked Hinterland, it doesn't blind me from seeing the numerous problems with the game. The sad thing is that all the problems of the game stem from one simple fact: the game was designed for a budget release. It's funny how much things have changed with the perception of budget games in such a short span of time. When Hinterland was released in 08, a budget game meant not spending a lot of time on the game and not delivering a lot of quality content. Contrast that today where we have amazing games like Dungeons of Dredmor, Space Pirates and Zombies and The Binding of Isaac, which were all priced very low but delivered with amazing content.
Looking back at Tilted Mill's timeline, it's pretty obvious why they choose a budget release. Children of the Nile which attempted to take the city builder genre in a different direction didn't become a huge hit. With Hinterland, they didn't want to risk spending a lot of time and money on an even more unique concept and have it fail on them.
The problems with Hinterland are across the board, starting with graphics. I'm not even going to sugar coat it, the graphics did not look good at all, and there was a very muddy look to everything with very little detail. At launch there were technical issues with the game crashing which I'm not even sure if they were all caught before Tilted Mill went under.
Gameplay is where the problems really hurt. The dual progression model while interesting, is very simple. City building amounts to just plopping down buildings in empty plots of land. Improving your city is very linear, as buildings take the same upgrade path every time with no differentiation between buildings of the same profession. The designers attempt to mix things up with the possibility of finding rare items while questing which unlock unique professions. However, the problem is that by the time you find them you should already have a powerful enough questing party to finish the game.
Further adding gameplay problems are balance issues with the professions. Buildings that provide defenses from enemy assaults are not worth the time as you are given adequate time to get back to town and fight. While several professions can craft items, none of them will match the quality of equipment you find once you start clearing out higher level areas.
The truth of the matter is that Hinterland was an idea that should have been given the time and development of a fully priced PC game instead of cutting corners with a $20 launch. I've talked about my dream project before and essentially it is a fully realized version of Hinterland with depth to both combat and city building. Since Hinterland, very few games have gone the route of dual progression, with the last game that comes to mind being Little King Story on the Wii, while good, had the same problem of not going far enough with the systems.
Hinterland is sadly yet another example of a great concept that deserved more time in the oven, or a hindsight aided sequel to fix the issues.