Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Learning Curve: 5 Hours with AD&D: Hillsfar

Not all games are Pac-man: the kind you can just pick up and play, with simple rules and fairly easy to understand parameters and goals.  Many games, sometimes even those that seem straightforward, have a steep learning curve which requires you to spend more than just a few minutes working out the nuances of the game play.  Too often these games get dismissed as “too hard” or “too clunky” and get tossed in to the pile of games that are collected and not played.  And sadly, a lot of really good games get lost in the shuffle due to a lack of pick-up-and-playability.  I’m guilty of doing this and you are too.  This was partly the motivation behind my old “Closer Look” series in which I took a hard look, and many hours of gameplay, exploring games that might not otherwise get a second look from the casual gamer.  Through that experience, I discovered that many games are quietly very good, but due to their steep learning curve, they don’t get the play or recognition they deserve.  Uncanny X-men is a perfect example. The litmus test for a game’s accessibility seems to me to be around 5 hours of game play.  If you play a game for 5 hours and cannot get into what the game is trying to do, then chances are good the game is A.) not very good  B.) just not for you. 
So with that in mind, I have vowed to sift through my NES collection, pull out those games that I have dismissed as “terrible” and give them 5 honest hours of game play to see if I am missing out on rewarding experiences due to an unusually steep learning curve.  I will play each game for 5 hours and then write up my experience, providing an hour-by-hour breakdown of what I discovered through my play.  Then I will weigh in with whether or not I find the game to be secretly great, not very good, or probably good, but just not for me.  I would love to hear feedback from you whether you agree or disagree.  You might even point me in the right direction!

AD&D: Hillsfar

Hillsfar, as it will heretofore be referred, is a traditional Western RPG.  The kind of game where you build your own character and set out on a generally wide-open quest in an immersive world.   That fitting because this game is part of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons world, the primordial soup from which all Western RPGs spring forth, at least as far as I am aware.  I wasn’t big into the AD&D scene back in the day (shocker, I know) so I’m not as familiar with the nuts and bolts of how this game ties into that world, but I shouldn’t have to be in order to enjoy a video game, not if it has been made properly.  Hillsfar is one of two AD&D titles for the NES.  The other, Dragon Strike, is more of an RPG shooter, something you don’t see too much of.  That game has more pick-up-and-play appeal so you’ll want to check that out on your own sometime; it’s pretty good.
Hillsfar looks like the kind of game I can sink my teeth into.  I absolutely loved Wizardry and Wizardry II, and as long time readers know, I have an unnatural attachment to the Might and Magic franchise on the PC.  But for some reason, this game didn’t grab me the few times I’ve popped it into my NES and tried to delve into the adventure.  So let’s spend 5 good hours playing and see if we can find the joy hidden in the city of Hillsfar…

Hour 1:

I spent most of this hour just figuring out what the game was about and how to get started.  I created my character:  I started with a thief because traditionally with these kinds of RPG’s having a thief as your first character is a good way to get access to stuff that other classes cannot.  Thieves can pick locks, sneak into places, and otherwise interact with characters that your average Fighter or Cleric cannot.  Whether or not this was a smart choice is yet to be determined.  You don’t start the game at the city of Hillsfar, you start at your camp right outside, so to get to town you have to engage in a very tedious and mostly annoying horse ride to the city.  This horse ride will link all destinations you travel to and will be a pox upon fun.  The horse is sluggish to control and the obstacles are random and not smartly spaced.  And whatever you do, don’t under any circumstance crash so much that you lose your horse.  More on that in hour 2.  
Once you arrive in town it is best to seek out your guild house and get something to do.  It is very easy to wander around town aimlessly and get into general trouble.  As a thief you can pick any door lock and go into pretty much any building if you have the wherewithal and the talent.  Furthermore, nere-do-wells wander the streets making you bad offers that more often than not send you to the arena (you do not want to go to the arena).  Every class belongs to a guild in Hillsfar and finding the guild house will grant you access to the quests that will give your life, and  hopefully the game, some meaning.  Hillsfar is a very open RPG and does not give you a master quest to complete.  Your destiny is tied to your guild and how you choose to play.  That’s pretty cool, but can be meandering if you don’t find your guild and get to work.
So I made it to the Rogue’s Hideout, home of the Master Thief and immediately asked for something to do.  My first quest was simple: just retrieve an item from the sewers. (well, I had to find the Magic Shop and talk to a guy first, but that was relatively easy)  This moves you along to what seems to be the basic game mechanic in Hillsfar:  enter a building, find the thing you are looking for before time runs out, and escape.  If you take too long the guards show up, take all the gold you found and either toss you out or toss you into the arena.  I got tossed out a lot and sent to the arena a couple of times as well.  In the arena you have to engage in absolutely confounding hand-to-hand combat with a monster opponent and, one way or another, emerge victorious or badly beaten (meaning with 1 HP, and given that recovering HP in this game requires a miracle or lots of gold, you don’t want to lose in the arena)  By sheer luck I escaped both times the victor.
Navigating the interior of buildings is also the province of luck, as the layout is randomly selected from a set number mazes and treasures and traps are scattered throughout.  Most chests are locked and require picking.  Many contain gold, a few are empty, and some give you bizarre items like old clothes, or are helpful by revealing the location of floor traps.  Picking chests proves to be a challenge as there is a time limit and if you choose the wrong pick, it will instantly break, leaving you with a useless set of tools.  This happened to me a lot.  Once your time is up, you get a notice saying the exit can now be found (you can exit immediately upon entering through the main door, but where’s the fun in that?) and that the guards are on their way.  From that point on, it’s a mad dash to find the newly spawned staircase, avoid getting pinned by the guards, and escaping with your plunder.  Since the layouts and stair placements are random this is not an easy task.  I spent much of the first hour breaking all of my picks, getting tossed out of the sewer, and generally getting beat up.  At the end of my first hour I had 9 HP, 3 Gold, and nothing to show for my troubles.  Not the best start.

Hour 2:

This hour brought more frustration and futility.  I was able to complete my first quest: finding the rare mushroom in the sewer and getting out without capture, but I had broken 4 of my lockpicks and lost all of my gold.  Needless to say, being a thief with no lockpicks makes you a pretty useless thief, so I spent most of this hour going back into the sewer, running around trying to find unlocked chests full of gold and escaping without being caught.  This was neither easy nor fun.  It might be what passes for grinding in this game.  But eventually I collected enough gold to repair all of my picks and was able to resume questing.  The next quest took me to a Hermit’s Hut to recover another item, a phial of liquid.  After all the sewer diving I had been doing this felt much easier, however getting to the hut and back proved to be a problem.  
To get to the hut I had to go to the Trading Post, a seemingly useless waypoint between Hillsfar and many of the world’s destinations.  At the Trading Post you can buy or trade for a new horse, talk to the guy at the Trading Post, or attempt to walk to Hillsfar if you haven’t a horse or the gold with which to purchase.  That’s about it.  It’s not very helpful, as my experiences soon prove.  
During one of my forays into the Hermit’s Hut, I managed to break two picks, was caught, and tossed out with very little gold to my name.  I decided I needed to return to Hillsfar to regroup and then try another campaign into the Hut.  Whilst riding my horse to Hillsfar, I was thrown off one time too many and my horse got annoyed and left me high and dry.  The game gave me a few options of what to do next, one of which was to look for a new horse, the other was to wait for another passer-by to give me a lift to the Trading Post.  I first looked for a new horse, to no avail.  The I opted to hitch a ride to the Trading Post.  Once there I was given the standard options of buy a new horse or walk to Hillsfar.  New horses cost considerably more than the 3 Gold I was packing, so walking seemed to be the only option.  This was not a good option.  8 times I attempted to walk to Hillsfar and 8 times I was beset by bandits who took my remaining 3 gold, roughed me up and dropped me back at the useless Trading Post.  8 times.  8.  This easily took up 15 infuriating minutes of game time.  Eventually I was able to find a new horse wandering around get back to Hillsfar, but I had lost all desire to ever leave and if I never saw the Trading Post again it would be too soon.

Hour 3:

I had taken several days break from playing Hillsfar after my ill treatment on the road and it proved to hearten me a bit.  I was able to restock my supplies in the city and then liberate the phial of liquid from the Hermit’s Hut with relative ease.  I was getting better with the lockpicks, I wasn’t panicking and breaking them constantly, and I was getting out without getting caught much more successfully.  The really good news:  for recovering the phial I got 1250 gold.  Oh how to spend it?  Well, let’s just say that in Hillsfar, fortune is easy come, easy go.  All it takes is one unlucky trip in a house and you’re back to skid row.  More on that later.  For now, I was riding high with a pocket full of gold and feeling like I was getting the hang of things.  The next quest was to find an amulet.  To do this I would have to prowl about a couple of taverns and the sewer seeking information on the amulet’s whereabouts.  Eventually the search brought me to a Hut located just outside of the city.  After about 6 successful forays into the hut, I began to suspect that the amulet wasn’t there at all.  This is hard to know since the chests all appear at random and you rarely have enough time to search every single nook and cranny of the building before the guards catch you, but after multiple trips coming up empty I began to suspect that something was amiss.  However, I was pleased to see that I was able to make so many trips, pick so many locks, and escape so many times without being caught.  It felt like I was finally starting to get the hang of the basic game play mechanic.  But no amulet.  The one thing I did find repeatedly was a piece of paper encouraging me to pick the cellar door in the taverns back in the city.  So as my third hour wound down I retuned to Hillsfar once again…

Hour 4:

So I picked the cellar door and eventually found the chain the amulet was on, but no amulet.  This meant a trip back to the Rogue’s Hideout to get more information from the master.  Apparently the amulet has been carefully tucked away in the Cleric’s Guild (also known as the Shrine of Tempus).  Getting into the guild house proved to be a bigger challenge than expected.  The lock is impossible to pick as it requires a pick I do not have in my tool set.  I’ve purchased 3 different sets of lock picks and none of them contained the correct pick, so I assume it’s a pick I need to find elsewhere or my luck is just terrible.  But there’s more than one way to pick a lock and a couple of times I was able to get in by physical force. This is a dicey proposition however as the lock is trapped and 75% of the time you will spring it and take 3-5 damage.  This caused several reloads and about 15 minutes of frustration.  Nevertheless I got in several times and explored the guild.  The building layout is static, but the traps and treasures are randomly placed.  This makes definitive exploration nearly impossible.  There simply isn’t time to see all the sights and get out unmolested.  The only upside is the hefty coin pouch I got from all the plundering.  Annoyingly, six trips in and no amulet.  Experience is a great teacher though and I’m no longer taking lumps getting in.  A knock ring purchased for 250 gold got me in nearly every time and with no fuss.  It’s not all good news, though, as this process is a series of diminishing returns with most trips into the Shrine netting an average of 195 gold.  So I’m 45 minutes in and I’m in a downward spiral of losing gold, finding no amulet and sometimes dying due to traps.  I’m back to not having fun.  I feel like I’ve checked every chest and I’ve even started checking walls and dead ends for secret doors or anything that might move the game along.  This doesn't seem like the kind of game prone to such devices, but at this point anything is worth a shot.  Hour 4 wraps with no amulet, a wasted hour of dungeon crawling and me questioning if I can even take an hour 5.
Give me the damned Amulet!

Hour 5: 

25 times I went into the Cleric Guild in search of an amulet.  25 times I emerged with nothing but gold and a few healing potions.  My time with Hillsfar was winding down and I was having decreasing amounts of fun.  So I decided a new tactic was in order:  Start Over.  It might seem a little late in the game for such an idea, but if I was going to salvage anything out of the final hour, this might be the only way to do so.  So I started over, this time as a Cleric.  The thief thing wasn’t panning out so maybe a different character would bring me better luck.  And, maybe due to familiarity with the game, or maybe the Cleric path is just easier, it seemed to be a lot simpler to get going.  I rode into town and checked in at the Shrine of Tempus (they just let me in, a frustrating juxtaposition from my previous experience).  I spent most of the fifth and final hour tooling about town finishing quests with relative ease.  I even had to go to that miserable Trading Post several times to complete quests.  Dungeon diving was much easier as it seems far more chests are just open and ripe for the pilfering than in the Thief track.  I soon accumulated a sizable pile of gold and had quite a few completed quests under my belt when I came upon the Haunted House (bonus points to any RPG with a haunted house).  My next quest required me to enter the Haunted House and find a bandit who had something the guild wanted.  Sadly, upon attempting to pick the lock and enter the haunted house, the only apparent way in, I triggered a trap which exploded and killed me.  The real tragedy: I had failed to save this character at any point during my game.  Thus, my final hour of play, while much more enjoyable, was completely undermined by a failure to save.  The entire hour just wiped away by a single trap.  Frustrating.

Final Appraisal?  AD&D: Hillsfar isn’t a terrible RPG.  It’s clunky and very slow to start, but I think someone determined to sit down and learn its ins and outs will be able to find something here to enjoy.  Some of the game play mechanics are tedious and some are downright incomprehensible.  The bulk of the game is just journey to X find the Y and return with no combat or battle system unless you get tossed into the Arena.  But the world is fairly well constructed and I can see really getting in to it if you are not turned off by the obtuse mechanics.  

Learning Curve:  About 2.5 hours of solid play should get you accustomed to how the game works and what is expected of you.  It probably takes a little longer to get invested in the world of the game, but it is possible.

Will I Finish It?  Unlikely.  Most of my time in Hillsfar was spent being extremely frustrated and the brief moments of accomplishment weren’t enough to help me power through the annoying parts.  I may give Hillsfar another look in a year or so, after I get over the aggravation of this play through, but I’m not inspired to keep the adventure going at this time.

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