Review: Hoplite06 Jan 2014 0
Released 21 Dec 2013
Owen's already weighed in on it. Hell, many of y'all out there have done the same, largely with the same enthusiasm. Even those only marginally in touch with their gamez newz are sure to have heard something about this graphically spare, hex-based strategy which casts you as a Spartan-esque fella questing for the Golden Fleece in a demon-filled underworld. But, for the sake of thoroughness, let's ask one more time: is Hoplite, the roguelike-alike RPG of tactical movement from Douglas Cowley, really all that good? Or maybe, possibly, all buzz aside, not quite so good?
Well, yes. The first one.
Hoplite, even with a graphical facelift since earlier versions, is still very much a game about thrift—which makes sense, given its origins as a March 2013 entry in the Seven-Day Roguelike challenge. Players have only a few moves they can make at any given time. Your warrior can shield-bash, to knock nearby enemies and objects away; leap several squares at the cost of energy (a semi-limited resource replenished in-full with each new floor, or in part by moving next to enemies); throw a spear for ranged killing; or, simply, move one tile.
Thing is, basic attacks aren't executed by running into enemies, necessarily, but by moving in certain ways around them. It's a system which nails that acrobatic, lone-warrior feel—no small feat for a turn-based game of hex-tapping.
The stab, for example, is done by moving to a square next to an enemy that you're already beside. The lunge activates when you move directly at an enemy and you still have your spear in hand. You see, when you throw that spear, you also have to, you know, go pick it up afterward. Ranged damage, but with the risk of losing half your melee arsenal until you get that missile back—the most basic Devil's bargain Hoplite will force you to make, but certainly not the only compromise players will have to consider, time and time again, over countless abortive dungeon runs.
This same risk-reward obsession carries over to the “prayer” system, Hoplite's level-ups. Each stage has an altar players can navigate to (or skip, for a score bonus). Altars offer an assortment of power-ups which you can choose one of at any given time, including things like full heals or additional life bars—which are always available—as well as semi-random improvements to your warrior’s abilities. Thing is, while simple upgrades—like the first tier of increased spear range, or the initial boost to your energy pool—are free, more powerful upgrades require a sacrifice, in the form of health. Players with six health slots at stage four can easily find themselves back to the base three deeper on if they feel the need to splurge on, say, a leap which stuns nearby foes or a special move which can automatically recall a thrown spear regardless of where it's landed.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Hoplite's slim gallery of minions, like much else in the game, contribute to an overall complexity that's belied by individual simplicities. The soldier demons simply come straight at you until they're sitting next to you, attacking on the next turn if able. Archers can shoot you if you're in range, but not when you're right next to them. Mages an't fire twice in a row and won't take a shot that hits one of their fellow demons. And, those bastard red bomber demons... throw bombs at you, which explode on the next turn.
Individually, none of these rotters are a match for your Spartan, and can easily be dispatched without so much as a scratch. But together, mixed in varying quantities, they present an ever-evolving challenge. What's the right move when three soldiers are closing in on you, and your spear lies on the ground, inside an archer's firing zone? Is it better to take one blow from a soldier if you can trade that lost heart for a ranged kill on a mage? And was that power-up, which makes every shield-bash knock you back one hex, really the right decision?
Enemies behave predictably, but it gets harder and harder to suss out those predictable patterns when so many of the pricks are bearing down on you, and harder still when the procedurally generated map gives you a particularly hard slice of geography to traverse. One-hex-wide land bridges are a death trap if two bombers get the drop on you and your shield-bash is on cool-down. Conversely, if you can bash an explosive into a group of enemies...
What's truly spectacular about Hoplite is that it manages to boil down the essentials of a roguelike-alike to the point where it's a puzzle, with a rigid focus on the movement of pieces. At the same time, the game doles out just enough randomness and RPG leveling to keep things fresh. Every game the simple and familiar can be made new again, simply by choosing X power-up over Y. Meeting certain achievements—like, say, killing a demon by bashing it into lava—in turn unlocks new powers which can show up in subsequent runs. Yes, abilities are few, and often expensive, and all in some way based on one of the game's handful of base maneuvers, but Hoplite is still a game where you can favor one build over another from run to run, and where there are significant differences between a Spartan with extra energy and leaping bonuses versus one that's invested largely in health and shield-bashing.
There's a part of me that wishes there was more to Hoplite. Not in the sense that I'd like any one dungeon run to feature more elements, but that I'd like to see the same sort of movement-focused, risk-reward design applied to the Spartan character exported to other kinds of classes. Perhaps some different flavors of quest, beyond the Amulet of Yendor-aping Golden Fleece run. That's a wish, and one I truly hope to see realized in some fashion.
At the same time, Hoplite is such a carefully balanced mix of scarcity and simplicity that it's just as easy to imagine such an expansion ruining what makes the game special. Hoplite isn't just a title where less is more, but one where getting more can mean having less, and where the rules are only as simple as you'll let them be. Blanket recommendation for this one.
The game was played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.