Tuesday, 24 June 2014

What I'm Playing: HOPLITE

Part two in a promised four part series, trying to figure out why mobile games so rarely make any impact on me.

Hoplite Logo

Hoplite is a roguelike. Comfortable with that bit of game jargon? Then you can skip the next section. But if not, allow me to quickly explain:

Named after Rogue, a 1980 game that cast the player as an adventurer pushing deeper and deeper below the crust of a fantasy world, the roguelike is a peculiar little subgenre. As in the original, movement and combat most are commonly based around tiles and turns. Heroes are upgraded by levelling up and/or collecting equipment as you descend. But most importantly: every death is permanent, whisking you back to the start of the game to face a whole new set of randomly-generated dungeons and monsters.

More recently, the likes of Spelunky and FTL have distilled the genre's spirit into something frothier, keeping the permadeath and different-every-time levels but translating them into platformers or strategy games. These game are known as roguelites.

(Suggested Further Reading: my potted history of the genre for IGN.)

Hoplite 1

Hoplite keeps the same quest structure as classic roguelikes: you play a chunky little Spartan warrior, tasked with the retrieval of the Fleece of Yendor. (The name is a dual reference to the McGuffins from Jason and the Argonauts and classic roguelike Hack.)

The Fleece is on the sixteenth level down, protecting an ever-increasing number of enemies. Once you've picked it up – which took me a few dozen attempts – you can choose to port back to the surface, ending your game in victory, or push further and deeper for a better score and the simple thrill of challenge.

In fact, while it feels like a roguelite, Hoplite is actually a remarkably orthodox example of the genre. As well as the permadeath and random levels, it maintains the turn-based combat: your avatar is able to move one hexagon at a time, slaughtering anyone on an adjacent hex, or take one action, then the forces of hell take their go.

The big difference is that Hoplite is built from the ground up with mobile in mind, streamlining the experience to fit the small screen and fat fingers. Classic roguelikes utilised an entire keyboard's worth of commands, even down to capital letters having a different effect to their lower-case equivalents. Hoplite does away with all that, leaving only movement and three attack commands: use shield, jump, or throw a spear.

Combat feels like a puzzle, thanks partly to this limited arsenal and partly to the clean Fisher-Price presentation, which displays attack paths for any character you hover a digit over. It encourages the player to think ahead a couple of turns – if I jump over this baddie's head, running him through with my sword, I can use this demonic demolitions-expert as cover from that archer, and next turn deflect his bomb back at them both – for my money, more than Threes ever did.

Hoplite 2

You'll need that kind of forward planning as you descend further. Each successive floor pushes up the number of enemies by one and adds new flavours of demon to the mix – the most fearsome being the sorcerer, who can shoot fireballs across almost the entire screen. Before long, each level is  painted with a convoluted criss-cross of attack patterns leaving only one hex safe, and often tantalisingly out of reach.

To balance this out, there are altars on every floor where your Spartan can pray – in a shouty Scottish accent, if 300 is to be believed – for one of five upgrades. It's the levelling up process simplified to its absolute core principles, minus skill trees or item augmentation.

The upgrades on offer range from prosaic (an extra healthpoint, a quicker reset on the shield bash attack) to game-altering (the ability to teleport to any hex your spear lands on), and can be expanded through the game's achievements system. Restore your health with a single heart remaining, for example, and next game you'll be able to pray for a pair of winged sandals which let you leap across much further distances.

These upgrades, once unlocked, are available from the same altar each time. That's useful for planning but it's also indicative of Hoplite's one major issue . The game in general could do with a little more randomness. Each floor always features the same number and type of enemies, with only their placement and a few scattered lava tiles to differentiate it from the last time you made it this far.

Maybe that won't matter the first few dozen times. But after your hundredth battle with the third level's two swordsmen, one archer and one bomber, it starts to feels a little restrictive. And make no mistake, your playthrough count will reach the triple figures.

It's shocking how well the pecularities of the roguelike suit mobile. Just about any chunk of dead time can be transformed into a string of enjoyable deaths, a couple of minutes apart. In fact, once you've done it a couple of times, beating Hoplite – that is, picking up the Fleece and teleporting back to the surface, presumably to be carried on the shoulders of your cheering comrades and paraded through the streets as a hero, never to sleep alone again – can be done inside of ten minutes.

But as the challenge of grabbing the Fleece fades, the promise of cheers and endless lovemaking for your little Spartan pales into insignificance next to the promise of a few extra points, a new level reached, a new ability unlocked. You push deeper and deeper, taking more chances, deftly avoiding the attacks that would have felled your younger self.

Until you suddenly realise you have to jump off at the next stop, and abandon your hero's epic tale, never to be finished. So what? You've lost maybe fifteen minutes of your time. It's not like you would have done anything good with it in the first place.

Hoplite 3

Other games what I've been playing:

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.