Maybe it’s just because I’ve played a whole lot of mediocrity recently. Maybe it’s because I really felt the need to kick back with a fun, entertaining title that is just plain charming to behold. Maybe it’s because I have a thing for quick downloads that offer a great deal of gameplay for only $15 (still one-quarter the price of a new full title). Whatever the reason, despite my general dislike of real-time strategy, I started playing Hoard and didn’t stop for a couple of hours. Granted, I didn’t find many people online – still early yet; the game just came out this past week – but single-player or multiplayer, this is a ceaselessly entertaining experience. I got a little frustrated here and there and I still think dragons should be able to move while breathing fire, but besides a few minor drawbacks, Hoard is a colorful, engaging little adventure. Dragons rule, damnit.
Although it seems all-digital products are already starting to adopt traits of their big-budget, physical media counterparts (see Blacklight: Tango Down), there will always be a need for simple, clean, and ultimately pleasant visuals. I tend to like the colorful, nigh-on nostalgic palette; games such as Trine and Joe Danger make me smile. Granted, Hoard isn’t as accomplished as the latter project from Hello Games but then again, it isn’t supposed to be. RTSs have never been graphical powerhouses; they rely on the gameplay above all other elements. In this way, there isn’t anything all that special about the visuals, but there’s also nothing wrong with them, either. They’re bright and vibrant, with a fair amount of detail jammed into a relatively small space. I think the instruction boxes that show writing are way too small but that’s more of a structure complaint.
The sound is a dichotomy in my eyes. On the one hand, the sound effects fit the presentation; we get the comical little shrieks from princesses, the death cries of knights and archers, the crisp fire breath, the sharp impacts when your dragon suffers damage, etc. On the other hand, there’s a bizarre music selection for the soundtrack. It’s not that I dislike it, and it does depend on the mode, but some of the tracks don’t really gel with a lighthearted medieval romp. Some of the music reminds me of the electro ditties we once heard in old-school arcade productions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing…just a strange decision, it seems. But like I said, it does depend on the mode, and my favorite – Treasure – features great effects and solid music, even if it does get a little repetitive. Thankfully, none of the rounds last long enough where you sense a ton of repetition and besides, we’re focusing on the action.
Or in this case, action/strategy. In Hoard, you fly a little dragon around a simple map, breathing fire, gathering treasure and in general, causing a great deal of panic and chaos. But it isn’t dark and bloody; it’s about as bright and cheerful as a dragon assault can be, and herein lies much of the game’s charm. You simply fly about with the left analog and breathe fire in any given direction with the right analog. As I mentioned in the intro, you can’t move while breathing fire, which I found to be a bit of a distraction but in a way, it sort of contributes to the strategy. You can’t just fly around in circles roasting everything with little resistance; remaining in one spot forces you to consider exactly how long you should stay there, where you are in danger. Be careful out there!
Even so, I think they could’ve made a moving attacking dragon work. I also think the enemies – knights and archers – take too much health away from the dragon. This problem seems to be most apparent in the Hoard mode, where you have to stay alive as long as possible; in other modes, zero health only means your dragon returns to its lair to recover. But with a few solid strikes, the bare dragon is pretty well toast. Being a big fan of dragon lore and the power the fictional creatures were supposed to hold, this weakness sort of rubs me the wrong way. But you know, after playing for a while, I started to realize that it’s just part of the fulfilling strategy that becomes quite evident. As you pile up treasure, you gain experience points, which can be used to upgrade four important stats: Speed, Breath, Treasure Capacity, and Armor. They’re all straightforward and self-explanatory, right?
Here’s where a lot of the strategy kicks in. Depending on the mode and the map, you may want to bump up certain attributes sooner than others. For instance, larger maps with more ground to cover might require attention to speed, while smaller maps jammed with foes and other dragons might demand better breath and armor. Then again, you can never forget about the amount of treasure you can carry; the more you can carry, the longer you can stay out, hoarding your busy dragon butt off. Constantly having to go back to the lair with low carrying capacity really eats into time, you know? Oh, but how long can you really stay out in the dangerous land…? If your health falls to zero, you forfeit any treasure you haven’t yet dropped off at your lair, and that can be a killer. Also, you have to look out for thieves that can steal from you…annoying brats.
You gain treasure by roasting enemies, castles, villages, and gold/resource carts. You can also gain gold by capturing a princess – royal carts hold royal daughters – and “ransoming” her; just pick her up, bring her back to the lair, and start slaying the knights who come to rescue her. But there’s a lot more. You don’t want to just destroy everything; as villages and castles build up, the resource and money carts that travel along the roads become more valuable. If you terrorize a town enough without actually destroying it, they’ll actually start to send you gold out of sheer fear. Heck, even archers from that town will defend you rather than attack! Plus, if you factor in the multiplayer, where different players have different strengths and weaknesses, one constantly has to evaluate and reevaluate their approach. And that, if I’m not mistaken, is the crux of a good strategy game.
There are four modes: Treasure Hunt, which has you gathering as much precious stuff as possible in a certain amount of time, Princess Rush, where you have to ransom a certain number of princesses, Survival/Hoard, which is all about staying alive as long as possible, and co-op, which is obvious. Then there are 35 maps and over 100 badges to earn; if you want to tackle the whole game, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth. The control is smooth and reliable, the varied maps are a bonus, the strategy mechanic is functional and rewarding, the challenge is significant, and the effects are decent for the style. I think the maps could’ve been expanded upon in terms of size, the balance does seem a tad off at times, and I still think the arrows and lances are a little overpowered, but that’s about it. What remains is a good, stable, rewarding strategy experience.
The Good: Pleasant visual presentation. Great, accessible strategy. Solid, reliable control. More than satisfactory challenge. Potential for addictive multiplayer action. Enough content to vindicate the price tag.
The Bad: Map size can feel a little restrictive. Dragons can seem weak, especially at first. Some questionable music.
The Ugly: Eh, nothing really. Too cute for “ugly.”
11/5/2010 Ben Dutka