Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Game 91: Hillsfar (1989)


Hillsfar feels like an experiment in which SSI, makers of the "Gold Box" games, tried to determine if they could create another game in the same campaign setting, but featuring none of the gameplay elements that made the Gold Box series popular. Instead of a party game, we have a single-player game. Instead of tactical combat, we have action combat (and not much of that). Instead of exploration and mapping, we have mini-games. The game isn't entirely irredeemable--some of the mini-games are actually fun--but the overall experience is a bit bizarre.

Set just after Pool of Radiance and contemporaneously with Curse of the Azure Bonds (you can transfer characters back and forth between Curse), Hillsfar has an interesting premise. The corrupt city council has just been overthrown by a merchant-mage named Maalthiir who has proclaimed himself First Lord of Hillsfar. He has outlawed weapons and magic and enforces his edicts with a mercenary company called the Red Plumes.

The limited game world.

The city has come up peripherally in the previous two games; my party embarked from Hillsfar before arriving in Phlan in Pool, and in Curse, I encountered Red Plumes in Yulash (though they were mostly allies, since they were fighting against the Zhentarim). Hillsfar was also a visitable menu town in Curse.

The game begins with the player in camp outside Hillsfar, where you create or import your character, and is the only place where you can save your progress. (This swiftly becomes annoying.) The standard set of D&D races (human, dwarf, elf, half-elf, and halfling) and classes (fighter, mage, thief, cleric, and multi-classes) are available. The manual hints that the focus of the game is on thievery (since magic and weapons are outlawed in Hillsfar, there's naught else to do), so I chose a half-elf fighter/thief. It didn't take me much rolling to get 18s in both strength and dexterity.


My first task was to ride from camp to Hillsfar. The moment the horse-riding screen appeared, it all came back to me: I've played this game before! All at once, I remembered buying it at a shopping mall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire back in 1989 or 1990. I remember asking the clerk if it was anything like Pool of Radiance, and I remember him saying no, but--and this is suddenly crystal clear in my memory even though I didn't remember the game until today--excitedly adding, "You get to ride a horse!" Even as I bought the game, I remember thinking, "What's the big deal about riding a horse?" and then thinking it doubly so after I started playing it and actually riding the horse. I must not have gotten very far after that, because I don't remember any of the other elements except vaguely the lockpicks. But I definitely remember the side-scrolling screen in which you have to jump over obstacles on your horse.

So right away we have the game's first minigame: horseback riding. The terrain flies by as you trot or gallop along the track, jumping over logs, puddles, and haystacks, and ducking when an arrow appears. There's not much to it, except that later you can trade the horse for an upgrade at the trading post. I traded my initial horse for one named "Jumper," thinking he'd be good at jumping. No, it turns out he got that name because he randomly jumps in the middle of riding, often forcing you to land on an object and falter. I swiftly traded back. If you fall more than four times on one path, you die. It can get pretty tough, with multiple objects in a row that force you to carefully time your leaps.

Wouldn't a smart horseman just steer off this trail and on to the smooth grassland to his left?

Once you make the initial ride and arrive in Hillsfar, you get the main city map. It feels like a combination of The Bard's Tale and the game I just completed, Tangled Tales. As you move in the 3D screen on the left, you see your icon move about the city map on the right. As in Skara Brae, there are numerous random houses to enter as well as several special locations: pubs, guilds for each of the four classes, an arena, an archery range, magic shops, healers, sewers, a haunted mansion, a mage's tower, a book store, a cemetery, a bank, and Lord Maalthiir's Castle.

Despite the setup, "Lord Maalthiir" appears to play no role in the game.

As you wander the city, you're approached by random strangers offering to sell knock rings, healing potions, and information (almost always worthless), as well as the odd magician offering to show you a trick. Sometimes the "trick" is that a pile of gold appears (yay!); other times he teleports you to the arena, where you have to fight a battle.

This cost me 42 gold pieces.

Buildings come in two types: "menu" buildings, where you select from a number of options, and explorable buildings, where you search for treasure and avoid guards. The former turns into the latter during times when they're closed (the game has a day/night cycle). Chief among the "menu" buildings are pubs, where you can buy drinks, listen to gossip, gamble, buy a round for the house, get drunk and rolled by pickpockets, and other assorted actions, some specific to your class, many of which are necessary to get intelligence at certain stages of the plot. Guilds have fewer options (talk to the master, rest), as do shops.

It's the explorable buildings--including dungeons, caves, and sewers--that form the core of the game. They all work the same way. From the moment you enter, you have a timed status bar indicating how long you can run around and open chests before the guards show up. Although every building has some graphical features beyond chests--tables, people sitting in chairs, beds, and some items I can't identify--the only items with which you can really interact are chests.

I have no idea what the things to my southeast and northwest are supposed to be.

When you approach a chest, sometimes you find that it's unlocked and immediately reveals its treasure. But this is rare. More commonly, you find a locked chest, at which point you have the option to a) pick it with lockpicks; b) force it with your strength; c) try to pick it with some random object (this has never worked for me); d) use a "knock ring" (a ring that casts the "knock" spell); or e) use a Chime of Opening (an artifact I have not found). Items b) through d) are all on the same sub-menu, but using lockpicks brings up the lockpicking mini-game.

I guess non-thieves can only try to force it open or use knock rings.

I confess that I like the mini-game even though I suck at it. I think it's superior to both Oblivion's and Skyrim's (the only other lockpicking mini-games I'm familiar with). You have to study the patterns on the lock carefully and then choose the right sequence of picks to press down on the tumblers, one at a time. You start with 10 picks, each of which can be rotated, so there are 20 total combinations.

I was well into the game before I realized you can just pause the mini-game, take your sweet time studying the pattern, and then un-pause it to choose the sequence of picks. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. (Doing it without pausing, I only completed the lockpicking four or five times out of several dozen trying.) But even with pausing, it's difficult; the time limit is extremely short.

A rare successful lockpicking.

Even as a thief, then, I've generally opened chests by forcing the lock or using expensive knock rings. This carries a risk of setitng off a poison, sleep, or dart trap, but forcing works about 75% of the time, and when it doesn't, you can just try again. Chests have gold, healing potions, knock rings, Rods of Blasting (I was never able to use them; I think they're only for mages), and occasionally quest items or information.

Sleep traps suck. Time is short as it is.

Once the status bar gets down to about 30%--well before you've finished exploring the oddly enormous interiors of the buildings--guards start to appear, chasing you all around the maze. Every time they touch you, the status bar accelerates its decline. If they touch you while the status bar is at 0, they'll take all the gold you found and throw you out of the building--and sometimes toss you into the arena, where you have to fight for your life. Fortunately, when the guards appear, so do scattered scrolls of paralysis which freeze the guards for a time. When the status bar gets down to around 20%, you get a message saying "You can now find the exit," at which point a set of previously-hidden stairs appears somewhere in the maze. If you can find it before the guards catch you, you get to keep whatever you found.

Two things mitigate this whole process: First, even if the guards catch you and evict you, you still get to keep any quest items or knowledge that you found in the maze. Second, many buildings have secret areas in which the guards can't follow. There, you can take your time opening the chests (which usually have more gold than the main areas) and mosey on to the exit when you're ready.

You just have to keep hitting walls until you find them.

But complicating exploration are random teleportation traps that throw you about the level; one of the chests in each building has a "lever" that turns these off.


The "buildings" dynamic above applies to all buildings in the game, from random houses to quest locations to sewers. Notice anything missing? Monsters, maybe? In most CRPGs, when you enter haunted mansions, mages towers, ruins, or sewers, you fight things, right? Not in Hillsfar. You don't even have a weapon or armor (remember, weapons are outlawed). The only place you fight in the game is in the arena, and barring getting thrown there by guards, I'm not sure that fighting in the arena is mandatory for all classes. This is a rare CRPG that you can "win" without fighting a single battle.


You can choose to fight in the arena for money, and there are quests in the fighter's and thief's tracks, at least, that require it. Combat is all action, with commands to block left, right, and forward; and to attack left, right, and down. You fight with quarterstaffs against a succession of foes, including orcs, minotaurs, and lizard men. I haven't been able to get very good at watching for attacks and effectively blocking them. Essentially, I've found that if I can hit my foe once, I can often trap him in a sequence of attacks that ultimately knocks him out. If you choose to fight in the arena and lose, you get tossed out with 1 hit point. If you're in the arena because the guards threw you there and you lose, you die. It's one of the few ways to die in the game.


Gold is really only necessary to keep up a stock of healing potions and knock rings, both of which cost around 250 apiece (you can buy them in stores or from random sellers on the street) and are the only real "inventory" items in the game. You get a reasonable amount of gold from chests but most of it from solving quests for your guild. Because of that, I haven't had to spend a lot of time looting random houses.

Once you understand horseback riding, town exploration, tavern options, building exploration, and arena combat, you essentially have everything you need to win the game. Quests are just combinations of running around buildings--some of them accessible only by horseback in the environs around the city--visiting taverns for intelligence, and walking around the city. Because of that, the game gets boring pretty quickly.

Plenty of people have questioned the game's CRPG credentials, and it's not hard to see why. It has barely any combat (and no equipping of weapons and armor) or inventory. It has experience and levels, but experience rises so little in the course of the game that you never really level up. You have hit points, but you deplete most of them on traps. At the same time, though, it's one of the few games to date in which the choice of class (if not race and sex) actually matters, which would make it very replayable if it wasn't so fundamentally boring.

As a fighter/thief, I could have joined either guild, but I chose the thieves' guild first. I'm pretty sure you can only get quests from one guild per character, as once I joined the thieves' guild, the fighters' guildmaster was never "in."

Note the misplaced apostrophe.

The thieves' guildmaster, Swipe, set me on a series of quests to join and advance in the guild. All of them were a mixture of collecting intelligence from stores or taverns and then exploring various buildings for quest items. For instance, my introductory quests steps were to:

1. Visit the magic shop and ask about poison fungus. The owner told me I could find it in the sewers.


2. Go into the sewers and open chests (everything appears in a chest, no matter how nonsensical) until I found the fungus.


3. Return the fungus to the guildmaster.

Some of his quests took me outside the city proper, to nearby buildings and ruins, but all indoor exploration in Hillsfar is essentially the same, so there's nothing uniquely exciting about any of the ruins. Some of them have different textures, but all have the same chests, traps, and guards, and none of them have any combats, NPCs, or special encounters.

The outdoor map. Each of the pathways requires a horseback journey.

After the introductory quests to get the fungus and a potion, I had a series of interrelated quests to ultimately obtain a magical amulet. I had to break into the clerics' guild and the castle to solve it, and again you'd think that such places would be interesting, but they're not. They're just like every other building in the game.

Collecting intelligence on the amulet's location from a bar.

And finding the next step on the scavenger hunt in the sewers.

After returning the amulet to the guildmaster, another series of quests had me infiltrating another group of thieves, the Grey Wolves, who were a little too ostentatious in their methods, and were thus attracting unwelcome attention from the Red Plumes. In order to get in, I had to find one of their members who had been arrested and made to fight in the arena. This required me to battle my way through the ranks until I faced him, which was one of the more difficult parts of the game for me, as I never got particularly good at arena combat. To preserve every victory, I had to take a horse out of Hillsfar and back to my camp to save.


I also had to prove myself on the archery range to attract the attention of the Grey Wolves' recruiter. This involved yet another minigame. You face several targets and have to control an agitated cursor while carefully timing your release to hit a swaying or rotating target. It took me a long time to score enough points to get the attention of the gang.

If you try to hit the woman on the right, she holds up a shield at the last minute and then sticks out her tongue at you.

Once I got recruited, I did a couple of jobs for the Grey Wolves, buying time for Swipe to gather his forces and raid their hideout and eliminate them. Once he did, he rewarded me with 20,000 gold pieces and used his Ring of Wishes to give me 9 more hit points. Then he gave me a heck of a surprise:


I thought I was just getting started, but apparently I already won! The game does let me keep playing after this--a rarity for the era--but there are no more quests from the thieves' guild, and it doesn't look like I can join any other guilds. I'm curious if his comment about the Harpers actually means anything if I were to bring this character into Curse of the Azure Bonds.

So...does that count as "winning," or do I need to play all four of the other classes first? Either way, I'm going to play a mage for a little while to see how gameplay differs and perhaps shoot a video. But you might see the GIMLET already in my next posting.

79 comments:

  1. I sure am glad I never bought or otherwise aquired this game...
    It's hardly a CRPG and sounds frightfully boring as an action game.

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  2. "I have no idea what the things to my southeast and northwest are supposed to be."

    se is a log with a robed individual sitting on it, resting his cane or staff. And nw is a bonfire.

    This game has very good EGA graphics. But some elements are tough to read, yes.

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    1. I think this is yet another area in which my colorblindness is hurting me. Sometimes there just isn't enough contrast for me to identify where one object ends and another begins, or the difference between an object and what's supposed to be its shadow, and everything just kind-of blends together. I don't know why this isn't a problem by the time we get to the Infinity Engine era.

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    2. It's probably because the EGA palette is very bright value based. Any palette employed later on by a capable artist is more middle value. If you turn the EGA palette to grayscale you'll note it's BRIGHT BRIGHT BRIGHT BRIGHT and then suddenly two dark colours and pure black. It's not a good range distribution. If you're colorblind you're missing a lot of separations of the forms that are done purely with very bright colors.

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    3. I'm also color blind, and also had no idea what those objects were. Now that Helm has said what they are I can see it, but probably wouldn't have picked them without some more hints.

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    4. I am not color blind, and I coudn't tell either...

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  3. This game had to be an awful surprise to those that bought it thinking it was the next Pool-of-Radiance-like title. Even with the "Action adventure game" warning printed in the box... hey, after all it was SSI, AD&D and Forgotten Realms.

    I think I would have fallen in the trap of buying it, if I have had the chance. Of course... I guess I would have gone to the store pretty soon after the purchase and tell the clerk that the game was broken...

    On to Starflight II? Pleeeeease?

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  4. I have one one question: why is Keef missing?

    Sorry if you had posted decision for scrapping the game, I wasnt on your blog for few days, and I cant find the reason for this decision.

    And btw some offtopic:

    http://ultimacodex.com/2013/02/the-bards-tale-iv-prototype-video/

    The Bards Tale 4 prototype video from 1998 :)

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    1. I didn't post anything official about it. The short story is I fired it up and hated it from the very first opening screen. I got a posting half-written but eventually I couldn't take it anymore. I kicked it to the bottom of the 1989 list so that there will be at least one upside if I get hit by a train between now and then.

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    2. Oh man... I was really hoping you would finish that review of Keef the Thief. You see... I played that game when I was 12 and had no sense of discernment. I hold it in my memory in my heart as a good game. I was REALLY looking forward to you tearing it apart bit by bit showing every wart and wrinkle so I could finally let it go and make room in my heart for better things.

      I know its hard to get through games like that but it's therapy for the rest of us!

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    3. I'll get back to it eventually. I just couldn't take it this week.

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  5. I bought this game for the Amiga and played it for weeks as a kid. I have fond memories of the experience, although I have no doubt that everything you've said is true. I think I could enjoy pretty much anything when I was 12 and ignore all but the most game-breaking flaws!

    I really loved reading this post so thanks Chet!

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    1. See, that's the problem, though. People are first exposed to games when they're 12 and have no sense of discernment. They hold that memory in their hearts and persist on thinking of it as a "good" game, and when I come along with my GIMLETs and suggest that "hey, this game kind of sucks," they get all offended.

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    2. That's not exactly accurate.

      When I read your posts on "Sentinel Worlds: Future Magic", I didn't get offended at all... I just hated you for destroying my childhood memories, deleted your blog from my Reader, and I screamed "Oh my god, why, just tell me why!!!" a dozen of times before I realized there was no point in playing computer games anymore and tossed all my hardware through the window.

      But no offense taken, none at all.

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    3. I remember this game fondly as well, although I had forgotten it entirely until this posting. But that lockpicking screen is familiar, and the horse riding is familiar as well. I know I played it a lot, but I think I just played it through a bunch, since I didn't really have much else to do with myself.

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  6. The game looks odd, a little bit like the minigame collections for kids...

    I see you've putted keef backwards in your schedule, are you going now to Starflight 2? I renember you've quite enjoyed the first Starflight...

    A little pit offtopic:
    I'm playing now King of the dragon pass, and now I've seen it's on your shedule too. I'm very courios how you think about this game, it's very RPGish in some issues, but totally lacks of other things that are quite typical for CRPG.

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    1. I wouldn't go as far as to call KotDP an cRPG although you have to admit it is kinda RPGish, not only in it's gameworld roots. Still borderline titles do fit in this blog's area of interest so I am curious of Chets oppinion as well.

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    2. I don't want to disappoint you, marc, but at my current rate, it might be a good decade before I get to a 1999 game.

      I want to play the enhanced edition of Baldur's Gate so bad that I'm thinking of allowing myself to play the occasional game out of order, though. After all, I'm going backwards in time to pick up some games from the 1970s; why not occasionally allow myself to go forward in time, too?

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    3. I'd love to see you play the new Baldur's Gate. I enjoyed your Skyrim posts. After all, wouldn't it be a missed opportunity not to bring the perspective gained from your archaeological survey to some more current titles, especially some widely played ones?

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    4. Addict, in knowing you love for well defined rules maybe you should allow yourself a different game after X many gimlets. Instead of burning through all the games you are looking forward to right away it may be better to pick the games another way, maybe some fan recommended ones?

      On a side note I hope things are going well, I can hear some unhappiness in your voice in the last few posts. That may be due to a string of games that are not to your liking though so hopefully moving on to better games will help. Out of the upcoming games I only recognize starflight2 and you should like it well enough. I remember liking the first one better but still liking the second one.

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    5. This is what I suggested before too. If your goal is to play every crpg ever made why torture yourself in 1989 where 90% of games are crap and play modern games and work your way backwards.

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    6. Baldur's Gate is awesome in and of itself, but I've heard from more than one venue that the "Enhanced Edition" doesn't add that much to the game. IIRC, one new dungeon and two NPCs, and new cutscenes which aren't as good as the originals. I'm skipping it, myself.

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    7. I actually prefer the chronological method, warts and all. If you start jumping the gun and cherry-picking games you already like, you'll remove the incentive of playing them later and giving them the in context, balanced review that they deserve.

      The impression I get from many of your posts is that you're playing the games for the first time, anything you replay will be biased (unintentionally) due to past experience.

      Your current rules force you towards what I like to call 'virgin ironman' gaming. That's a one shot deal, once you've played a game you cannot have that experience again.

      If you're concerned about the pace of the blog, then maybe consider tightening up the rules regarding what makes the list in the first place.

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    8. The great thing about playing them semi-chronologically is that you are able to capture some insights about how some of the notable CRPG concepts developed over time, including comparing and contrasting of peer/competitor games that hit the market around the same time.

      With that said, I see no problem with occasionally jumping ahead to a modern game - especially now that (I think?) you've completed your backtracking project.


      I've also heard that BG:EE turned out be pretty pointless on PC, with few changes other than a couple of uninteresting/barely-relevant additions. I think the point was more that they took the original engine code and ported it to tablets or something.

      At any rate, it hasn't knocked me off of my determination to play through BG1 in the form of the Baldur's Gate Trilogy WeiDU mod, which smashes BG1+BG2+expansions into one big game that runs in the BG2 engine. I've already made it farther in BG1 than in any of my half-dozen previous serious attempts over the past 2 decades, even though I keep getting distracted by other old games :)

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    9. Yeah, Baldur's Gate EE doesn't really offer anything you can't do with a couple of mods yourself, apart from a couple of new NPCs.

      Personally I prefer you to go in the chronological order as you are currently doing. At the very least if you do decide to scratch that itch and replay BG or other games out of order I don't think you should GIMLET them, it is better to build up the anticipation for these games over time, instead of knowing you have already ticked off the heavy hitters already. (yes, even if that anticipation builds over 10 years!)

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    10. Well, mostly I just want to play BG again, so if the enhanced edition offers ANYTHING new, it's a good excuse. I played it at least once a year between 1999 and 2009, and then haven't touched it in nearly 4 years because of this blog.

      But don't overthink things. I just threw it out there as a possibility. I don't really want to mess with the chronological nature of the blog.

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    11. Here's something I'm considering for myself Chet. Play the game, write the posts, but don't post them until you reach the game chronologically. Not good for every game, but if you really can't wait and you're in a slew of drudgery, then play a game you know you'll enjoy. The only thing you'll miss out on are active comments on your progress, which you could possibly make up for by replaying the game again when you reach that time. At least that initial experience is still captured.

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    12. @Walen
      Yeah, it's a clash of many genres and i even can't say, which is the main genre.
      @Trickster
      I know, and there are many time eaters on the way ;)
      I don't mind when you want to brake your rules, this blog is always a pleasure to read and I'm courios what you are thinking about more modern games...

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    13. Over thinking is a hobby of mine, which you can probably tell if you have seen some of my posts that are a streaming thought dump. Some people may call that style a steaming thought dump but hopefully I am not that bad.

      If you were not already burning yourself out on Nethack I would push for Moria as a backtrack game as a nice diversion for you.

      Moria is chronologically much older then the version of Nethack you are playing so it may feel like it is lacking. You would very easily see the influences it has had on modern games with things like Diablo and such though. I love to put the puzzle together of rogue - Moria - Angband - Diablo, or Rogue to Hack to Nethack to others. You skipped Hack too didn't you?

      Ok off to read your new article.

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    14. I'll think about it. I wanted to play Moria and Hack, but I couldn't find working DOS versions. Now that I'm more relaxed about that, I might give them a go. I have to say, though: I'm just not much of a roguelike fan. As I pick up past games, I don't know that I'll give a lot of priorities to roguelikes.

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  7. I always thought it was just a weak attempt to compete with the Cinemaware (Defender of the crown, it came from the desert). The AD&D badge was just stuck on to increase sales.

    As bad as it was, it's still a better use of the license than the awful fighting game on the playstation.

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  8. Whenever I do a run-through of the Gold Box games, I *always* play Hillsfar. I run all my Pool of Radiance characters through Hillsfar to give them an extra boost when they arrive in Curse. Of course, that's not really necessary because you can max out your levels in Curse pretty quickly. But just the fact that you *can* import your characters in/out of Hillsfar triggers the chronic completionist in me. :^)

    The game does have very different storylines for each of the four classes. In that sense it's one of the more replayable games of this era. On the other hand, as you've already noted, the gameplay gets quite repetitious and boring after a while. It's not really different between classes--you just go to different areas for ostensibly different reasons but doing the same old chest-hunting, etc.

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    1. That's the problem, isn't it? You get so little development in CotAB when you bring in an imported party, you almost hate to give yourself even fewer levels by bringing them through Hillsfar first. But I mostly agree with you, and I wish I'd played this game before CotAB.

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    2. Chet, it would be good to get your full opinion in the next posting on whether you think people playing through the Gold Box games should bother with Hillsfar.

      I'm also curious about whether importing from Hillsfar has any effects in CotAB other than starting with more experienced characters.

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    3. As per the discussion below, you get a few additional journal entries as messages from your Harper allies. I think it would be worth the diversion for at least one character.

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  9. I did the same when I was a youngster - sent all my Curse characters through Hillsfar to farm the GP and hitpoint increases :-) I have a vague memory of obtaining a nice item to take to Curse as well.

    I think I may have even sent my fighter/mage through twice to do each class quest.

    Disappointingly I don't think my Ranger could be imported into Hillsfar.

    It was enjoyable enough for a 12 year old, but very highly repetitive.

    I don't think anyone would have accidentally thought it was the next "gold box" though. It was pretty clearly labelled differently and a cursory examination of the box woudl have readily shown it wasn't a gold box game.

    If I remember they were going to create a "Silver Box" series that was more action oriented but it didn't work out. The dragonlance action games probably filled that niche. (never played them myself)

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    1. I played "Heroes of the Lance" in the late eighties... you didn't miss anything, believe me.

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    2. I bought the 'Silver Box' collection 3-pack; that was my first exposure to the SSI D&D games. Heroes of the Lance, Dragons of Flame, and Hillsfar are bundled together.

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    3. Heroes of the Lance was easily my most disappointing game from when I was a kid. I loved everything D&D and Dragonlance, and of course, the Gold Box games were amazing. But that game, ugh.

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    4. I hated all the "silver box" games when I was a kid. They were done so poorly compared to gold box games it always felt like I was ripped off by them.

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    5. I recall that Hillsfar was regarded as a misstep even back in the day, and its main usefulness was beefing up your characters for the "real" AD&D games.

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  10. I must confess to liking this game a fair bit. It's not a great game and it's not an RPG but it's charming in a way. I really like the idea of a character training game between the grander adventures of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. CotAB does react a little to a character that has been through Hillsfar by having Harper agents leave helpful notes for you sometimes when you travel on the overland map. Basically all it does is tell you to read a few Journal Entries it otherwise wouldn't.

    Hillsfar is another game by Westwood and it looks like one too, the graphics are very nice for the time and the screen layout is very similar to other Westwood games of the time like Battletech I, Mars Saga/Mines of Titan and Circuit's Edge. The minigame format is also familiar from Westwood's many entries to the Epyx Games series, Winter Games, California Games and World Games if memory serves me right. Hillsfar is not quite as polished or as much fun as those games, though. Anyway, it's short, simple, fun and I like it. Not sure if I'd feel that way had I paid full price for it at the time of release expecting a Pool of Radiance sequel, though. But then, I'm even less sure why I ever would have thought that.

    For anyone interested, I made a video of a partial Fighter's Guild playthrough when I last dabbled with this series of games. I only did the first two (out of three) quests though because the third one would just have been more of the same gameplay but much longer, and YouTube still had the annoying 11-minute limit in those days:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCja1ByxGgc

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    1. Based on your comment, I just scoured the CotAB journal and found a few of those entries. Now I'm pissed I didn't play this game before CotAB. Adding a little flavor to the latter game helps improve this one in my eyes.

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    2. It does, definitely. The next game's narrative reacting to having played the previous game is a great idea and I'm not sure if it was ever done before either. And it goes to show that there was some thought put into making a whole line of products with the AD&D licence instead of just making a game at a time too.

      I actually went back and watched my own video for the first time in a good while and was surprised at how hard I was at this game when my memory at the moment has it flagged as a pleasant short diversion if anything. I suppose I was really fed up with the gameplay after completing all three questlines back then.

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  11. I am glad you reviewed this. I remember seeing it in the stores but never getting it or knowing anyone who got it. I have played all the goldbox games, but not this one. I take it you bring the one character into Curse of the Azure bonds and then have to create 5 more characters. Or perhaps those are brought from Pool of Radiance. Confusing...

    Thanks
    JJ

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    1. The Gold Box games let you create more characters than could be in your party- you could then remove one and roll up a brand new one (like if say one died and you couldn't afford to ressurect him, and didn't want to reload a save).

      So to use Hillsfar, you could remove a character from the party in CotAB (they reside in 'camp' in the game's save data), load up Hillsfar and run its import to copy the character over, play through Hillsfar, run the export to copy them back, and then re-add them to your party.

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    2. Exactly. Since this game occurs more in between POR and CotAB, the idea is that your whole party is sitting around in the camp outside Hillsfar, but the characters can only go into the city one at a time. By this manner, you could use Hillsfar to improve their experience and hit points and then import them all at once into CotAB.

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  12. Rod of blasting is used for horseback trips- it gives you a limited number of charges to just disintegrate an obstacle. I can't remember the key, but I think it was space.

    For the arena, there are only 4 animations of enemies. The first batch is intentionally dumb AI, but they all have certain 'tells' they do before attacking. I think there were some rumors that give you tips on the patterns of certain enemies (Lefty almost always attacks from the left, one of the minotaurs attacks left-right-left). Importing a higher level character may make it easier- more hit points means you can last longer.

    For the archery range, Dexterity limits cursor wander. There is also a wind gauge on the screen showing how far your weapon will get blown off course (heavy weapons like daggers/arrows don't get effected very much, but darts do). The rest of it is learning the timing and patterns, which takes a while. Unlike the arena, it doesn't drop you down a rank when you lose. Slings are terrible to aim- they arc (and clerics are stuck with only that as a weapon choice).

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    1. I can't find any key that makes the Rod of Blasting work, so I just assumed it was only for mage characters. In any event, simply jumping over the obstacles isn't that hard.

      I did get the clues about the arena enemies from the taverns--forgot to mention that--and although they helped a lot with blocking, they didn't help at all with attacking. They would block 95% of my attacks unless I could get one in, at which point I could generally get two or three more in a quick sequence.

      I actually had more luck with slings on the archery range than the bow. The sling fires immediately, as opposed to the bow were you have a "draw time." Daggers work even better, though.

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    2. Daggers were far and away the best. The only thing you probably haven't seen is the wand (for mages); I doubt you are missing much there.

      I found a PDF of the manual online, and it lists the Rod of Blasting is used by pressing the spacebar.

      Did you find the Chime of Opening? I thought it was a part of the main quest progression.

      It also sounds like perhaps Hillsfar is running too fast- slowing it down in DosBOX might make getting the timing down for fighting and lockpicking easier.

      ----
      For the Arena matches, its been years since I played this. From what I recall, I would normally either just try repeatedly raining lefts and rights at them hoping something would get through, with occasional of the strong down attack (that was too slow for much effective use).

      For the ones that seem to block everything, I think you have to go more reactive. They seem to operate how you'd expect a computer controlled opponent to do- capable of perfect defense, but with programmed vulnerabilities. Sometimes they are vulnerable right before they are going to swing at you- just sitting there without attacking for a second or so to lure them into getting ready to attack. Others get tired out from attacking and are vulnerable after you have blocked their combination.

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  13. I actually remember playing this game on my NES or SNES I think. It was a pretty fun little game back then for me, but I don't think I'd enjoy it much now. I don't think I even realized it was connected to the Gold Gox games, probably because I didn't have the chance to import my characters. I'm interested to see your mage playthrough as I'm pretty sure that's the one I did.

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  14. darn, Kellandros beat me to it re: the Rod of Blasting. I can share another tidbit though. Fighting in the arena is a major part of the fighter's quest in the game. IIRC the Guildmaster just keeps sending you to brawl in the arena in the beginning.

    I honestly loved this game over the other Gold Box games. I have always been more of an action gamer than the type willing to sit down and grind for what seems years. Since so little of CRPGs approaches real role-playing they have always held less interest for me. If there is anything i do enjoy in CRPGs it's tactical combat and loot grabbing. Modern games do a better job but still lack the ability to handle genuine player improvisation. Hillsfar was just a simple game and I had a lot of fun playing it. It was not too long, too complicated or overwhelming.

    One thing I remember for sure was the Dwarf's absolutely atrocious back story in the Hillsfar clue book (my friend always bought the cheat book when he bought a new game). The Dwarf was portrayed as a miniature Incredible Hulk who punches holes in walls, threw daggers through logs and took the "dour and grumpy" trope to new levels.

    This one is a treasure in my gaming vault.

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    1. I'm amazed that someone needed to write a cluebook for Hillsfar, but there we are. I agree with you that it's not "too long, too complicated, or overwhelming." One of the few ways that a game that I otherwise don't like can redeem itself is to wrap itself up quickly.

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  15. It's nice to see your summary here, and it matches my memories of playing the game. I'm pretty sure I'll skip the NES version of the game now given this (and the current going price for a cartridge).

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  16. I played this game a bit a few years back, and didn't remember it being particularly enjoyable.

    However, historically speaking, it seems as though it may be one of the (if not the) first games that let you import characters from one game to another, and have it affect your experience. Many games from that era did let you import characters from other games, but the game wasn't any different, and it was really just for stats (items and gold seemed to rarely make it). Granted, the effect on gameplay is virtually non-existent, but at least the developers made the effort. Its certainly not something you see very often, and does give the player an additional sense of accomplishment, as well as an increased attachment to their character(s).

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. It's definitely one of the only games to let you import from and export to very different styles of games.

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    3. Off the top of my head, Sim games let you do the same thing. You could import-export and do all sorts of crazy stuff with SimCity/SimCopter/Streets of SimCity.

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  17. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I get a sense of pride every time I understand a random reference, term, or anything of the sort in games I don't know directly. This time, it was the mention of the Harpers.

    I glimpsed at the screenshot, read "Harpers" and suddenly my eyes lit up. "Hey, I know who the Harpers are!". I need to get my priorities straight.

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  18. You seem to have lost Chaos Strikes Back in the blog list of "Recent and upcoming"

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    1. Thanks. Don't know what I did there. I repaired it.

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  19. I confess I didn't read in detail through all the comments above, but I just wished to say I too do remember that game fondly from my youth (11, 12y, maybe?). It wasn't great, I never got far in it, but it was definitely charming in its way, and stood out from the crowd as quite odd for sure.

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  20. I'm still playing Hillsfar today. As simple as it is, time has revealed this casual game to be a gem.

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    1. We'll have to disagree on that, I'm afraid. I wouldn't have even recommended it in 1989, let alone today.

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  21. I remember Hillsfar as one of those games that I thought would be great if only I was better at it. I always thought the minigames would be great for someone who liked action+rpg mix. The lockpick was definitely not that fast -- I remember having minutes to do it. Your emulator must be running too fast.

    It was a good experiment nonetheless and I like the idea of a "filler" game letting you level up for a larger adventure. Not sure I would have the patience (and definitely not the time) to level up characters in one game for another game now just for stats' sake. I think it can be done properly with the proper mix of stats and story and perhaps unique items but it sure is a difficult mix to get right. Do it wrong and you will alienate new players.

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    1. That GIF is way speeded up. I should have made that clear in the post. I was playing at era-accurate speeds.

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  22. To make this make perhaps a little more sense, 1989. This was between Curse of the Azure Bonds and Secret of the Silver Blades. To a 12-year-old, this was an eternity, and anything that filled the gap was exciting as hell.

    I played Curse of the AB on my friend's Apple II, which was ageing (to eventually be replaced by a nice PS1, so we could play Wing Commander and Prince of Persia), while he played Final Fantasy I on his Nintendo Entertainment System upstairs. Secret of the SB wasn't even a glimmer in a game magazine. Hillsfar came out, and another friend bought it for his Commodore 64. Around the same time, SSI came out with some (as it turned out totally lame) AD&D Character Creator thing I bought from Electronics Boutique that I paid 30 of my paper route bux for, because another middle-school friend told me would allow me to choose my own equipment and stats for whatever (SSB) the next SSI Gold Box turned out to be.

    Y'see, being 12-year-olds, we thought it would just sort of work out. Somehow the Apple II characters would play through the Commodore 64 game and then get modified by the editor program and then just play whatever the next (?) game on the...!?

    Hillsfar, being a training ground for a rogue, was a really exciting release. Would there also be an action game that would let us juice up our magic-users? Fighters? Clerics? WHO KNOWS!? YOU'RE 12!? It was seriously worth it at the time to have even this awful transition, better than nothing.

    Even for a small cohort of 12-year-olds Hillsfar sucked. I spent 3 hours on (and winning!) the first 2 battles of CotAB on average setting before having to go home. We never figured out how to export/import characters across platforms (there isn't a way). The AD&D creation set turned out to be totally incompatible with any other game. I think we spent maybe an hour on Hillsfar before I went back to Below the Root and the guy who owned the Commodore went back to burning crickets with a magnifying glass in his backyard.

    10 million billion kajillion years later (1990), Secret of the Silver Blades went on sale at Radio Shack for $40 of my paper route money. You bet your ass I bought it, immediately.

    I just caught onto this blog and am devouring it, but this is what I feel is...not missing. It's totally honest about not putting these games in their context. But having been there, it still feels odd to me. I've just hit the point where I started playing these games as they came out. Most of the blog I played a decade later, in a similar, self-imposed project that had no blog attached. You've saved me thousands of hours on things like Magic Candle, in which I've had all the files, game, maps, manuals, primed and ready to go, along with a clean, blank lined notebook, just waiting for the will to proceed.

    For some reason, the lame-ness of Hillsfar caught me, brought me right back to that interminable time between Curse and Secret, and I had to chime in. I'll almost certainly get more chatty from here on.

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    1. I think it's also worth mentioning that in our school lives at the time, people were busy playing Oregon Trail ad nauseum, while those lucky folks who topped the waiting list for the Apple IIGSes got to play the first half-hour of King's Quest III over and over again.

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    2. I really appreciate these recollections, William. The one thing my blog can't do is recreate the experience of the young player in the year that the game was actually released, and I love it when readers help fill in the gaps.

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    3. I see from your profile that you live in Dover. I grew up not too far from there. Is there still a decent steakhouse--some guy's name, maybe?--downtown?

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    4. Hmm, I'm sorry to report there is no decent steakhouse in Dover, at present. There's a place called the Orchard Street Chop Shop, and it's expensive, but not good. You have to trek to Portsmouth or (oddly) South Berwick for a decent steak.

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    5. Anyone of you caught sight of this?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dover_Demon

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    6. William, I think this Kenny guy just mixed up his Dovers and accused us of being from Massachusetts. What kind of punishment does that warrant, do you reckon?

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    7. It's all fun and games until Kenny gets killed.

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    8. Hmm, let the punishment fit the crime, as they say...so. Ah, I know: living in Massachusetts. That seems about right.

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    9. Dude, it says right in your sidebar that you live in Massachusetts?

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    10. It also says that my name is "Chester Bolingbroke."

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