Hinterlands Part 1: Basics and Gameplay Systems

Posted: February 9, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Features

Hinterlands is a single player action/adventure-RPG in which you control a specific character that is not player generated.  Similar to the Fable series, the player may choose the gender of the character and their own playing style, but the character’s identity in the world is fixed.  While the player controls only the protagonist, they can be accompanied by between 1-4 AI controlled party memebers.  Party AI must be thoroughly intelligent and convincing to make lack of player control moot.

The game is played from a third person perspective with no HUD.  All of the game systems can be displayed organically as explained below, so a fixed HUD of any kind is unneeded.  The only form of menu would be accessed by pausing the game and would display inventory, skills and equipment in a streamlined fashion.

Character and Basic Functions:

Health:  Your health is displayed visually as the condition of your character.  While damage will not be permanently accurately rendered, you will be able to tell how bad it is and what caused the damage until you rest and repair (more on that later).  Similar to the Zelda series, enemy attacks will always do the same amount of damage.  Even at the end of the game, an enemy hit will reduce the now larger health pool the same amount.
Rather than indicating this health with a growing bar or increasing number of segments, it has to do with player equipment and buffs.  When you get better equipment it will protect you from a certain amount of damage.  When you can see visually that your chainmail is in tatters, you know you’re down to the protection of the basic cloth beneath that you started the game with.  Similar to the Maximo series, a flash and sound effect would indicate the breaking of an armor level to eliminate guesswork.  Later in the game magical effects will stack on top of whatever armor layers you have to provide special protection (say against freezing).  For example when your frost barrier wears down, it looks like the shields on the Enterprise going down under heavy phaser fire.

Inventory and Skills:  Are one and the same.  Similar to Oblivion, you increase skills by using them, or in this case by using the items associated with them.  There is no such thing as a trainer or a level up menu in this game.  To learn lockpicking, you would find, buy or steal a lockpick and clumsily attempt to use it.  Just like in reality even failure will increase the skill until you finally either break or pick your first lock.  Armor skills increase simply from wearing the armor, as running up stairs in plate mail is just as good of practice as swinging a sword in it.
Rather than weapons starting at their rational max and then being increased by player skill (ie: you have a non-recurve bow that only shoots so many meters, yet with your bow skill you can somehow defy physics and shoot much farther), things like how fast you can swing a heavy sword or how far you can fire an arrow would increase from sub-par to exceptional.  So for example the first time your rural nomad picks up a steel bastard sword, he’ll barely be able to swing it.  After surviving for several weeks with it, he’ll be as good as anyone who ever survived a crusade.  Even though your character will eventually be able to swing a blade with speed and grace as well as fire arrows like a gatling gun, he/she would never be better than the best olympic athlete.  Even at the end of the game it is just as hard for steel to cut through steel/wood/flesh/undeadness, no matter how deftly you do it.

Survival is your character’s basic skillset.  Much as killing people is the bread and butter of Assiassin’s Creed and all gameplay revolves around it, survival defines every aspect of gameplay.  All survival skills would start by pressing the same button (example RB), causing the character to stand up straight and apply all senses to the surrounding area.  Indicators for what the character percieves then overlay the image.  These indicators, like tracks on the ground, edible plants or animals, materials to build a shelter for rest or the remains of an ancient structure or event can then be directly approached.  Hitting the action button near one of these indicators will begin a survival-skill action.

Shelter: The only way to fully regain your health is to find shelter where your wounds can be dressed and your equipment repaired.  After sensing an area, shelter materials will light up in gold and the player needs only locate 3 in the vicinity to build a shelter.  The game will be designed so that materials for shelter can be found in nearly any safe area.  Once you have made shelter the perspective shifts to the interior where your party sits around a fire.  At this time the game is actively paused (though in game time passes) and you can fix your equipment and bind your wounds.  This would not be a minigame or menu, but rather just require you to harvest basic generic items (small in total number) and have a minimum amount to fully repair your gear.  Materials would be on enemies or harvested from the environment.  Since your gear is your health, if you don’t look around enough to at least keep minimal supplies on hand, you will be hurting.  Health tonics can be used as stimulants to push you a little further when shelter can’t be found, but they won’t repair your armor, just your base health.  If your character reaches full exhaustion, you collapse and your party carries you back to the last safe area or town, where you can hopefully afford to buy repair gear before setting back out.

Tracking: Sometimes the character will detect a scent.  When this happens they will start sniffing and raise their head, or put a wetted finger to the wind to test it’s direction.  When the player sees this or hears this, they will know to hit the ‘sense’ button to begin tracking.  Depending on how recent the trail, you will see signs, footprints or even ghost images of the print maker if the tracks are fresh.  If the trail is old you can follow it quickly to overtake whatever left it.  As you close on them, green glowing signs will turn to yellow glowing prints, finally becoming a red ghost image of your prey which will eventually super-impose over them when you catch up and sight them.  This function is useful for hunting for food, locating enemies when you need gear, or even following/locating plot characters.

Investigating: Sometimes you will see visual cues that an event has taken place.  These can include ancient structures now in ruin, signs of a struggle or the body of a victim.  Hitting the sense button then will bring up signs just like when building or tracking, except that once you examine these (by approaching and hitting action, just like building a shelter) a scene will take form that plays out in ghost image like when you are close to tracked prey.  Once the clues are put together the full scene will usually reveal a plot point or hidden item.  These are of course silent as you can’t guess what someone said by how they tapped their foot.

Like most apects of Hinterlands, your honed senses are the key to combat.  Once enemies come into your range, a quick tap of the sense button will reveal unique weaknesses like a bad leg or points that when struck will kill instantly.  These vary with the weapon equipped and the armor and type of enemy.  The stone spear will only show the weakpoints of the throat and groin on an armored opponent, but a steel one can pierce the breastplate into the heart.  These points will glow red for kill, yellow for cripple or switch to green stun points if you pull out the sling.  An enemy that can be finished with one blow will glow red all over.  So if a guy is flashing red and running away and there’s nobody else hitting you in the face, put your spear in his back or stun him to the ground if it’s a fleeing NPC you need.

The Sling: Even though the game’s tutorial battle is you fighting a zombie mastodon with your sling, it’s more than just a David and Goliath reference.  Your sling is more your swiss army knife than a weapon.  Identical to how the LB always draws the knife in Resident Evil 5, the sling would be always accessible in a similar fashion, regardless of other equipment.  It’s primary uses would include solving environmental puzzles, hunting small game for food and stunning enemies (either for stealth or amidst other combo attacks).  Stones are of course unlimited as this is a videogame (and hell it’s not like they aren’t in the real world).

Savage Arms: At the outset you are your village’s alpha hunter, so naturally you are already a master of the tools of a nomadic hunter.  In addition to your sling, you have a bow, a spear and a stone axe for close combat (or throwing at the back of a fleeing enemy at critical health).  Arrows are not unlimited like stones and must be made in camp (but only require ingredients that are very common).  The spear is a one-use thrown weapon that must be retrieved, meaning that you only want to use it to initiate combat you know you can win, or against an enemy that you will surely kill with it (it can be easily replaced, but only in camp).  The tomahawk (for lack of a better word) is used for close combat, but is only effective against flesh and soft armors.  The tomahawk is unique from later melee weapons as it can also be thrown to kill a wounded enemy if there are no closer threats.

Warrior Arms: You may be the meanest thing in the woods when it comes to killing were bears and undead wolverines, but that stone spear is going to get nothing but laughs from foes in full platemail.  Upon reaching civilization, you gain access to metal weapons like swords, maces and polearms.  A compound bow or a crossbow with steel projectiles will also change who’s laughing real quick.

Heroic Arms: Sometimes in your travels you will encounter the corpse of another adventurer who was doing exactly what you’re doing and didn’t quite make it.  Besides providing you with some above average gear (sometimes damaged from age) this indicates that something bad is around the next bend.  Using your senses to review the adventurer’s death will prepare you for the stone titan or vampiric spiders that likely lie in wait.  Although they can be broken down for parts or sold for a high price, heroic arms are generally better in some way than standard ones and often look cooler.  After all, this was the signature device of an adventurer that thought they were tough enough to take whatever got them.

Legendary Arms: These heroes didn’t try and fail, they pulled off so many quests that when they finnally died of age and corpulence, the people honored them with a fancy hidden tomb, often filled with traps and it’s own accompanying legend.  You don’t just stumble on these in the normal course of questing.  You have to look into the legend or follow sensed signs of ancient events waaaay off the beaten path.  When you do locate the final resting place of a legend, you will almost always have to delve a perilous mini-dungeon to reach the sarcophagus.  Fortunately, these hero-types are always buried with their cool stuff.  So if you don’t mind getting some ancient dead person on you, the reward is gear better than anything else in the game.

Exploring, Fast-Travel and Party Members
Besides the game’s plot, following your senses will be your primary means of exploration.  Most side quests will take the form of you being given a location where a trail begins and tracing it to an individual or investigation scene.  The map is not a piece of paper, but rather the character’s mental picture.  So areas like cities that have a lot of points of interest can be zoomed in on more and feature greater detail.  The general wilderness is more vague, especially away from roads and paths where it becomes partially randomly generated.  This brings me to the ‘wilds’ aspect of the game.

The Wilds: Only towns, plot locations, quest destinations, hero tombs and the roads between them are fixed locations.  Your character is not autistic and cannot memorize every inch of wilderness with no paths or landmarks.  In meta terms, this means all of the general Wilds are randomized.  The trees and terrain will be cranked out at random, peppered with designed events and encounters ala Fallout 1 & 2.  To minimize the tedium of these over a long playthrough, encounters would vary by region and enemies would produce gear only obtainable in that region.  For example in the snowy Hinterlands to the North, you would encounter fur clad Mongol-goblins with unique weapons to drop, or caves filled with yetis, whose pelts make epic capes.  So rather than it being ‘you take two steps, oh look yetis,” it would be, ‘hey, I bet there are yetis or something over in those hills.  I’m gonna kill the hell out of one and wear it’s skin.”

Fast Travel: You can only fast travel from mapped locations and along marked roads.  So if you are way out in the wilds, you’ll need to get back to a road before you can fast travel.  Although fast travel takes in-game time, it is assumed to go smoothly and does not tire or damage you requiring rest.

Party Members: Although Hinterlands is meant to be a very personal experience, the existence of companion characters is necessitated by the plot and player death.  Your character doesn’t talk to his/herself, so there’s always at least one partner along to discuss developments as you travel or say: “you look like shit, we need to camp.”  Also there has to be someone to drag your unconscious form to safety when you collapse.
Sometimes though, a man/woman just has to go their own way.  That’s when you leave your party in shelter and tell them if you don’t return, come rescue you!  This will allow you to stealthily stalk a tasty turkey without a clumsy soldier clanking behind you, or your excitable foster brother/sister shrieking when demon bats show up.  You can only go a limited distance from the shelter though, so that the party can find you if you fall.  A great option when you want to grind for skeleton fingers without someone constantly trying to make conversation.
When the plot does not require another companion, you are generally only accompanied by your foster sibling.  This character is basically your opposite.  If you are male, they are female and vice versa.  Although they will one day lead the village as the chief’s biological heir, you are the true steel.  Like Merry and Pippin, your sibling is mostly good for carrying random things until they become useful and weakly attacking things at the most cosmically important times.  If this character is male, he’s a clumsy but lovable oaf.  If female, she’s a squeemish and timid, though kindhearted person.  Either way this character provides comic relief as well as bonding with the character as a weaker younger sibling who you proudly protect.  When you fall this person becomes more like Samwise the Slayer, rabidly defending their beloved friend with superhuman ferocity and pulling you to safety.

Conversations, Quests and Character Interactions
Hinterlands differentiates itself from other Western RPGs in that your party memebers do most of the talking in plot encounters.  Unlike the cutscenes of Final Fantasy though, you do shape these interactions through gameplay.  When camped and sometimes when travelling, your friends will voice their thoughts and ask your opinion.  Although your sibling is the actual envoy and you are they body guard, they and most other characters hold you in high esteem.  The more you put into convincing them of things or changing their minds in private conversation, the more they will follow your opinions when talking to the queen or the bandit lord.  You never have full control over their personalities, but if you convince the knight who’s family was killed that revenge is not the way, he might not leap out and slay the bandit lord during negotiations.

Conversations: Although you generally are not leading the conversation you do sometimes have dialogue options, but mostly in private conversations with party members.  The queen is not going to ask a smelly hunter-woman for her opinion on a naval battle.  What you can do in important plot conversations is show your feelings covertly to your companions who are the focus of conversation.  Unlike most AI (and probably most of your friends) your companions pay attention to your signals.  Instead of dialogue prompts, you can hit one of the face buttons to react when NPCs are talking to your friends.  So for example Y is shock.  So when the queen says she’s considering slavery to power the war effort, you can quickly hit Y to gasp and show your sibling that this shocks and apalls you.  The same would go for a low growl when you believe someone to be lying or setting a trap.  This is real-time, not context activated, so be sure not to just hit ‘growl’ in the middle of a conversation, misleading your knight buddy to believe the priest murdered the villagers.

Quests: You are not a courier, a herald or a negotiator.  You’re a person that stalks and kills animals in the woods and people don’t just walk up to you thinking otherwise.  Quests will always start with you finding something with your senses and following the trail to someone or something or are started by conversations with party members.  If your sibling sees a starving woman and finds out that she is saving her beggings to bail her husband from jail, they may ask you to help.  If you decide to, you just go to the location or person the quest involves and start tracking or investigating a solution.  The more quests you do for a party member the more they will like you and want your approval.  If they idolize you, they are very likely to repeat your own opinions when talking with important NPCs.

Character Interactions: Besides gaining the respect of your companions by helping them tick off their honey-do list, there are several other ways you shape your relationships.  One is through combat.  Your buddies will respect you if you always fire the first and last shot and never leave them for dead.  Saving their lives is also something they won’t forget anytime soon.  It may sound odd at first, but you can tell how much a character likes you by how much they emulate you and honor your requests.  For example if your party idolizes you and you wear an eagle feather, they will all start doing the same on their next set of armor.  Like any real force, troops under a famed commander will emulate his/her appearance to show visually their association.  If you notice that your big tough mercenary has decided to trim his beard like yours and makes an effort to be polite in conversation, it means you’ve won his loyalty.
The other aspect of this is romantic attatchment.  It is possible to cultivate a relationship with your foster sibling from the start (you aren’t really related, perv) if the naive princess or big lovable oaf is your type.  If not, you will meet a specific character that becomes your love interest later in the game.  This character’s personality is altered in small ways by how you rebuff the attraction of other characters making them someone you are hopefully more interested in.  This is not the focus of the game in any way and you do not get an achievement and a cinema with awful music for getting someone in bed with you.  These are more like real people than Final Fantasy characters and if you show your interest in someone and survive a life or death experience or two, you’ll be sharing a bedroll in no time.  Rather than the aforementioned sappy scene, this is signified by them sitting next to you in camp, occasionally kissing you passionately when you’re about to do something suicidal and there being one less total bedroll in the tent.

So there it is.  Hinterlands the outline: part 1.


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