Bits of Backlog: Hillsfar – Pirates! in the Forgotten Realms

[Welcome to the second of my “bit of backlog” format, where I’m much shorter than my usual 2000 word musings.]

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When I decided to play the sequel to Pool of Radiance, there were two games I could have chosen – Curse of the Azure Bonds (which I did choose) and Hillsfar.  They both came out about the same time, and irritatingly I couldn’t find anything to indicate which was supposed to be played first.

In the end I went with Curse first, but I now see it was the wrong call.  Hillsfar is supposed to be a simple side-story before you step into the meatier world of Curse of the Azure Bonds.  Ah well, at least I was able to finish it in about 6 hours.

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The town of Hilsfar appears in Curse, although nothing really happens there.  Which is fitting because nothing really happens there in Hillsfar either.  You control one character (not 6, as in Curse) who enters the town of Hillsfar in the Forgotten Realms and does…not much really.  You join your local professional guild (thief/fighter/mage/cleric) who’ll send you on a series of minor fetch quests, then pat you on the back and say “well done, you!”.

Then the game tells you to go buy Curse if you’d like an adventure that doesn’t feel cribbed from the D&D Basic Red Box.  I cannot help but feel like someone at SSI threw together all of these mechanics before they realised that the lead designer was sick that day.

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Never before have I seen a non-RPG go to such lengths to look like it IS an RPG

The gameplay itself is a series of mini-games, loosely grouped around the various fetch-quest that your guild will send you on.  “Go to location X” (and play the “horse riding” minigame).  “Then, Sneak into the house” (and play the top-down NES-style maze-adventure minigame).  “Now pick the lock on the chest” (and play the pick-lock mini-game)…you get the idea.

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The closest analogy is the old Sid Mier game Pirates! although this is nowhere near that good; not because the mini-games aren’t fun, but because central to Pirates was the feeling of an overarching metagame under your control.  Hilsfar would have benefited greatly from greater player agency; with the player setting their own tasks and goals.  But that would have been a much more complex game.

On balance it’s not recommended.  I enjoyed it, mostly because it was interesting to see such a radically different take on the D&D-videogame genre.  But ultimately it feels like a half-finished NES game of the “rent only” quality.

Special kudos for the picklock mini-game though, probably the best one I’ve seen in fact!

Release date:              1989
Purchase date:           17 April 2018 (via GOG)
Complete date:          January 2019 (yes, this draft has been sitting around a long time)
Platform:                     PC
Time spent:                 Approx 6 hours
Developer:                   Westwood Associates
Publisher:                    SSI for MS-Dos, other publishers for other formats

Recommended for:  People who are interested in unusual genres for the D&D world, completionists working their way through the “Gold Box” series.

Not recommended for:  The impatient, those who are expecting a true “RPG” experience.

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