Friday, June 14, 2024

WIth A Name Like That, What Did You Expect? Dungeons Of Hinterberg Demo Microreview

If yesterday's demo was a very pleasant surprise, today's is the exact opposite. When I went looking for demos to play at this summer's Next Fest, I spotted one for a game I already had on my wishlist: Dungeons of Hinterberg. After nearly an hour and a half playing it this morning, it's not on my wishlist any more.

That has nothing to do with the quality of the game, which shows every evidence of being slick, polished and well-made. It's because it's absolutely nothing like I was expecting. I can't remember where I heard about it in the first place but whatever it was that I saw or read, it clearly gave me completely the wrong impression. 

Until this morning, I thought Dungeons of Hinterberg was a mystery-adventure with a central European setting. I knew it had some action elements but I was imagining the titular dungeons to be a part of the narrative, not the main body of the gameplay.

Based on what's on show in the demo, I would appear to have gotten that all back to front. The core gameplay revolves around taking on a series of "dungeons" one after another. Whatever narrative there might be merely serves as a basic framing device for the action.

The full game does supposedly include some wind-down time in the evenings after a long day of monster-slaying but none of that features in any part of the demo I saw. Withthe caveat that I didn't play all the way to the end, dungeoneering is all there is. 

That's a rhetorical question, right? I mean, it's not like we have a choice.

The demo opens with a very brief scene that takes place on what I took to be the terrace of the hotel, where the player-character, Luisa, is staying. After a short and purposeless exchange with her companion about whether it's better to unpack or leave everything in your suitcase, it's straight off to the one and only dungeon available. There's a smidgeon of tutorial that barely registers and after that it's up into the snow-covered mountains for a an hour or two of puzzle-solving and monster-bashing.

I say an hour or two because I bailed before the demo was over. It might go on for longer than that, which would make it a very substantial demo indeed. It felt pretty long to me as it was. 

Perhaps suprisingly, given what I've said so far, I didn't quit because I wasn't enjoying my time in Hinterberg. It was fairly good fun for the most part. The reason I stopped was that I ran into a monster I couldn't defeat in a couple of tries and I realized I absolutely did not care enough about what came next to figure out tactics that would work to get past him.

By that point I'd been playing for more than eighty minutes, which is a very good run for a demo. I'd also had to come out of the game three times to google for suggestions on how to progress, which is probably three more times than any developer ever thought anyone would need to look at a walkthrough for what I imagine is supposed to be the easiest dungeon in the game.

One door closes and another one shuts.
Until that last one, I hadn't been having problems with the fights. There really aren't all that many of them. Most of the gameplay I saw revolved around solving puzzles. I shouldn't have been surprised (Although I was.) The description on the game's Steam Store page does remind potential players that "Braving a dungeon requires more than just cutting-edge sports gear and a good sword arm" at least in Hinterberg, where "dungeons are full of puzzles."

They're really not kidding. The whole thing is a conveyor belt of problems to be solved, almost all of them revolving around gaining access to the next location. They're all physical puzzles, the kind where you have to switch switches to change the direction of laser beams or press buttons to make something go up or come down to make steps or create a bridge.

I always enjoy a bit of that sort of thing along the way but here it pretty much is the way. After a while I found myself wishing there were more monsters to fight and I didn't even like the combat all that much.

Visually the game looks great, if your taste runs to early-noughties animated TV shows. Everything has that slightly rounded, soft-edged look and the color palette uses that distinctive vibrant-pastels aesthetic I associate with the Cartoon Network

Why do I feel like there might be a talking candelabra at the top of these stairs?
Outdoors and in the town, at least for the brief glimpse of it the demo allows, the scenery looks convincingly cartoon-real. In the dungeon itself though, the look and feel they're going for seems closer to amusement-park-on-mushrooms. I found it very tiring after a while.

The mechanics are faultless. This is not my kind of gameplay but I had no trouble doing anything I was supposed to be doing, at least not once I'd watched a video to find out what it was. Combat is the usual LMB-light /RMB-heavy attack, using the sword provided. Gear plays a part in the game but in the demo, as far as I got, I never saw any new equipment. 

On 1 and 2 you get a couple of magic spells that only work in the specific dungeon where you acquire them. You also get potions on a couple of keys but I only started to use those right at the end when I was having trouble with and I'd already given up before I'd worked out what they did.

Movement is WASD. You have a choice between jogging along quite sedately or pressing Shift to jump on a hoverboard that moves so damn fast I had to keep jumping off at every turn to avoid slamming into a wall. Ctrl gives you a force beam you mainly use to operate levers and buttons positioned out of your reach or to cut through infrastructure to do things like drop stalactites from the roof to form bridges.

What can't stay up, must fall down.

Space is your dodge roll, which did confuse me on occasion, what with a quarter of a century of muscle memory telling me to hit Space when I wanted to jump. I should have known better. There is no jumping in the Dungeons of Hinterberg.

The reason I'm listing all the keys for once, something I don't always bother to do in a review, even though it is fairly important information, is that the very first thing you see when you log into the demo is a screen telling you "This game needs a controller for best experience". Not "a controller would be nice". Apparently you "need" one.

No you don't. The game plays fluidly and smoothly with mouse and keyboard. As well as any game I've played that was intended to use them, in fact. If that notice wasn't there it would never have occured to me to consider using a controller.

Since the idea was in my head, however, and since I happen to have one right next to my PC, I plugged one in before I began and... the demo totally ignored it. I checked the settings and they were all for mouse and keyboard. Controller options weren't even mentioned. I left the controller plugged in (It still is.) and carried on without it. Everything was perfectly fine. 

I guess it's possible I didn't get the "best experience" but it's hard to imagine how using a controller would have made things better. For that I think I'd have needed a different game.

I'm pretty sure Dungeons of Hinterberg will be popular and successful on release. It knows what it wants to be and it knows how to be it, which puts it several steps ahead of the competition. It's just not a game I want to play and that's all on me.

Steam did try to warn me. The store page expresses some concern, asking dubiously "Is this game relevant to you?" and muttering to itself "This game doesn't look like other things you've played in the past." Actually, though, it does.

I really just wanted to go hiking...
The game Dungeons of Hinterberg most reminds me of is Wayfinder, the ill-starred, would-be MMORPG that crashed, burned and rose phoenix-like from the ashes in the shape of a single-player title. The visual aesthetic is similar and so is the gameplay but for me there's a deeper similarity - I can't really see the point of playing either of them. 

Doing dungeons from a central hub, mostly for the sake of doing more dungeons, feels too much like eating a bag of boiled sweets. Each one tastes slightly different but fundementally they're all the same - sugary with a faint hint of flavor - and there's no nutritional value in any of them.

I noticed from some of the walkthroughs I flicked past on YouTube, the ones where the videos were recorded during a beta, not in the demo, that the game proper begins with a much longer set-up sequence in the town. Perhaps that contextualizes the dungeon experience and makes it feel less ephemeral. I'd be mildly interested to play through that part just to see if it helps at all.

I suspect it wouldn't make much difference. I think developer, Microbird and publisher, Curve, have probably made the right choice with the demo by skipping all of that and cutting straight to the chase. That's the meat of the game and most likely the part potential players are going to want to see.

I'm glad they let me see that part, too. If they'd demo'd the introuduction in the town, I might have liked what I saw and ended up buying the game on the strength of it. Now I know I can safely take it off my wishlist and move on.

Demos can be as valuable in showing you what you don't want as what you do, although I'm not sure the people who make them would agree.

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