There are many games from the history of computer role-playing games that deserve the attention of a full retrospective, looking back in-depth at what made the game great and putting it into a modern context. However, for every ‘Ultima IV’ or ‘Arcanum’ there are a hundred games like Hexplore – minor releases that added something at the time but were not significant enough to merit much attention even a year after they came out. Certainly, I had never heard about it until recently when it was mentioned in a thread on a PC RPG forum. As part of my love affair with my netbook, I am seeking these games out, playing them and will be writing about them here.
Hexplore was released at the end of August 1998, sandwiched between the summer releases of games like Might & Magic VI and the fall release of Baldur’s Gate. So even at release, it could easily be called a ‘filler’ game, and certainly falls into the realm of ‘Diablo Clones’ that were just starting to become a popular part of the gaming landscape. The story is pretty basic but presents an interesting scenario. You play as Mac Bride, a Scottish adventurer joining the Crusades circa 1000AD. As you journey to join up, you come across the destroyed village of Zarko and monsters on the loose in the region. As you investigate further you discover that you need to find and destroy the evil sorcerer Garkham. Along the way, you can recruit three party members – a warrior, an archer, and a sorcerer. Yes, there is magic in this alternate-history middle-age world.
Technically Hexplore is an interesting game. It is played in a top-down fixed distance isometric view that is pretty standard for games of the genre, but instead of being a fixed perspective 2D game it is rendered in full 3D (using voxels, apparently) and the player can rotate the view freely. This is a great feature most of the time and is absolutely essential for finding some of the more obscure entrances and other areas. One downside of this free-rotating world is that you will often enter a building from one angle and exit it with the world looking completely different. You learn very quickly to pay close attention to your compass or risk getting lost and wasting time retracing your steps.
Oh, one other thought on the graphics – while no one expects too much from a ten-year-old game, Hexplore looks particularly bad. In general, I would hesitate about making these statements for a couple of reasons. First, looking back a decade makes objectivity difficult. Also, back in ’98 I was mainly playing FPS games and would definitely have described myself as a ‘graphics junkie’ and was a definite hamster on the system upgrade wheel. But since I’ve been going through many games of 1998 I have gained a much better feel for the relative gameplay and graphics that were around back then. And Hexplore is notably ugly. Even with details turned up to ‘high’ the game looks terrible.
While Hexplore is categorized as an action-RPG, it is as much an adventure game as anything else. Interaction with non-player characters (NPCs) is minimal and only happens when they are directly involved with quests. The quests themselves are fairly simplistic – never do you encounter more than a single-stage quest, such as ‘find this item’ or ‘kill this monster’. Control over the individual members of your party are minimal: you can choose different wizards, warriors and archers, but your four-person party will always contain Mac Bride and one wizard, one warrior and one archer. Weapons are also class-specific, and cannot be swapped out between characters. Character development is quite minimal and choices are very few – this is simply not the game to look at for deep weapon and character customization.
As for combat – this is why it is called a Diablo-clone: it is all about the click-click-click! You control Mac Bride directly, and the computer AI controls the rest of the party. Your party will act independently to eliminate enemies who come into your threat zone, without you having to direct them to do so. You can select a subgroup to attack certain enemies, but by default, all allies will travel and work together. While this has become standard long ago, in 1998 it was a nice way of bringing the Diablo game mechanic to a party-based game.
The manual describes a multiplayer component that sounds much like Gauntlet – your control Mac Bride, and the other party members are AI controlled. But if someone else also joins your quest they control one of the other characters. Not having played the game a decade ago I can’t comment on how it worked then, but unsurprisingly now there isn’t anyone else playing the game online, so it ends up as a decent idea whose promise was never met because the game was never popular.
Speaking of Gauntlet, one of the most annoying things about Hexplore reminded me of the core structure of Gauntlet – you battle your way through a region hunting for the item that will unlock the next zone, then upon entering that zone find that you need to repeat that same task to get to the next zone and so on. It wasn’t the only way to progress, but it happened enough to become a significant complaint – especially across a fairly huge game!
In all forms of art and entertainment, there are ‘lost classics’ and things ‘better off left behind’. Hexplore is pretty clearly in the latter category. While it isn’t an awful game like Mistmare or Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, neither is it an overlooked gem like Wizardry VIII. It is a very average Diablo-clone with moderate entertainment value, reasonable gameplay, and terrible graphics. I was able to get it for the equivalent of ~$5 in ‘points’ on the game-trading site Goozex, and personally, I don’t regret either the expenditure or the time spent playing. But as for whether I would recommend anyone else to do the same, the answer is clearly ‘no’. It is nice to see games step out of the typical fantasy genre, but small things like an alternate history Crusades setting and a rotatable 3D view are not enough to carry a game.
RetroGamer Perspective: This is one for ‘completists’ only, or those who have played nearly everything else and are looking for something unplayed from the ‘good old days’ and don’t mind playing a mediocre game. All others … there are much better games.
Netbook Gamer Perspective:
– Digital Download / CD version? – there is only a CD version, as no one has seen fit to bring it back. Also, there is no retail outlet for this, so if you want prepare for used copies via eBay or Amazon, or trading sites such as Goozex.com.
– Installation Notes: CD-install is from a single disk, and went quickly and easily.
– Disk Space Requirements: full-install from CD is ~350MB.
– CD Required to Play? Yes. Getting this to work on a netbook required use of ‘disk emulation’ software and creation of a disk image.
– Control Considerations? Hexplore is made for a two-button mouse, and I found using the cramped netbook trackpads a bit of a pain to negotiate.
– Will it run on a VIA C7? Yes!
– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!
– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP? The game was released at the end of what I call the ‘awkward times’ = DOS was gone, but the standard programming hooks and interfaces were still emerging, which meant that many games were very picky about running on newer OS versions. I had no issues running, but many folks have seen the game run too fast or just refuse to run. Sadly the only known cure for this I have read about is using a ‘cracked EXE’ file which has been updated for WinXP / Vista compatibility.
– Does it work with Vista? Yes, with the same caveats as Windows XP.
– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? No. It is likely Hexplore will work with Wine in Linux (or Crossover games for Mac), but I didn’t test either.
Conclusion: If this game was very short, or funny or offered something innovative that stood out, I would recommend it – but Hexplore is a very long, ugly, grind-heavy, and forgettable experience that will likely require some tweaking to get working on a modern PC. To which I say – why bother? Pick up another hidden gem, something like Wizardry 8. Regardless of anything else … definitely play Wizardry 8 – the very definition of an overlooked classic.
There is a demo still available to(and probably elsewhere).