Hoard review: Go for the gold

Have you ever heard of Narbacular Drop? It's a simple little proof-of-concept game created as a senior project by a group of kids at DigiPen. It's actually still available to download for free -- the graphics aren't much to see, the story is a cliche (you play a schlub trying to rescue a princess from a demon), and the FPS-style controls aren't all that well-tuned. The game is almost a mess, save for one amazing gameplay element: you can "shoot" door-like portals onto any wall in the game, and then move between those at will.

If you haven't already heard this story: Narbacular Drop was the student project that was later funded by Valve and turned into one of the best games of the past decade, Portal.

Hoard reminds me a lot of Narbacular Drop -- the graphics are kind of dull-looking, the controls are pretty basic and somewhat clumsy, and there's almost no story at all, just a few sets of game modes and maps. But there is a sparkling gem of gameplay to be found here.
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There's some DotA-style RTS and RPG in there, and even a little simulation along with the arcade combat. You're a dragon, and it's your job to wander the countryside laying waste, collecting gold and stockpiling it up in your hoard. The game controls like a "dual-stick breather" -- you move around the maps with one stick, and shoot fire breath with the other, automatically picking up and dropping off goodies as you go.

Hoard's gameplay shines beyond its meager trappings.

You start the game by wandering over to a local mill, burning it down, and bringing the dropped gold back to your hoard. Earning a certain amount of gold levels lets you increase your dragon's various abilities, from defense, speed, and attack to how much gold you can carry at a time. Eventually, as the human towns start to grow and develop, you'll see caravans traveling the country, and you can choose to go after those instead of just attacking the old mills.

Those caravans actually bring real value to the towns, so sometimes you'll want to wait for a town to become richer before you loot it. But they'll also build their own defenses in the form of archers, so you have to be careful about traveling near -- having your health reduced to zero sends you back to your hoard for a short delay to lick your wounds, and also demolishes a gold multiplier you've built up over time. You can also make towns "fear" you by attacking without killing, and they'll deliver gold tributes to your hoard periodically.

You can also hijack princesses, keeping them at your hoard for a certain amount of time (defending them from knights, of course) before you get rewarded with a ransom. Wizards build towers on the land, and those hold priceless gems (but are defended with powerful spells). Thieves constantly try to steal from your hoard, also threatening your multiplier. And eventually a giant may appear on the map, threatening both your own scaly butt and any towns you happen to own.

Multiplayer brings in other dragons who can destroy or even claim your feared towns, steal your princesses or your hoard, or go directly after you with powerups. By the end of the match, you're desperately flying your leveled-up dragon around the map, keeping an eye on your hoard while making nonstop decisions about how to get as much gold as possible before time runs out.

Unfortunately, the fun is hidden in a package that's hard to unwrap. Because of all of the various stats and strategies, even the included tutorials fall a little short. And the game's UI is just plain terrible -- the text is too small, health and gold bars will sometimes cover each other up, and the level-up element where you increase your dragon's attributes isn't any more than a set of green bars. The dual-stick controls do work surprisingly well (there's a rhythm to attacking, as if you really are breathing with the dragon), but the rest of the interface is often annoying, and at times downright frustrating.

The strategies build up quickly -- you can distract the giant by doing damage, pulling him away from your towns and toward opposing targets. You can attack more than one princess at a time, leaving a decoy for the knights to chase down while you secure one at your base. And the large variety of maps runs from tight and bloody to more expansive, changing your goals and strategy for each.

Fledgling studio Big Sandwich Games isn't exactly a group of students at Digipen -- there are some industry vets in the Vancouver-based studio, and some of them should have known better than to make the text that small. But like Narbacular Drop, Hoard's gameplay shines beyond its meager trappings. If anyone ever polishes this game to a Portal-like hue, there won't be enough cake jokes in the world.

This review is based on the retail PSN version of Hoard provided by Big Sandwich Games.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.