SSI’s partnership with TSR produced a number of memorable CRPGs including the fabled “Gold Box” series, but not all of them were strict interpretations of AD&D’s trappings. Hillsfar was one of those games.
Developed by Westwood Associates (who would be later known as Westwood Studios) and released by SSI in 1989, Hillsfar was packaged in a white box instead of a gold one. The name centered around a port city ruled over by a ruthless merchant mage, Maalthiir, who overthrew the previous administration to earn his crown. Jacking up the Red Plume mercenaries, building warships to protect his trading vessels, and oppressing the locals, Hillsfar has become a dangerous place to live — but also a fabulously wealthy place because of its prime real estate on the coast of the Moonsea.
The unusual thing about Hillsfar is that the player isn’t expected to save the day. Nor are they required to build a party of adventurers as they might have done in 1988’s Pool of Radiance. This is a solo job — players can import a character from Pool of Radiance or roll their own, but they’ll be on their own aside from whatever NPC they decide to hire along. Curse of the Azure Bonds, which was also released in 1989, also allows characters to be transferred to Hillsfar. But unlike Pool of Radiance, the characters in Hillsfar can travel back to Curse. The only downside to transferring characters from either game is that spells do no transfer over nor to certain items.
The reason that spells aren’t allowed is that Maalthiir has decreed spellcasting illegal for everyone — other than himself, of course. It also makes having a magic-user over in Hillsfar something of a waste of time. Characters can also earn experience and gold, but can’t level up there. There are no facilities to aid in that, either. Essentially, Hillsfar is a fancy trainer for gold and experience that don’t go far in the actual game, but will if you import a character into another AD&D CRPG from SSI like Curse.
How it does this is through a variety of arcade mini-games and class-oriented quests scattered throughout the city, along with whatever else players can discover by entering abandoned buildings and exploring the wilderness. One of the first things that players are introduced to is horse riding from their camp — which is also the only place in the game players can save.
Players get a horse and pick a path to ride along, avoiding obstacles along the way. Crash too many times and you risk the horse running away leaving you to walk back, look for another horse, hitchhike for a ride, or walk back to camp. All of this risks the player getting robbed. If you can find a Wand of Blasting, though, you can blow away whatever’s in your way such as those annoying bales of hay. Once you reach the city, a lot of options open up:
- Archery – practice shooting and participate in scoring contests for gold using a variety of deadly implements, though mages can only use wands
- Mazes – entering certain buildings or dungeons turns the game into a top down arcade maze as you look for gold like power-ups. You’re also on a time limit and if you run into a guard, you lose time. Once all of the time is burned down, running into a guard sends you to the…
- Arena – players are given staves and fight for their lives against what the arena pitches at them in one-on-one combat. It could be a lizard man, a knight, orc, or a minotaur like the one above. The game recycles these with different names who also boast different fighting patterns.
One of the more interesting things that Hillsfar did was with lock picking which was fairly advanced at the time. It was a mini-game where players had to pick a lock that could have up to 8 tumblers to grind through with a set of individually shaped picks. Matching the pick ends to the right tumbler, delicately forcing one that is stuck to avoid breaking it (and having it repaired), and working under a time limit to avoid triggering whatever trap is there created an interesting approach to the process.
Hillsfar also had its share of problems. First was the whole arcade mini-game approach that might catch die-hard AD&D fans off guard. Saving was only done through your camp outside the city which you had to reach by traveling on horseback every time through yet another samey obstacle course. Another was the lack of any real storyline to the game — other than the clever vignettes written by TSR’s authors for the cluebook. Hillsfar served largely as a farm for experience and gold that could then be carried over to an actual game like Curse.
It was ported over to a number of platforms like a number of other CRPGs were back then from the Amiga to the Commodore. It was even ported over to the NES, although players couldn’t transfer their characters around for obvious reasons as PC players could. It also wasn’t as well received on Nintendo’s box — especially when compared to everything else that was available on the console at the same time. Today, the game hangs around the ‘net as abandonware or on auction sites.
But Hillsfar also stood out as a sort-of training pack masquerading as a CRPG. It also comes off as a kind of add-on module to the world of the Forgotten Realms than a more ‘serious’ adventure. It’s like one of the boxed sets or source books fleshing out Zhentil Keep or Waterdeep for the tabletop leaving it to players to work out their own adventures within the material. Only in this case, it’s Hillsfar’s mini-games and top-down mazes that players will be farming for points with the game manual providing a short history for a little flavor.
In a way, it’s an example of an early expansion pack to SSI’s slice of the Forgotten Realms than as a formal chapter, something that a number of other CRPGs would also explore from The Elder Scrolls to Ultima. Or which New World Computing would ambitiously take on with Clouds and Darkside of Xeen in blending both into one mega world.