I was sitting in bed when my boyfriend noticed the DVD sitting on my desk. â€śWhat's that?â€ť he quizzed.
â€śIâ€™m not too sureâ€ť I replied. â€śBut I think it might be that curious new title from Sydney that NZGamer.com sent me to reviewâ€ť.
I was right. Hidden inside the bubble wrapped package was a copy of Frozen Hearth, the latest little title from Epiphany Games, an independent developer from across the ditch.
â€śWell go on, give it a goâ€ť he said. I obliged, and after spending a good 20 minutes updating, registering, and optimising, I had Frozen Hearth all ready to go.
â€śSo, what do you do?â€ť I was quizzed again.
â€śI think its a real time strategy titleâ€ť I said, â€śBut the gameâ€™s style doesnâ€™t really jump out at you â€” I mean there are some pretty obvious giveaways here, resource points, hero units, base camps â€” but thereâ€™s something missing. it doesnâ€™t really feel like any of the modern RTS games Iâ€™ve spun through recentlyâ€ť.
He slumped back down under the covers and reached for his phone. â€śWell get on with it then, Iâ€™m sure there is something in there that will be worth the timeâ€ť.
â€śI hope so, with indie titles you never knowâ€ť I said.
I sat down and peered at the titleâ€™s menu screens. Everything looked in order, but the interface also looked a little dated.
â€śIt looks like Age of Empiresâ€ť came the critic from the covers.
I nodded. â€śYes, it does. But Iâ€™m not sure thatâ€™s a good thing, Age of Empires is 15 years old. Hey, donâ€™t get me wrong, I love that game to bits, but I hope Frozen Hearth doesnâ€™t play like it's 15 years old as well.â€ť
I jumped right into the Campaign, noting with interest the co-op mode. After navigating the menus up popped several screens asking me to select what kind of hero I wanted.
â€śWho are those guys?â€ť came the interrogator in the bed.
â€śOne of these will be my hero unitâ€ť I said. â€śThey lead my troops into battle and I can upgrade their spells and buffs as they level upâ€ť.
â€śWhat makes them special?â€ť
â€śWell..I guess one is a tank, one is a healer, and one is an all-rounder.â€ť
â€śOh, well that doesnâ€™t seem all that novel, weâ€™ve been seeing that for years in the RTS genre â€” is there anything else?â€ť
â€śNot reallyâ€ť I replied. â€śEverything looks pretty stock standard. Iâ€™m not even sure which one has the best story, or even if they have one, because we havenâ€™t been introduced to the gameâ€™s narrative yet.â€ť
â€śI do know that we could play co-op campaign though. Keen?â€ť
He looked at me sideways, furrowed his brow and went back to playing Osmos on his Galaxy Note.
I looked back to Frozen Hearth. Iâ€™d made my way through part of the Campaign and by now the story had been fleshed out in more depth. I was leading the heroic Danaan tribe in the fantasy world of Amorra. After crushing my neighbouring village, Amorra was overrun by strange ice-beasts called the Shangur. After that the game appeared to descend into a Darwinian battle for survival.
I relayed this back to my audience of one.
â€śIâ€™m not really buying it.â€ť came the voice from the covers. â€śSurely in a magical fantasy land thereâ€™d be some awesome way of blasting those ice things awayâ€ť. â€śWhereâ€™s a badass like Gandalf when you need himâ€ť.
â€śYouâ€™re confusing your mediumsâ€ť I chided. â€śBut youâ€™ve got a point. This game really isn't grabbing me by the balls and I canâ€™t see it reaching down there anytime soon. To be frank, Iâ€™m only an hour or so in and Iâ€™m getting bored.â€ť
Unfortunately, this disquiet entrenched the more I played the game. At the macro level the familiar Dawn of War-esque style of resource gathering did not evolve into anything more substantial, and the only improvement was the overall complexity of the campaign (both in story and in gameplay). But this too came with a caveat, it was only achieved by increasing the difficulty of the gameâ€™s missions, and at the micro level by increasing the range of units and armies that you needed to focus your attention on.
â€śMaybe the combatâ€™s worth it?â€ť the bed suggested helpfully.
â€śSadly, I think notâ€ť I said. â€śThe skirmishes are rote and if there is any actual strategy needed its not obvious. Iâ€™ve just been sending units at the enemy time and time again. All I need to do is capture resource points, there is no macro economy to speak of. Add to that an odd mix of RPG upgrades that take some time to get used to and you have a very strange experience. I mean, there is the glimmer of a good idea here, but it just don't think it has been developed enough.â€ť
â€śUh huhâ€ť he said.
I rolled my eyes and peered at Frozen Hearthâ€™s graphics. Up close they were blocky and unpolished. Harsh colours hit against each other, units were animated in a sloppy way, and the draw distance on maps was short and distracting.
â€śAre those units that youâ€™re fighting? Tell me whatâ€™s going on.â€ť came the disgruntled voice from bed.
â€śWhatâ€™s happening â€” I can't see anything.â€ť
I looked back at Frozen Hearth, and cast my mind back over the experience Iâ€™d laboured through.
â€śNeither can I,â€ť I said.