Hinterland appears to be a game about building the fantasy village you'd see in your run-of-the-mill role-playing game. You have wizards and knights and trolls. You have loot and levels and taverns. In fact, Hinterland is really about Westward Expansion -- improving a town so that you can draw in immigrants, and wiping out any nests of savages that are in the way of progress. If they happen to drop a nice weapon or give you access to a rich resource, so much the better. And if the people in your village aren't powerful enough to help you, you can kick them out of their homes so someone more useful can move in. Why keep a level 2 farmer around when a level 7 farmer is faster on the draw?
Once you start thinking deeply about Hinterland, you discern that every medieval fantasy city is built on the dirty secret that the goblins were probably there first and wouldn't have attacked your settlement. But they have stuff you want, so off with their heads. Your king is an absentee landlord who will ask for taxes in gold or food but give you almost nothing in return, even when ogres and giants are killing you every other day. It's no wonder that these places need parties of heroes to get them out of trouble.
In Hinterland, you are the city founder, a hero commissioned to tame the wilderness. You start with a need for food and gold. Immigrants occasionally drop by to take residence, but will only settle if you meet their price and their specific demands. Necromancers will need a graveyard and a temple of evil. Bards want a musical instrument. Even building upgrades is contingent on securing the right resource, be that a source of fresh water or a dragon egg. The more famous you are, the better the immigrants who come to your doorstep, and the only way to become famous is to go a-slaying.
So you explore the hinterland, killing everything that's in your path and leveling up along the way. You can bring up to three other villagers with you, but if they leave town they can't do their jobs. If your blacksmith gets killed while adventuring, you'll need to find a new one. Once you hit a certain critical mass of villagers, however, these choices drop in importance. The new big choice is when and where to explore. But if your village is raided by hostiles while you are out gallivanting in gnoll country, it falls upon your villagers to defend the homestead, and many of them may not be up for the job. Once you take your most powerful villagers on a grand adventure, who will keep the monsters away?
These city raids can quickly lead you to an infinite spiral of doom. If a mob shows up and kills you, you lose fame. You resurrect with half of your hit points, but if the monsters are strong enough, you may die again or lose your best fighters while you rush to the scene of battle. This can happen over and over. Once you have negative fame, you have a small window to get back in the king's good graces, but by then it can be a lost cause.
The only way to save yourself and your village is to evict the low-level characters that have fed and clothed you while you paved paradise on their behalf. You need better home defense, after all, and that may mean kicking out everyone who is at a lower level than the visitors offering their services at that moment. You have limited space for buildings, so you can toss out the low-level guard for a higher-level one.
Hinterland is in dire need of an interface overhaul. There are two zoom levels, only one of which can be used for movement and combat. Attack and defense power are described with symbols that become unclear once you are looking at your entire population: Does that guard have an attack of three swords or 12 (10 + 2)? The only surefire way to track the impact of special of items like magic oats or cookbooks is to check the rollover tooltip on food or gold income. Your party levels up very slowly and there should be a clearer indication of progress somewhere.
There are also some technical issues on the larger maps. Things start to lag after a while, making it difficult to target the monster you want to kill.
Hinterland's appeal relies on liberal use of the randomization options. If you have "all resources" activated, then there really isn't much challenge or variation between sessions. Once you randomize your world, though, things get interesting. If you have no herbs in your area, you can't get a doctor. That means healing potions will be few and far between. No iron means that you will have to rely on loot drops for better-than-average weapons. The environment becomes a major constraint on the number of tools at your disposal. There is always the possibility that the necessary resources are out there, but are guarded by major enemies. Onward to glory, and better luck next time.
And, with the large number of possible character profiles, from courtesan to goblin collaborator to knight, every game is slightly different. There is enough difference to force you to explore new strategies (archers, mages or fighters?) but enough similarity to keep the game light and engaging. It's neither as gripping nor demanding as the ASCII hit Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress, but it's a lot easier to understand.
Part of the reason for that is the simple economy. Unlike Tilted Mill's higher-budget products, there is no real effort to make your town a living, breathing entity. Your town is only there so that you have something to protect and so you have a source of income for when the king comes calling. There is no resource train to track, and your city can only really fail if you run out of food or fame. You can usually recover from these deficits given time, so it's not the kind of game you easily lose through poor management skills.
Even with the interface problems, Hinterland will be a tiny, $20 revelation to many people. The basic design decisions are sound, even if true longevity will depend on expansion packs and patches. This is not intended to be either a serious role-playing adventure or an in-depth city-builder, and this genre blending is partly responsible for how flimsy each element seems at times. It all fits together, though, and while the meld is not seamless, it is fresh and appealing -- even if you don't see it as a metaphor.
This review is based on a retail version of the game provided by the publisher.