Hoplite is a puzzle-RPG in the vein of 2013’s hugely renowned 868-Hack, mixing board game like fixed piece movements with roguelike-esque survival dungeon crawling. Much like Hack the aim is for the player to complete a certain number of floors of puzzles, all the while collecting abilities to allow them to better challenge the enemies. However, the emphasis is more on clearing floors efficiently than survival; enemies do not respawn, but instead are deployed in fixed numbers and known positions.
The result is a game of randomised solitaire puzzles which are different each time it is played, creating a rewarding game. A known range of enemies are used in ever-larger combinations as the player’s library of attacks increases, and thus the different behaviours and patterns of ranged attacks become harder to avoid. Eventually the pattern becomes impossible to avoid, or the player makes unforced errors, and the game ends. By keeping the number of abilities and enemy patterns low, and the behaviour of the enemies entirely predictable, the puzzle aspect of the game is emphasised far more than the RPG; it is effectively a game of solitaire. The gaining of new abilities is not so strongly randomised as in Hack; what varies is the order in which the player gains a known set of powers, rather than a completely unknown quantity with a chance of gaining repeat instances of the same power or never seeing the desired upgrade. This is down to the fundamental difference in scoring; rather than the risk-reward aspect being based on gaining the most possible points on the way to the goal, the initial aim of Hoplite is to reach the 16th floor and secure the golden fleece. From this point on the “real” game begins – the fleece restores the player’s health a little at a time, and thus equipped the player may take on a progression of more difficult challenges, still collecting items and now chasing a high-score. It is a good compromise between the fixed endpoint of a roguelike game and the endless pursuit of errors that marks the end of a more traditional puzzle game, albeit one which necessitates the repetition and mastery of the easy floors each time the game is played.
Yet it is quite possible to lose on those easy floors – enemy patterns and tile layouts are randomised and a poor starting position can be hard to recover from (yet rarely impossible.) It is in the rationing of upgrades that Hoplite‘s challenge is really apparent; each upgrade shrine offers a choice of items, an extra life or a refill of lives – picking the chance to continue playing or make more mistakes on a stage prevents the player from acquiring an upgrade on that floor. Similarly, some upgrades require the player to sacrifice lives – these upgrades tend to be cumulative increases of the effect of others such as ranged attack area. What these upgrades do is make the player’s abilities more effective while still maintaining their limitations; the push-back shield attack does no damage and prevents the player from moving, the thrown spear must be recovered between attacks without a specific upgrade, and the jump and thrust require the player to be directly aligned with the enemy. Thus the complexity of the game becomes apparent; each ability has severe limitations on its use and is only effective against certain enemies, and the game in turn creates unfavourable combinations to force the player to take damage in order to succeed.
Aesthetically it is a pure and minimalist game, with simple DOS-style pixel graphics and ambient music; however, these are clear and communicate the capabilities of pieces and abilities well when combined with a user-friendly interface which clearly shows the consequences of moves and the attack ranges of enemies; for a mobile game designed to be played in short bursts and one based heavily on rules mastery to avoid error, a responsive and clear interface is vital.
Ultimately Hoplite is not a game based to any great extent about discovering new content or unlocking secrets; while some abilities are added to the roster for completing achievements, it does not have the complexity of hidden mechanics that its close comparator 868-Hack does. Instead it is, bluntly, the more “accessible” game and perhaps as a result the truer evocation of retro gaming. Its rules can be learned very quickly, as any good short-playing game should, and yet it still has elements of deep strategy, choice and randomisation to provide a motivation for chasing high scores.