As a rule, I don’t usually review mobile games in this space. This is honestly more convenience than anything else: the screenshot-heavy nature of my memory makes a tool like Fraps invaluable to reviewing, and at time of writing this review, I still haven’t figured out how to take screenshots on my Android tablet. I’m sure there’s ways to do it, but… I have, over the years, run into a few games that I was disappointed about ‘not being able to write on’, but the (indie) gaming landscape of today is such that I’m always swamped in choices and possibilities, all the time, forever. I haven’t ever run into a mobile-only game that left such an impression on me that I felt I had to say something.
Because I still haven’t figured out Android screenshots, and because I only started playing Hoplite yesterday, this review will necessarily be a little sparse on the visuals. If you want to see more of Hoplite in action, I recommend taking a look at this Tom Francis write-up. It has gifs, it has fancy words, it has and had enough convincing power to get me to try it out. Then, afterwards, come back to this review, because otherwise I’ll feel like my writing it was pointless.
Hoplite, then. Hoplite is…
Like the previous page’s Crypt of the NecroDancer, Hoplite is basically a roguelike. It takes place in a procedurally, semi-random-generated world, consisting of discrete tiles (hexes, in Hoplite’s case), and populated with dangers, treasures, and enemies. It has discrete turn-based gameplay. It features simple combat that involves movement, and getting close to enemies. Its gameplay goals revolve around reaching lower and lower dungeon floors. And it’s characterized by difficult, lethal gameplay, coupled with permadeath, but softened by the presence of a permanent meta-game upgrade system. Writing it out like that, they’re actually quite alike.
Of course, that paragraph is also where the similarities end. Unlike Crypt of the NecroDancer’s hectic, beat-based dance party, Hoplite is much more a ‘traditional’ roguelike experience: trading turns with the enemy, planning and calculating where to go and what to do in order to survive as long as you can. The lo-fi pixel graphics suit Hoplite well, in a way, driving this adherence to and homage to the rogues of yore home quite effectively.
But enough about that: I’m not here to explain Hoplite’s ludic genealogy, I’m here to tell you why it’s fun. And given that I’ve owned it for two days now, and I’ve already played it more than either other game on the list, that statement deserves at least some clarification.
Hoplite is a textbook case of simple design and easy-to-learn, hard-to-master mechanics creating an experience with incredibly replay value. And by that I mean, it should be a textbook case, from now on. Who writes these textbooks on game design? Is it you? If it is you, hey, listen: go play Hoplite. And then write about it.
Hoplite is basically this: you, a Greek soldier of no particular name, have to traverse down the Underworld to recover a Golden Fleece. Each Underworld level up to level 15 is populated with the same elements: land tiles, lava, an exit, a shrine, and (I think) level+1 monsters. You start with a sword, a shield, a spear, some leapin’ boots, and three hearts, and your goal is to make it to level 16 to get the Golden Fleece.
Gameplay is primarily based around movement, in a way quite reminiscent of checkers and chess. Your soldier can move one hex per turn, in any direction. Movement gets you places, and is also your primary mode of attack: moving past an enemy — not into it, past it — causes you to stab and kill it. Moving directly at an enemy constitutes a Lunge, which also kills it… as long as you’re holding your spear. You can also opt to throw the spear at an enemy, or even an empty land tile, where it then lies until you come pick it up. You can use your cooldown-based shield to Bash nearby enemies and objects into walls, into lava, or into each other. And finally, your boots allow you to Leap two hexes, based on a simple energy system: this allows you to move around, jump over lava, or jump over enemies, killing them.
If that summary sounds confusing, that’s just because I haven’t edited it well. These are your basic actions: Move, Stab, Lunge, Spear, Bash, Leap. A reasonably decent tutorial introduces you to these mechanics once or twice, and they don’t take much effort to internalize. And after that, they’re your toolbox: those six actions are what keep you from becoming demon fodder.
And speaking of demons: in the same tune as the six actions, Hoplite has a staggering amount of four different enemies for you to learn. Soldiers move towards you on their turn, and attack you if you end your turn close to them, Archers and Mages both have line-based ranged attacks, either one conditional on slightly different circumstances, and Demolitionist throw timed bombs at you, which you can either avoid or Bash somewhere else. Each of the four enemy sprites looks visually immediately distinct from the others, as well as quite neat, and the Mage and Demolitionist sprite even visually display the cooldowns on their attacks.
Now, if this ‘was it’ — if Hoplite was a game about pitting six moves against an ever-growing army of four monster types — it would already be a pretty interesting and diverting game. The comparison to chess I made earlier was not accidental: Hoplite engenders a similar careful planning approach to moving and acting, and a similar atmosphere of a limited set of pieces and actions resulting in a varied, strategically challenging gamescape.
But the addition of shrines and upgrades is what really provides Hoplite with replay value. On the fifteen levels before the Fleece, every level, you can choose to pray at that level’s shrine. Each shrine, associated with a certain Greek deity, provides a small set of possible upgrades, of which you can pick one. All shrines always allow you to upgrade your health or heal damage, but other upgrades are selected from your pool of available powers, as thematic for the shrine.
Some upgrades are fairly straightforward: extra health, a higher range on your thrown spear, a shorter cooldown on your shield bash, longer range with a bashed object, that sort of stuff. Other upgrades temporarily transform your action set: one upgrade adds a damage shield to your Bash, another allows you to recall your spear at will, a third makes it so that your leap stuns nearby enemies. Many of these advanced upgrades cost hearts to unlock, reducing your maximum health for greater power.
Because the upgrades are semi-randomized, every run can and will be slightly different. Because there are so many upgrades, and upgrade paths, there are dozens of ways to try and approach Hoplite — ‘builds’, if that’s what you want to call it. And because the ‘best’ and most powerful — and pricey — of the upgrades are locked behind gameplay achievements, there is reason upon reason to play Hoplite again, and again, and again, and again. Maybe this time I’ll get to the Fleece. Maybe this time I’ll try focusing on shield-bashing. Maybe this time I’ll manage to do my run without taking damage.
Oh, and once you get the Fleece? You can end the game, and get a big score boost… or you can keep going downwards, ever-downwards, chasing ever-higher scores and the most rare and elusive achievements.
If this review sounds a little gushing, I want to make clear that I am genuinely surprised with how much I like Hoplite. It uses simple, restricted mechanics and choices in such clever ways, creating an addictive gameplay experience that… It has the ‘one more time’-factor, is what I’m trying to convey here. Whenever I’m playing it, it’s always ‘one more run’ at every death. I died really quickly on this one, so it doesn’t count. Damnit, I got really close to that achievement this time, I can totally get it next time! Okay, but that death was just stupid, I can’t end on a dumb mistake like that! And then suddenly my lunch break is over, over by an hour, and my boss is wondering what it is I’m reading on my tablet that’s got me so agitated.
Hoplite is a lot of fun in a small package. If you have an iOS or Android device capable of running it, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s free to try, but unlocking the ‘full version’ — which contains levels past 16 and the skill-unlocking achievements — costs two dollars. Two. About €1.57, for my European readers.
It’s worth about ten times that.