With a name like Emissary of War, Cedar Hills Games’ RPG has to laced with all the sober-serious conceits and tropes of a traditional Western RPG, right? Wrong. As I continue playing a near, if not already, feature-complete build, I can’t stop myself from thinking about how badly I whiffed in our announcement post. It’s a Western RPG that’s informed by other party-based, isometric RPGs, sure, but it’s also one that trades in ye’ old sober serious tone and goals for something different. Also, it’s thrown out a lot of traditional mechanics so it can do something entirely novel on this platform: tell you a digestible, snappy story.
From a purely mechanical perspective, this is an isometric hack-and-slash. You point and touch to move the barbarian Ghent around his environment and you click on an enemy to kill it. It's pretty simple stuff. Each area operates like an arena with a finite amount of fantasy villains to maim. It's a cast that includes Mer-people, rock-spiders, ghouls and ghosts, and mercenaries.
After you take out everything, you’re allowed to proceed into a new area. If you look closely enough, you'll also notice that hidden areas unlocked, too. These will provide you with some extra goodies to use in the game and lead to some of the more challenging fights you'll have.
Ghent is accompanied by an old friend, Hassock the alchemist. He functions as a foil of sorts to the raw brawn of Ghent, but he’s also a handy design element: he’ll heal you as you fight, as well as add ranged support to battles. You don’t directly control him, but you can queue up his actions in the corner of the screen if you don’t agree with what the AI has in store.
This frees up you to focus on the action, which is typical hack-and-slash fare: you click on a dude and you swing until it explodes and rains crimson and coins. You don’t earn experience points or pick up loot. Instead, you’ll earn gold coins which can be exchanged for weapons in a hunk of UI that also includes ability upgrades which you can unlock by collecting Runes. I realize this might turn a lot of you off, but a streamlined upgrade path is a cool and functional way to cut out the standard RPG fat and get to what really matters to Cedar Hill Games: Ghent and Hassock and their part of the unfolding story.
The duo, before and after battle, have scripted, but also real-time conversations. Most of the time, chats break down to the two simply reinforcing the notion that they’re in this for the long haul together, but they’ll also talk about the next objective or the one they’ve just accomplished. Bigger, more produced ‘movies’ compliment this stuff.
I’ll be vague since I don’t want to kill the story for you. Ghent and Hassock are, as the namesake suggests, emissaries. Their unusual brand of bartering has made for a lot of solid alliances across the realm, but suddenly, all of their hard work being undone. The quest revolves around figuring out who is doing this, and of course, why.
One thing that really caught me off guard is the tone. It’s light. Hassock is a bumbling, but brilliant dude who is prone to tripping over his shoes. Ghent is heroic, but dim. You’ll see these two ham it up a lot, even when the situational circumstances turn quite dire.
The writing as a whole isn’t going to put Valve or BioWare or whatever out of work. But it’s some of the sharpest stuff we’ve seen so far in this genre on this specific platform. Also, Cedar Hill Games isn’t trying to stretch the story over 50+ hours -- this is a four-to-five hour romp, which means its writing flows in a much more natural, less fluff-laden way.
As for the lack of the traditional loot-grind driver, I was initially surprised that Emissary of War has retained my interest over the course of several hours, but the upgrades come quick enough to feel like you’re actually being substantially rewarded for fighting, so it operates in much the same fashion. Also, the story works well enough to keep you plodding along.
I certainly haven’t seen the entire game, so I’ll definitely be checking it out a little later this August when the game is slated to hit. You can hear Cedar Hill Games’ CEO Tobbyn Manthorhpe on our podcast this coming Monday if you want his perspective on the title.
Needless to say, we’ll be keeping our eyes on this one.