Hillsfar is part of SSI's collection of RPGs licensed with the 2nd Edition AD&D ruleset from TSR, Inc.. Thematically, it takes place between Pool of Radiance and the events of Curse of the Azure Bonds, although experience with either title is not required for this game. It is also generally not considered part of the SSI's Gold Box series due primarily to its divergent gameplay mechanics despite being set within the same campaign world (the Forgotten Realms).
Gameplay was not party-based. It was primarily focused on the "lone adventurer" concept with the player controlling only one character throughout the experience. Various challenges such as missions and mini-games were issued to the player either by NPCs or simply through exploration.
Quests and activities were focused on four of the main class-types: Thief, Cleric, Mage, and Fighter. The tactical combat used in the Gold Box series of party-based RPGs was not used in Hillsfar owing to that there were no random encounters. Instead, arcade sequences often replaced such challenges and fighting was handled within the Arena in similar fashion. Joystick support was provided for within Hillsfar as a result of this change.
It was often regarded by players as something of a 'trainer' for characters that were moving from Pool of Radiance and into Curse of the Azure Bonds as they could be transferred from both titles. However, only characters from Curse could be transferred back into that game. Pool of Radiance characters imported into Hillsfar could not be transferred back.
The game continued to use a codewheel as a form of copy protection.
The manual was notable for the large amount of fiction that it contained to immerse the player within its interpretation of the Forgotten Realms. A full color map of Hillsfar and the surrounding region was provided along with the history behind it. A short story at the end of the manual set the stage for the adventure in Curse of the Azure Bonds.
Your party, exhausted and tired from their long journey, make camp outside of the city of Hillsfar. You alone decide to enter the Jewel of the Moonsea to see if you can make arrangements for supplies and perhaps learn of new challenges that may require your particular talents.
How things have changed! Weapons are forbidden. Magic has been outlawed by the First Lord of the city. And training to improve your skills is all but forbidden within its walls. The Red Plumes, the First Lord's enforcers, ensure that the letter of his law is kept and anyone that resists can find themselves fighting in the Arena for their very lives.
Hillsfar used to be a free city and one rife with intrigue, but the corrupt Council that had ruled it was suddenly overthrown in a coup led by Maalthir, formerly a merchant-mage and now self-appointed First Lord of the city. Under his control, the city became decidedly more militant and harsh rules were instituted that brought order but at a cost to freedom.
The Red Plumes, once only a mercenary band, saw their numbers expand greatly with Maalthir's blessing and his funding. They soon grew into an army that enforced his rules. Ships were soon built within its port both to expand its trade as well as protect it from opportunists.
There is also a racial bent to his policies that have seen the city swing from being a place that would welcome all newcomers to one where humanity is the favored guest. Hillsfar has become an ordered and tightly controlled city, but its citizens live under the repression of its tyrannical ruler and the enemies that it has made with its own ruthless expansion within the region.
But it is also a place of opportunity for those that know where to look. The city is still filled with secrets and those willing to look the other way in order to get things done and a wise adventurer can earn a small living within its walls. That is where the player comes in. Overthrowing Maalthir may not be in the cards, but you can ensure that your stay is an exciting one.
Hillsfar deviates from the rest of the "Gold Box" series with its own engine which focuses on a mix of reflex-oriented exercises and quests to challenge the player with. It is no longer focused on the party and is strictly a single-character driven experience.
Players can create their own character and save it to a save disk that must be created before the game can start to store them on.
They can also be imported from Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, although only those characters from Curse can be freely transferred back and forth from that game. As noted earlier, those imported from Pool cannot go back.
There is no leveling within Hillsfar, although experience and gold are still earned. If the player's character dies, they must reload from the last save they had made at camp outside of the city. The camp is the only place where the player can save the game.
The Arena is treated as the punishment area for characters that are caught breaking the law in Hillsfar by the Red Plumes. When the player is captured, they must fight for their freedom in the Arena. Depending on how severe the crime is, they may be sent to fight to the death instead.
Because of the differences within its many mini-games, Hillsfar presents several different control schemes and interface tweaks in regards to each one. Joystick controls are shown within the manual (for the C-64 joystick) with corresponding key controls described in the text.
Viewpoints of each environment vary greatly. For example, riding a horse brings up a side-scrolling view of the action as the player guides it. Within the city of Hillsfar, the player is presented with both an overhead map on the right side of the screen and a small, first-person window through which they can see the street. Arena fighting is viewed from a side view with the crowd as a backdrop. There is no tactical combat within the game as there is in the rest of the Gold Box series.
Six races are available for players to choose from and is the first step in creating a new character. Sex has no bearing on the character's abilities aside from their appearance.
As with most of SSI's 2ed AD&D series, only six races were available:
- Dwarves: Excellent warriors and often considered the best blacksmiths within the Forgotten Realms, they also harbor a strong hate for giants and their diminutive nature allows them to dodge their attacks much easier. They are also a hardy race and able to resist the effects of magic and poison.
- Elves: Long lived and resistant to sleep and charm spells, elves are often considered among the best spellcasters in the Realms although they are also skilled with a sword. They cannot be resurrected, however, but they can multi-class in many more different combinations than others.
- Half-elves: These share the hardiness of their human half along with the sleep and charm resistances of their elven parent, but not their long lives. And like their elven parents, are capable of noticing things out of the ordinary.
- Gnomes: These are treated as shorter and slimmer versions of dwarves in the game, although they tend to be a little better as thieves.
- Halflings: Resistant to magic and poison, they are about half the size of humans and can make decent fighters and thieves.
- Human: The most common race in the Forgotten Realms, they are average in most respects but have no major weaknesses, either.
Characters are also based on a set of basic attributes that affect various abilities, such as combat prowess and how many spells a magic user can memorize before they must rest and re-acquire their spells once again. However, in Hillsfar, mages cannot cast spells so this is a moot ability throughout the game.
During character creation, the player may re-roll as many times as they want. Prime requisite attributes are those that are a requirement for certain classes. For example, Fighters must have a good Strength score in order to be effective.
The natural maximum for any attribute is an 18, although it can go higher depending on factors such as race and magical effects.
Many of the attributes are unchanged as they are from the Gold Box series, although they do not play as much of a factor in determining certain skills as they normally would. For example, although Dexterity is an important modifier for thieves, the lockpick mini-game largely negates this.
- Strength (STR) - determines physical power and damage with weapons; in Hillsfar, this also affects how fast your arrow will travel at Tanna's Target Range or how much damage you can inflict in the Arena
- Dexterity (DEX) - reflexes and the ability to remain hard to hit in combat; affects how often the sights move with your bow at Tanna's Target Range but does not play as major a role with thievery as it does in other RPGs
- Constitution (CON) - a character's health is determined by this and hit points are derived from this score.
- Charisma (CHA) - affects the perception that others have of a character; important for dealing with NPCs
- Intelligence (INT) - affects the ability to reason and think. This is an important score for magic users as it determines how many spells they can memorize and use per level. However, in Hillsfar, magic-use is prohibited.
- Wisdom (WIS) - this is important to clerics and determines how many spells they can store in memory and use. As with mages, however, magic-use is prohibited.
Attributes, such as Strength and Dexterity, are also affected by the selection of race and certain bonuses and minuses are allotted across them as a result. For examples, dwarves are inherently stronger than the other races and, thus, have a bonus to their Strength and Constitution scores.
AD&D's alignment system determines what a character's outlook is. Players can choose what alignment their character starts off with, although actions within the game can slowly shift it. Certain character classes are very much restricted to certain alignments.
The alignments available to the player are as follows:
- Lawful Good - Characters that are based on this alignment strictly interpret the rules and respect order above all else for the benefit of everyone
- Lawful Neutral - Moderation is far more important than the extreme, balancing their decisions between good and evil
- Lawful Evil - The strong survive to enslave the weak, but one must rule in order to conquer and order must keep those that follow this character in line. An army is always stronger than a mob.
- Neutral Good - Some rules are needed along with the freedom to decide what is best depending on the situation at hand
- True Neutral - Everything must be balanced; both good and evil have their place and neither must overcome the other
- Neutral Evil - Law and chaos aren't as important as the results in bringing evil to the world
- Chaotic Good - Random actions and the freedom to implement them are more important than the rules in valuing life and ensuring the welfare of others
- Chaotic Neutral - Randomness and chaos are more preferable to being evil or good
- Chaotic Evil - This character will go to any lengths to grab power and influence, disregarding anything that may make sense or in cooperating with others to achieve their goals. Unpredictable and ruthless.
Gender is treated only as a cosmetic choice in the game as with many others, but race plays a major part in determining what classes a character may be restricted in playing as. Only non-human characters can take on more than one class.
From the stock of basic classes, non-human characters can pick from certain combinations, although experience is divided among the classes that a character belongs to. As a result, they level much more slowly than a character dedicated to a single class.
The basic classes are:
- Fighters - They can fight with any armor or weapons, but have no magical ability.
- Thieves - They can disarm traps, undo locks, and help themselves to anything that isn't well protected. They can't wear any armor heavier than leather. They would normally have a backstab attack as a part of their skill set, but in Hillsfar's Arena, this is not available.
- Clerics - Fighting priests that can wield a mace, but no edged or pointed weapons, as well as use armor. They pray for their spells and automatically memorize any of the spells available for a level when they reach it. In Hillsfar, however, spell-use is prohibited.
- Magic Users - These are the spellcasters and are able to conjure the elements or deal damage with their magic. While fragile, they have the potential to be the most powerful members of any party as they become more experienced. Unfortunately in Hillsfar, they are not allowed to use magic other than with a wand when it comes to shooting things. Even in the Arena, they must use a staff to battle their opponent.
Multi-classed characters enhance their abilities by sharing skills across them, although they level up at a slower rate because of the experience distribution across different disciplines.
Quests are specifically aimed at certain classes and the game will randomly pick which quest it wants to assign to a multi-classed character.
The city of Hillsfar has a number of places to visit along with a few locations outside of its walls. Initially, the map of Hillsfar that you are given in the game is blank leaving you to fill in location names as you explore its streets.
- Guilds - Each class has one representing them in the city and are a convenient place to pick up hints or quests
- Bank - Here, you can store your hard-earned gold
- Pub - Gossip can be purchased with a drink to get you noticed.
- Archery Range - Practice and compete for the best score
- Arena - Fight for glory or your freedom
- The Shops - There are a number of these in the city allowing you to stock up on valuables such as healing potions
- The Temple of Tempus - Healing for a convenient donation
There is also a wilderness area outside of the city with a few locations that can be explored if you can get to them on horseback.
Hillsfar is unique among SSI's RPG offerings in terms of its mini-games. Each one offers a different challenge to the player and is largely dependent on their own puzzle solving abilities and reflexes as opposed to their character's.
In Hillsfar, the Arena is where fighters can test their will to win against a series of opponents or where criminals struggle for their lives in order to pay for their crimes. Money, honor, and fame are all prizes to be won here, although the taste of freedom is far more often the most cherished of any of these by the participants. It is also the only place in the game where combat takes place. There are no random encounters in the game.
In the Arena, the player is presented with a slightly isometric placement of their character and their opponent with the Arena serving as the backdrop. Keyboard (and joystick) controls allow the player to execute moves such as attacking to the left or right, or blocking in the same way. A special attack can also be used.
Contestants are only allowed to use a staff in combat regardless of class. Bars representing health for both the player's character and that of their opponent are displayed at the top of the screen. The opponent is also displayed on the left hand side with their name and picture.
Opponents tend to follow specific patterns and it is up to the player to determine when they should strike by predicting what they are going to do next.
Riding a Horse
From the camp, the player can ride a horse either to Hillsfar or to specific points outside of the city as selected on a regional map. Many times, there is only one path to their destination, but occasionally, a question mark can pop up indicating a different path that can be taken.
The horse riding sequence is shown from a side scrolling perspective. A joystick can be used as well as a keyboard allowing the player to speed up, slow down, duck beneath branches, or jump over obstacles.
If a Rod of Blasting is found, the player can use it to destroy the obstacles in their path although these have a limited set of charges.
Crashing a horse goes against how often it can take such abuse before running away. Different horses also have different temperaments, often challenging the player in different ways as they try to keep them under control. One horse may like speeding up on its own, while another may like to jump at unpredictable times.
Tanna's Target Range
Players can practice or play for gold at the target range within the city. Practice sessions are free, although playing to defeat the scores listed on the board will cost some coin. Players are required to rent a weapon when they opt to either practice or to compete. Each weapon is focused on particular class.
- Clerics can only use a sling
- Mages can only use a wand
- Arrows are fast and available to fighters and thieves
- Daggers are the heaviest
- Darts are lighter than daggers
Once the weapon is selected, the player will be presented a number of targets. How valuable they are will also determine the difficulty of hitting them. Dexerity plays a key role in helping to control the drift of your crosshairs onscreen. The windmill also gives you a hint on how strong the wind is and the lighter the weapon, the more it will be affected by this.
Players only have ten shots when they start and with the last one, the results are tallied and then they are awarded any prizes that they have won.
You cannot shoot Tanna.
Thief-classes will find more locked chests in this game than any other and when they run across one, or a lock of any other kind, they can try to pick it. If you don't have any lock-picks or aren't a thief or have an NPC with you that can pick a lock, you have these options instead:
- Leave! Do Not Try This Lock: Simply leave the lock the way you found it
- Use Physical Strength to Force It: Strong characters can try and force it open, but if it's trapped, it will likely set it off
- Pick The Lock With A Small Object: Anything goes, but if it's trapped, it might set it off.
- Use A Knock Ring: Knock Rings are magical and can automatically open locks but are consumed in the casting.
- Use The Chime Of Opening: Like the ring, it opens locks, but it is hidden somewhere in the game.
Thieves with the right tools, on the other hand, get an entirely different set of options. A screen comes up displaying the lock, the tumblers, and a series of picks.
Each tumbler must be picked in turn and each one requires a different pick that matches it. The player can flip picks to match the tumbler pattern and try to pick it before moving to the next one. Jammed tumblers can often require more than one try to loosen them and picks can also be broken in the attempt if it is forced. If you try to pick a tumber with the wrong pick, it may also break.
Traps can also be set off when you fail to pick it. The sequence is also timed and running out of time returns the player to the previous screen before the attempt, likely setting off whatever trap the lock had on it.
The player will also have the opportunity to explore buildings well past their closing times and other locations such as sewers and mazes. Many of these places hold riches and relics, but only if the player can enter and escape without notice. The Red Plumes are also on patrol throughout Hillsfar and getting caught may send the player to the Arena if it happens often enough.
Exploring these locations drops the game into a top down view of the area and the player must move them from screen to screen. Chests and locked doors are only two of the obstacles in these areas. The player is also timed on their stay and must work quickly to explore and recover as much treasure as they can. Since there is no combat in the game outside of the Arena, touching a guardian or a guard reduces how much time you have left to explore.
When the player runs out of time and they are touched by an enemy, they are captured and all of their items confiscated. They may even be sent to the Arena depending on the severity of their trespass. If the player is caught within the castle when this happens, the sentence is always the Arena.
There is no combat in this game other than what is in the Arena mini-game. There are no random encounters for the player to fight through.