Firaxis Games is on fire again after the launch of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Both a critical and commercial hit as well as one of my favorite games of 2012, it seems as if they could only go up from here. So of course, Firaxis decided to strike while the iron was hot, and follow up a hit complex strategy game with yet another surefire hit -- a freemium iOS title based around monsters, mansion building, and scaring townsfolk. Wait, huh?
Despite how absurd this prospect may seem on paper, you know what? It's actually pretty decent.
Haunted Hollow (iPhone [reviewed on an iPhone 5], iPad) Developer: Firaxis Games Publisher: 2K Games Released: May 2, 2013 MSRP: Free (With microtransactions, and a $7.99 Season Pass)
The concept of Haunted Hollow is simple: scare the entire town, and win the game. You'll attempt this task on a symmetrical map, with two player-owned mansions on either side, and the town in the middle. Each turn you'll start with a certain amount of "scare tokens," which you can use to build pieces of your mansion, build units, or complete individual actions like movement, attacking, and "scaring" the neutral houses in the middle (the latter of which is the only way to win, ultimately).
Units generally derive from three types -- scare-only units, fighters, and hybrids. How you choose to approach each map is entirely up to you, as it's easily possible to outwit your opponent with zero fighters, practically all fighters, or an army of halflings. As you start scaring houses, you'll earn a "neighborhood" bonus for hitting up everything in a segmented area, and eventually, you'll piss off the town enough for them to organize a mob and fight back. Like a lot of tabletop games, you can choose your stable of potential units before each match, and if you're not careful when balancing out your choices, the game can potentially be lost at deployment.
At first, all of these mechanics may seem fairly complex, but it's all pretty easy to pick up. As you come to realize that each round the game is giving you a random mansion tile to build, you'll learn that you have to make due with what's given and adapt on the fly. As you start laying your mansion on brick by brick, you'll put new units into the fray, and adapt to those as well. It's a genius way to pace a game and help new players get used to the feel of the action.
But that's not to say it isn't deep in general though. Once you've played your first full game, the tactical ceiling of the game is immediately evident. Haunted Hollow essentially gives you a finite amount of moves and lets you do whatever you want with them. Do you build up your mansion first, and thus increase your army size and prowess, or do you immediately start scaring up and capturing houses to amass more turns and map control?
For example, you may start out with the hybrid vampire units who can both scare and fight, then slowly amass an army of werewolves, who are fierce fighters, and can counter-attack, blocking off choke-points as your vampires slowly take the town. Whatever you choose to do, it'll earn you experience (which resets every individual game, and earns you one-use items like buffs or heals), which helps keep you in the game as you're always getting somewhere, even if you make a few tactical errors. If you're ever lost, you can hit the question mark button and see what every unit, building, or room in the game does -- even your opponent's, which is a nice touch.
Visually the game is fairly simplistic in nature, with some character designs vastly more detailed than others. Haunted Hollow barely manages to forge its own identity, as most of the designs are "been there, seen that" in nature; the team really could have stood to re-imagine a lot of these creatures in their own way. It runs silky smooth on my iPhone 5, but I was able to witness it on an iPhone 4 as well, and noticed significant frame-rate issues, so be warned.
As you can see, the game is free: so what's the catch? Well, you can buy different types of monsters and items to augment the experience, ranging from $1-2. As you can imagine, buying new characters in a strategy game can easily throw off the balance -- but for the most part, the monsters you get with the core game are enough, especially when powered up.
What I'm not a fan of is charging for select items that can give you a more clear-cut advantage depending on the situation. While you do unlock the item for unlimited use, and still have to level up (within each round) to earn the right to use it, the mere fact remains that this style of monetization simply shouldn't be in the game. Monetizing characters makes sense, but paywalling simple items that can instantly turn the tide of battle seems a bit petty.
These items aren't overpowered per se, but given the fact that they can be used instantly and anywhere on the map, it can get dicey. Thankfully, there's a Season Pass available if you want everything on offer right now, which is a nice concession, since most games would happily charge you $50 or more through multiple transactions that you won't notice over time.
There's a single-player mode, but it gets dull fairly quickly as there's no real joy in playing the AI in Haunted Hollow. This is exacerbated by the fact that there's no difficulty settings, so once you outpace your AI opponent, the mode is basically useless. What else can you do? Outside of a few scant single-player challenges, the game really shines in multiplayer.
Now, the challenges are basically built to show off all the cool DLC characters you can buy, but you know what? They're actually fun, and serve well in teaching you some more advanced tactics. It's just a shame that there's only nine brief total missions in the current build, as adding more would vastly increase the game's replay value.
Just like Advance Wars, Haunted Hollow has a "pass and play" option that allows you to hand off your iOS device to another person in-between turns. If you're so inclined, you can also play with friends through Game Center online in an asynchronous manner. It's pretty smooth, as I didn't really experience any delay with my play sessions online.
If you're planning on playing this specifically with friends (either locally or online through Game Center), it'll take some time before you get bored with the game -- especially if you mix things up with a few purchases. But if you're going at it solo, you'll quickly saturate everything there is to do in a few days, as playing with the AI isn't really compelling and there aren't nearly enough challenges to keep you busy. You can play with randomly matched people online, but I've found that randoms will eventually quit due to the long time commitment involved -- even if it's asynchronous.
Haunted Hollow is a surprising little game. It manages to rise above the status of a throwaway mictoransaction-begging App by providing a deep and compelling system at the core of the experience. With a few more tweaks, it would be worth spending more time with, but as it stands, depending on your ability to play with others it may be a more fleeting experience.
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