Hoplite is a mobile game in which you play the titular hoplite, descending through hell to retrieve the golden fleece and beat your high score. The game is played on a hex grid: each turn, you move one space and when you make a move, so too do all the enemies. If you move into the hex beside an enemy or if you pass them, you kill them, but if you end your turn in a hex beside you they hurt you. When you complete a level, you select one upgrade from a list for your hoplite. As the game progresses it introduces enemies with more complex moves and attacks.
Since I’ve been out of the country lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Hoplite on my phone. For the most part it’s an excellent substitute for PC strategy games, and it’s the first roguelike I’ve really loved. However, Hoplite’s progression and upgrade system are tedious. Bizarrely, your first few games of Hoplite will be the least compelling you’ll play, and the game only opens up after you unlock a few achievements. As I mentioned, you pick one upgrade from a randomly generated list every time you successfully clear a level of enemies.
However, the total number of possible upgrades the list can include depends on how many achievements you’ve unlocked. There are twenty achievements in Hoplite, and most of them unlock a new possible upgrade for future runs when you get them. You begin the game with a narrow and boring pool of upgrades, such as improvements to the arc of your shield bash, and only acquire the fun ones, like the ability to stun demons by throwing your spear, later. Hoplite’s progression system severely hampers the game and makes long-term decisions about your hoplite’s build less rich and less interesting.
When you begin a game of Hoplite you have four abilities. You can move a hex a turn, and if you end that turn by moving into or towards an enemy or multiple enemies, you kill them. You can also use a shield bash once every three turns to knock back an enemy or a bomb directly in front of you, which often allows you to shove a demon into magma or push a bomb throw at you back at the demon who threw it. You can throw your spear, which kills whatever it lands on, but then you’ve got to go and retrieve your spear or live with being virtually defenceless. Finally, you can leap at the cost of some energy, allowing you to avoid traps or rapidly advance and kill ranged enemies.
In your first few games of Hoplite, most upgrades will be straightforward improvements to one of these abilities. You can increase the arc of your shield bash to push back more enemies or you can push them further away. You can get an upgrade that allows you to throw your spear further. You can get more energy. None of these abilities increase your options in a level, they just increase the strength of your existing options. It’s possible to create an interesting build with what you’re given here – I’ve had fun increasing my leap as much as possible and bunnyhopping around the level – but you need to be really committed to one strategy and lucky with the options you’re offered.
The ideal way to build a character is to be captivated by the possibilities that one upgrade allows for and to choose future upgrades to strengthen that idea. There are a few upgrades with only the basic pool that do this. For instance, Regeneration restores health once per depth if you manage to kill three enemies in three consecutive turns. I’ve died more than I’d like to admit trying to line up my enemies in anticipation of killing them this way, but when it works it’s exceptionally satisfying. It’s one of those upgrades that makes a real difference to the way I play the game: when I’ve got it, I’ll ignore melee enemies, who are useful when you need to get that second or third kill since they follow you around, and chase after archers or wizards who damage you from a distance.
Hoplite is packed with these kinds of meaningful upgrades that change how you play. Unfortunately, most of them are locked away behind achievements which are difficult for new players. For reaching depth 10, for instance, you get Recall which returns your spear from wherever you’ve thrown it. It’s key to any build which involves throwing your spear in any way, since you can easily become trapped without your spear or, worse, throw it somewhere you can’t recover it. Recall is also one of those abilities I mentioned earlier which increases your total number of options rather than merely the strength of those options. If you’ve lost your spear, do you spend a turn recalling it? Do you accept you’ll take damage in exchange for having your spear back, or do you try and fight or run without your spear?
My favourite upgrade in Hoplite is Reaction. When you shield bash an enemy, you’re propelled backward. It’s not as immediately inviting as something like Lunge, which kills two enemies directly in front of you when you move up to them, but it’s more fun to use in tight spots. I owe my most successful run to Reaction. I was trapped without energy in one corner of the grid, there were no moves I could make without taking damage from enemies. However, I had Reaction plus an ability that made my shield bash push further. To escape I bashed a melee enemy into magma, got shoved in the opposite direction and pushed a wizard behind me into a different pool. It’s an all-time strategy highlight, and the reason my favourite builds centre on bashing.
Unfortunately, like other fun upgrades it’s locked behind an achievement. You’re required to knock a demon into magma by bashing another demon or bomb into it: in other words, making a line of demons where the end one gets pushed to their death when you bash. It’s not terribly difficult, but it’s unlikely to occur naturally and serves to pointlessly restrict the options of new players. Most people will have great stories of how they got out of tricky situations in Hoplite, but it’s hard to get those stories when you’ve taken an extra health point rather than an ability that propels you across the grid. Hoplite’s players should not have a narrow and boring range of upgrades available at the start of the game. The game is poorer because of its current structure and the experience for new players is weaker.