Horde, The

Horde, The
3.5
Game Name: The Horde
Media: 1 CD-ROM
Publisher(s): Crystal Dynamics
Developer(s): Silicon Knights
Genre(s): Strategy
Release Date: 1995
Serial Number: T-15909H-50
Region: PAL

The Horde Sega Saturn ScreenshotThe Horde is not an easy game to categorize. It’s mainly built on the same principles as city-building simulations like Sim City, but it also has more than enough elements of overhead action adventure and real time strategy to be tossed into either of those categories as well.

Perhaps the best way to describe The Horde is to note that it’s hard. I don’t just mean hard in the way that all Crystal Dynamics games are hard. The Horde is like some cruel metaphor for life (or rather, the stuff you have to do to survive in life). You slave away at increasing your income and expanding your investments in the hopes of paying your bills for the year. You renovate your property, upkeep your possessions, and do what you can to safeguard your loved ones. And just when you think you’re going to make it through another year, a slavering horde of monsters swarms upon you and, in the two minutes it takes you to drive them off, they’ve reduced most of what you have to a pile of rubble and gore.

That’s The Horde in a nutshell. The game is set in a medieval fantasy realm, with a classic rags-to-riches premise: Chauncey, a lowly serving boy who was raised by a herd of friendly cows, saves the life of the king (who was choking on a piece of chicken) and is accordingly promoted to knighthood and given vast tracts of land.

The Horde Sega Saturn ScreenshotBut there’s an ugly catch. The kingdom is being overrun by a race of vile and voraciously hungry creatures called the Horde, so it’s now Chauncey’s duty to protect his lands from them. To make things worse, Chauncey gets on the Evil High Chancellor’s bad side right from the start, and he sets out to make Chauncey’s life a living hell.

As if all that weren’t enough, each time Chauncey gets the hang of taking care of his lands, the king “rewards” him by putting him in charge of an even more inhospitable part of the kingdom, for reasons which are never explicitly spelled out but aren’t hard to guess, at least not after seeing the end.

The story uses live action FMV cutscenes which star Kirk Cameron as Sir Chauncey and Michael Gregory as the High Chancellor, and have the same low-rent-but-endearing production values of a 90s kid’s show or sitcom doing a medieval scene via time travelling or dream sequence. The tale is firmly in the comedy genre, and though the scenes follow a clear formula, they are nonetheless some of the funniest stuff on the Saturn.

The Horde Sega Saturn ScreenshotThe core game cycles between the build phase and the battle phase. Both play out in the same isometric view. In build phase you place walls, expand or fill in rivers, station guards, put down cows, etc. The basic stuff, like building roads and houses, is done for you automatically by the villagers. Despite that, building must generally be done in a frantic rush, because each build phase has a time limit of just two minutes. At the end of that time, you are violently thrust into the battle phase.

In battle phase the Horde dashes towards your little town, ready to devour everything and everyone. Their numbers range from five to more than two dozen each season, and you must slay them all before they destroy your town. Speed is of the essence, since the Horde can lay waste to even the most well-developed village in just a few minutes.

Eventually you can hire knights and archers, but each one charges a considerable sum for every season you have him, so you can’t afford to use many of them. And poor Chauncey is naturally not the best at combat; incapable of performing a good slash, he instead spins like a top with sword outstretched each time you press the attack button. Attack too frequently, and he becomes too dizzy to act for a couple seconds. Get the hang of this unusual fighting style, and you can slaughter lesser hordlings quite quickly. Tougher breeds must be tackled with the help of special items purchased at the shop.

The Horde Sega Saturn ScreenshotThe action adventure elements hold up very well here, as nearly every item becomes essential shortly after it becomes available, and no item is obsolete against another. Each item is satisfying to use and has its advantages and disadvantages, and to succeed you must master it.

Each build phase/battle phase cycle is called a season, and at the end of every four seasons you pay taxes (or it’s game over!), purchase items, and save your game. Hang tight long enough and you clear a region. The five regions each have such drastically different terrain and hordling varieties that you need a whole new strategy each time you reach a new village.

The difficulty is dauntingly high, and while that’s mostly due to good challenging design and your having lots of things that cost money and only one thing (cows) that earns an appreciable amount, there are less admirable reasons. Foremost is the control scheme. The Horde only uses A, B, the D-pad, and Start. That’s it. So how’s that work? You use the D-pad to move around, and A to use the item you have equipped. To switch items, you press B to go to toolbox mode, cycle through the options using left and right, and select using A. The game does not pause while in toolbox mode.

The Horde Sega Saturn ScreenshotSo… Did the programmers overlook the shoulder buttons on the standard controllers for both consoles The Horde was released for (Saturn and 3DO)? Because of this convoluted setup, every time you change items you have to leave Chauncey immobile, which in a fast-paced game like The Horde is a major problem. Oh, and to see the map, you use up and down in toolbox mode; meanwhile, the C button goes unused.

Besides the clunky control scheme apparently designed for NES controllers, the hit detection can be aggravating. You need to be almost on top of an enemy to hit him with your sword or flamethrower, while enemies seem to have an invisible hurt field around them. In short, it is inordinately hard to judge where you need to stand to attack an enemy without getting hit.

Bad as these issues are, it is possible to adjust to them with some persistence, and if you’re looking for a unique and truly hardcore challenge, look no further than The Horde. Alternately, the game has a code for infinite money, allowing for a more relaxed way to play.

But The Horde isn’t defined just by its difficulty. Like Ico (PlayStation 2), it turns video game convention on its head by making the player character a protector whose own survival is a secondary concern. With its consistently humorous tone, The Horde does not strive for the lyricism and beauty of Ico, yet in a way it is more affecting, because you are in charge not of a lone stranger, but a village which you have worked hard to cultivate. The frustration of having the fruits of your labor torn down by mindless beasts, the desperation with which you’ll rush to the defense of your village, and the relief of cutting open a hordling stomach to free the innocent person inside, are what define The Horde. There are many better games, but none like it.

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