Graphics (3/5): HoS is one of those games that has an odd dissonance when it comes to graphics. The tile system used is well-done, and the spell effects are pretty good for this grade of indie RPG. However, the portraits are fairly crude in comparison. Given the limitations of an indie dev, I can't really rag on this too much, but it's a little jarring to see nice effects and tilesets while the portraits look like they've been done in photoshop solely with a round brush. I don't demand mindblowing graphics, but this is just something that I've always found kinda funny with a lot of indie RPGs.
Sound (3/5): I have to admit, when I'm gaming casually I often turn off the sound effects and listen to an audiobook or something instead. However, what I have heard from HoS is quite pleasing. The opening theme is decent, the sound effects and ambiance are nice, and overall it's quite acceptable.
Interface (1/5): This is HoS' biggest stumbling block by far. While HoS may have a compelling story and a decent advancement system, these are overshadowed by the fact that navigating the game is a clunky, inefficient affair. Two main examples stand out:
First, movement. On the combat screen one must double-click to move a character. This is a smart way to do things, preventing the player from making a wrong move due to an accidental misclick. Yet outside of combat clicking once moves the character, while clicking a second time while the character is in transit cancels the move. The difference means that right after combat when I've been double-clicking to get around, I must take a few seconds to re-train myself to NOT double-click once I'm heading back to town. While this sounds like a mild annoyance, consider having to do this after each combat.
It gets worse, however. Moving across a map is a sluggish affair in any game, and good design means streamlining this as much as possible. For example, a Run option helps you zip around just a bit quicker. Tales of Maj'Eyal takes this to a major extreme, where the player zooms around the map faster than the eye can follow.
With HoS however, a player must click a point around 7-8 spaces away, wait while the sprite trots to the spot, then click again to move another 7-8 spaces. While the lag time between clicks is no more than two seconds, it adds up to a player pressing a button for an instant and being forced to wait, while remembering not to click again if you get impatient as this would halt the character. In any good game, you want the player to interact as much as possible with the game itself, and in HoS movement is an exercise in absolute tedium as interaction occurs in sporadic instants, with forced waiting in between.
Why not have the movement operate as in, say, Baldur's Gate, and every other game of this like, where a second click moves you to that new position? Or add WASD functionality that grants the player real-time control of movement? Even if it's just moving a character, at the very least the player is INTERACTING.
The second major problem is the menu system, which smacks of recycled code. This is particularly egregious when leveling your character: each character must click through three independent screens to modify stats, skills, and talents, and each screen only allows three or four options to be displayed at a time. This organization of the data is crude, as comparison between different items or skills must be done by scrolling up and down, limiting effective side-by-side analysis.
Dialogue uses the same menu system: in one instant the player is on the game map clicking on a store icon, and in the next the entire screen is obscured by dialogue options (again, showing only three or four at a time). The player is thus dragged back and forth between talking portraits and a full-screen list of options. Not only does this break game immersion, it's again impossible to think over the options carefully and weigh your choices.
At best the menu interface is just inelegant. At worst it hinders the player's ability to weigh his choices well. While the designers had good intentions by wanting to offer a good quantity of information for each choice, the fact that this data forces us to analyze so few options at a time (and in sequence no less) utterly eliminates this minor advantage. This is by far the worst interface I've seen in an RPG.
Story (2/5): HoS may have decent story going for it, but it unveils this poorly. The trope of four prisoners banding together to break out is a good starter, but at the same time we are offered very little lore about the world. I don't know anything about the enemy or the protagonists at the outset, so I feel no awe, trepidation, or empathy in the first few hours of play.
Consider this: A solid novel grabs the reader and immerses him in its world by the first chapter, hopefully with the first paragraph. It quickly introduces enough details about the world and the characters within it that the reader gets a good frame of reference to how things work and what the characters are like. The intro inspires him to keep going. A game must be able to do the same thing.
We get a bit of solid interaction between the four protagonists in the prison, and hints of their personalities bubble to the surface. It then takes perhaps half an hour to an hour of play to escape the compound they've been trapped in. It is at this point that some more character and worldbuilding would be appropriate.
Instead, the characters must slog through a maze of tunnels to reach the first town. That not only means a LOT of tedious navigation (as mentioned earlier), but it blocks any opportunities for motives, personalities, culture, or history to be revealed. It's only after a couple more hours of combat that we get some small cutscene where the characters are chatting in an inn and their quirks and goals rise to the surface.
There's definitely a world to explore and people to come to love. However, there's too long of a fuse and very little payoff that I've seen after four hours of play.
Gameplay (2/5): HoS is moderately fun, past the interface. The combats are decently scripted, and the system is straightforward. The four class choices are the standard fantasy tropes of warrior, wizard, cleric, and thief. These tropes are fine, yet not nearly enough work is invested in making these classes novel or interesting. Each class has only about ten or so unique talents: some of which unfortunately make others redundant (giving wizards the ability to unlock doors and disarm traps has ALWAYS robbed thieves of their unique utility). Frankly, even the high-level talents aren't anything to write home about, and so it's very hard to get excited about leveling up.
Overall (2/5): I decided to review HoS not because I had a particularly good or bad experience. Rather, I decided to take my time reviewing this because I see genuine potential in the indie dev's work. Unfortunately, not enough care was given to the logistics of gameplay, the appeal of the setting, or the fun factor of the system. I bought this game hoping for a tactical RPG experience that would grab me, but was ultimately disappointed with clunky controls, an uninspiring class system, and insufficient development to tell me "Hey this game promises a great experience. PLAY ME!"
With so many indie games coming out and so little time in one's life to play them all, a game has to grab a player immediately with the promise that the time investment is worth it, and operate smoothly enough to ensure that this promise is fulfilled quickly. Unfortunately, HoS does neither of these. Yet I do wish the Trese Brothers the best, and hope that they learn and grow from this experience.