I may not have gotten my first computer until about 2005, but I’d been playing real-time strategy games for almost a decade beforehand. Whilst it’s certainly true that RTS games invariably play better with a keyboard and mouse setup, my first introduction to the genre was the Command & Conquer series on PS1. Its creator Westwood Studios was closed down way back in the 2000s, but many of its staff went on to form Petroglyph Games, whose catalog of games over the past decade primarily comprises RTS titles. 8-Bit Hordes is one such game, now tweaked and remodeled for a console audience.
Admittedly, I’m not the best RTS player, but it is a genre I’ve loved for around 20 years. I was pleasantly surprised when I first learned of Petroglyph, and even more so to find that 8-Bit Hordes is both an excellent introduction to their work and an accessible means of getting into the genre itself. For a type of game often built upon a series of complex systems, this swords-and-sorcery strategy tale is relatively simple in comparison
The single-player campaign of 8-Bit Hordes follows the stories of the Lightbringers and the Deathsworn, two opposing forces who have managed to summon you, a legendary commander, to aid them in their struggle against their sworn enemy. The actual story is a little thin, told only by a few paragraphs of information on each mission’s respective page. The gist of it is fairly simple: the army whose campaign you choose have summoned you to aid them, and it’s your job to lead them to victory. The Lightbringers’ ranks are full of humans, elves and dwarves, whereas the Deathsworn have dastardly orcs and the like.
I was initially disappointed by the rather sparse storytelling. After the engrossing stories of series like Command & Conquer or Age of Empires, I was hoping for something a little more involved. The 8-Bit series is more of a compact, budget experience than a full-price AAA blockbuster, but even cutscenes with static picture backgrounds and a little voice-acting would have gone a long way. Without any real characterization, there’s little depth to either army. Each has their own tech tree and unique aesthetic, but there’s little else to make a player feel invested in their struggle.
In any of the game’s 24 missions, your first task will be to set up your base. It’s a nicely straightforward affair, simple enough for beginners to quickly grasp the fundamentals. You start with a castle, your central base of operations, which is where your harvester units will drop off gold resources to fund your army. From there, most of the additional structures you build will be for training additional units: barracks unlock infantry, a sorcerer’s tower allows you to bring in sorceresses and so on. Constructing these buildings and upgrading your castles to higher levels are necessary to train the best units – assuming you’ve played far enough to unlock them.
Gaining access to more advanced parts of the tech tree is entirely tied to completing each mission’s primary objective – nothing is missable. It’s in the campaign’s optional objectives that 8-Bit Hordes introduces a system I wish was more common. Instead of starting each mission with a pre-determined arrangement of buildings and units, you begin with your own accumulated loadout. It’s basic stuff at first: slim funding, a couple of bottom-tier units and a castle. In completing bonus tasks, however, your loadout is steadily improved, until you start each mission equipped with a whole horde of units and your base already established. You can even replay earlier missions with all these extra goodies – stuff you wouldn’t have had the first time – to complete objectives that may have been too difficult, or simply to just trample the weaker army with your overpowered forces.
The controls have been adjusted from the PC version to accommodate console players. The rear and trigger buttons give you instant access to your building and unit menus, as well as the repair and sell functions. Unit-creation allows for your forces to be instantly assigned to teams, mapped to three of the four face buttons. Although the system is a lot more efficient than those typically used in console RTS games – the old click-and-drag method of selecting multiple units comes to mind – it could do with a little added flexibility. When you have all three teams engaged in battle far from your base, training any new units immediately adds them to one of the groups. They’ll all respond to the same commands, which might lead your newer units in a series of potentially fatal misadventures as they try to catch up with their pals. Trying to select one unit from a group automatically highlights them all, so there’s really no way around this.
In the campaign’s earliest missions, there’s little need for much strategy, and the tech you have available hardly allows for much variety anyway. Training as many soldiers as you can and sending them to your enemy’s base will get the job done, often regardless of difficulty setting. It’s around mission four or five of either story that the enemy really starts putting up some serious resistance. My all-out-attack method no longer worked as well as I’d have liked, and there were occasions where I’d lose to a force half the size of my own – all because the enemy was playing it smart and I wasn’t. Although the unit-grouping system isn’t perfect, it does allow for some terrific tactical attacks in the right circumstances.
If it’s multiplayer you’re looking for, 8-Bit Hordes has you covered. The tradition skirmish mode makes a return, allowing you to test your skills against up to five other armies, AI or player, and you can tailor the map, difficulty and other settings to your liking in the process. The mode even supports cross-game play with 8-Bit Armies, including the ability to play as that game’s factions. In addition to the traditional skirmishes, there’s a 12-mission cooperative campaign allows you to team up with a friend for more army-building and base-razing fun.
In a genre full of hyper-detailed, realistic-looking games, 8-Bit Hordes is a bit of an outlier – refreshingly so. The series, in general, uses a colorful voxel-based style to emulate the look of classic games whilst still keeping its visual presentation fresh and engaging. Units are distinct and, along with your array of structures, fit the fantasy theme. The battlefields throughout either campaign, from idyllic farmlands to treacherous swamps, are consistently charming and lovely to behold. Topping it all off is a fantastically immersive score from veteran RTS composer Frank Klepacki. It’s not quite on the level of some of his Command & Conquer scores, but he once again makes music that’s a perfect fit for the game.
Although it might seem comparatively lacking in content, 8-Bit Hordes is a cleverly pared-back RTS experience, free of all the excesses of the genre. There are some issues which need fixing – in particular, some of the long-winded unit/building explanations, written in frustratingly tiny font – but there’s a lot to love in this little package. Readily accessible and easy to jump into without having to learn anything too complex, 8-Bit Hordes is a charming and engaging introduction to the genre. Just watch out: here be dragons.