Written by Joe Pranevich
Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption was one of the rarities of the “legacy kickstarter” era. It was a fantastic game with good production values, and it reflected well on both its source material and its development duo, Lori and Corey Cole. Development spanned an agonizing six years from its first successful kickstarter ($400k) in 2012, through a second kickstarter ($100k) in 2015, and finally to its completion in 2018, with patches and ports (even a Nintendo Switch version!) continuing into 2021. The final game included roughly as much content as the first four Quest for Glory games combined, despite featuring only a single playable class. The road to Hero-U was an arduous one that is more than worth a deeper look, but let’s just say that the pair had to mortgage their house to get it done. The planned sequel was intended to be Hero-U: Wizard’s Way, starring a new female wizard protagonist. Even with a working game engine and the “growing pains” that underscored the first several years of Hero-U development out of the way, the Coles had no path to fund the development of a second game on the same scale.
In 2019, they took a different approach: instead of a puzzle-centric adventure/RPG, they would create their next Gloriana game as a “visual novel”. The Summer Daze at Hero-U kickstarter was a success ($100k), promising two new chapters in the Hero-U story. The first of these, Summer Daze: Tilly’s Tale, has been released to backers and will be live on Steam and other marketplaces by the end of March. We promoted this kickstarter (with a special Corey Cole interview!) back in 2019 and we are excited to see the project cross the finish line.
Here at “The Adventurer’s Guild”, we don’t normally cover new games, but we have a soft spot for our favorite creators who keep the memories of our beloved 80s and 90s adventures alive. Unlike our normal reviews, this one will be light on spoilers, although I will post a few screenshots (mostly from the opening minutes of the game) and discuss some of the things that I like and dislike about the game. If you want to avoid spoilers entirely, just know that I enjoyed the game because it’s an adorable side-quest. Otherwise, read on for more.
Late breaking addition: The Coles have volunteered to do another short interview with us as part of their launch. Comment below if there is a question you have been dying to ask about the growing Hero-U series, Quest for Glory, or any of their other gaming projects. We will pass along those questions to the pair for an upcoming post.
Before we can even start a review, we have to deal with the elephant in the room: genre. Tilly’s Tale is not a point-and-click adventure game, but rather its close cousin the “visual novel”. Followers of this blog may be unfamiliar with these games as they had little impact outside of the Japanese market until the early 2000s and thus have been outside our scope. Visual novels vary greatly in complexity and style. Some have puzzles, while others do not. Many of them stray into genres that adventure games fear to tread, such as romance. (And some, especially in Japan, stray into genres best left untouched here.) Most share a linear “book-ish” style as we play through a story, and it is often the case that we can only experience all of what a game has to offer through multiple playthroughs with distinct paths. This style of play has been part of the Coles’ repertoire since the beginning (consider how many times you would need to play through each Quest for Glory game to see everything), and a visual novel fits well within that style. Even so, I have no significant experience playing visual novels and even less experience reviewing them. I will tell you whether I enjoyed the game, but I am unable to compare whether it is better or worse than similar games in the genre.
Tilly’s Tale is a new adventure set in the world of Gloriana, the Cole’s gaming universe featured in the Quest for Glory series and Hero-U. It is a prequel to Rogue to Redemption, taking place a few months prior to Shawn’s arrival at school. Hero-U fans will find much that they recognize here, including key characters, locations, and even some musical cues calling back to that previous game. While presumably the Coles are barred from reusing some elements of Quest for Glory owned by Activision, this is clearly the same world that we grew up loving. Playing through the game, we have the chance to interact with Katta, Minotaurs, and even whatever kind of dog-creature Kalb was in Quest for Glory 3. While legacy characters such as Erana and Erasmus are name-dropped, the focus is on getting to know Summer Daze’s new collection of wonderful characters.
Our goal: don’t get expelled.
As in Rogue to Redemption, we play as a rogue, or rather a “Disbarred Bard” formerly from Spielburg, Tilly Appleberry. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because she is the half-elf adopted daughter of the town healer from the original Quest for Glory, Amelia Appleberry. Tilly is sly and sarcastic, quick to joke but slow to do any actual studying. As such, she is not well-liked by the Adjunct Headmaster of the school, Mr. Turk. Thanks to a prank that may have gone a little too well with the school mascot, the “Hero Ewe”, Tilly is roped into planning this year’s Hero-U Harvest Festival, less than two weeks away. Mr. Turk leaps on this as his chance to set an ultimatum: make a great festival or be expelled.
As we play through the story, we have only two weeks to not only plan the festivities (or pawn that work on someone else), but we also must try to track down the snitch that revealed our role in the prank, make and help some new friends, attend classes, and pass our rogue exams… and just possibly end up “Rogue of the Year”. There is no dragon to slay (or indeed any slaying at all), nor a catastrophe to avert, just making friends to thwart the sexist adjunct headmaster and be allowed to remain at school.
Tilly chats up Mooella, a minotaur studying to be a paladin.
Tilly is not Shawn, the protagonist of the previous Hero-U game, but much of the gameplay feels like a streamlined version of that experience. Dialogue choices, for example, flex different aspects of Tilly’s rogue-ish personality. Like Shawn, her day will be heavily regimented and “on the clock” with time to attend class, wander the corridors, take tests, and socialize in the dining hall. There will never be enough time to do everything and if that is one of the things that frustrated you about Hero-U, you will be doubly frustrated this time out.
As a visual novel, Tilly’s Tale is primarily told through exploration and dialog options. Whenever Tilly has free time, we are presented with a map and can pick one of the game’s many locations to visit. Typically, this will trigger an interaction with one of the game’s many new characters, often friends that Tilly can try to recruit into her mission, and interact through the aforementioned dialog options– usually specifying how Tilly should respond, but not what she should respond. Should she be sarcastic? Honest? Charming? Should she lighten the mood with a joke or just go straight in with the truth? Regardless of what you pick, Tilly is almost certain to respond with one or more (or dozens…) of puns and jokes. She loves puns.
We can explore the school and its grounds via a clickable map.
All of the interactions in the game, including every side character, are fully voiced. I found most of the voice acting to be fantastic, especially Zehra Fazal (perhaps best known as Halo in the recent seasons of Young Justice) who brings Tilly to life. Overall, the voice work elevates the game over what might have come off as a fancy “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Every interaction involves humor and most include far too many puns. I’d be worried that Tilly comes off as being “species-insensitive” when she lobs a dozen cow-themed jokes at her new minotaur friend, for example, but no one seems to mind. Credit should also be given to Brandon Blume who composes an excellent soundtrack, although quick scene transitions mean that you sometimes hear the opening of the same track over and over again in succession.
As a “Light RPG”, much like Hero-U, the game includes a stats system with characteristics like “Smarts”, “Charm”, “Fitness”, “Skills”, “Luck”, “Moxie”, and “Respect”. Those are not front-and-center as in a typical RPG (we can only view them at night before going to bed), but use of these skills appear to adjust our scores. This isn’t obvious (or even called attention to) but there is a skills mechanic hidden deep under the visual novel facade, if you know where to look for it.
Our “character sheet” shows our stats. I have been practicing my moxie.
All of this comes together in a game that can best be described as “relaxing”. It features none of the combat of previous games, no inventory or other traditional puzzles, or any serious conflict of any kind except with the unsympathetic Adjunct Headmaster. Undoubtedly, this will make the game unappealing to some. Anyone looking for another Quest for Glory or even another Hero-U game will be disappointed. In style, Tilly’s Tale reminds me somewhat of Al Lowe’s earliest games: Dragon’s Keep and Troll’s Tale. Before he became Sierra’s go-to for adult themed games, Lowe had been an educator and had a knack for building low-conflict adventure games. Tilly’s Tale does not skew that young (although as a fully voiced game, it likely could be enjoyed by a young audience), but it still feels light and airy. There are no dramatic crises to solve, just a kid trying to get through school and make a few friends.
I had fun returning to a world that I have loved since 1989. The first Hero’s Quest (not yet Quest for Glory) was one of my introductions to the Sierra canon. It’s hard to be completely unbiased both because of my love for the original series and being a backer of both this and their previous Hero-U game, but I enjoyed the game for what it is: an airy spiritual sequel that’s a fun way to while away a few hours.
The rest of this review will have a few more nitpicks so fair warning there are some small spoilers ahead.
I hope you like species puns!
I would be remiss if I implied the game is perfect; it is not. Part of my issue comes in a contradiction that I cannot shake: I know that I have seen just a fraction of the total content. I haven’t managed to befriend everyone, or do the Harvest Festival or the other events in every possible way. I’ve never been “Rogue of the Year” and I’m not even sure that I can be. I’ve never even found the card minigame which I am assured is in there somewhere! (Corey told me how to find it, but I didn't have quite enough time to go back in to do it.) The game is big, and yet the game also feels (unfairly perhaps) as if there is not quite enough to do.
Let me cite one example: while we participate in a thieving class each day (and have two tests on the subject), none of that is expressed in gameplay. I would kill for a lock-picking or trap-disarming minigame or something that makes the class and test segments feel less like words on a page and more like part of the game. Tilly’s chosen vocation as a rogue makes little difference in the plot after the setup. She never sneaks around after hours or pick-pockets a teacher. None of her thieves skills come into play in any major way in any of the branches of the story I have experienced. Tilly’s role as a “disbarred bard” also makes two games in a row where the Coles have us interacting with Hero-U as a rogue. This makes Tilly’s Tale feel familiar and comfortable– we have the same teacher and classroom that Shawn will have in just a few months– but also repetitive. In a world as diverse as Gloriana, why are we playing as a rogue again… especially if that choice seems to make limited narrative difference?
I cannot help but wonder how this would have felt if the next chapter, Ifeyo’s Adventure, had been released at the same time. Having two playable characters would have provided more variety and allowed me to feel as if the game is as expansive as it is.
I like the villain even less now.
And that leaves me with my one real complaint about Tilly’s Tale: it feels less like a full game and more like a prologue. We’re just getting to know Tilly and she’s just beginning to know what she can accomplish when she sets her mind to it. It’s to the game’s credit that I want to grow with her and see her become a trickster hero. It’s to the game’s detriment that there is no chance of that in the short term: with 1-2 years between chapters and a desire to make each chapter star a different hero, we’re left with just enough Tilly to fall for the character and not enough to be satisfied by the resolution. That makes the game a much more frustrating experience than I expect the Coles anticipated. Yes! I am excited to be introduced to Ifeyo (2025?), Sami (2027?), and Jani (2029?), but the Coles made me interested in Tilly’s hero’s journey without providing a resolution to it.
All that said, Tilly’s Tale really is a fun way to spend a couple of hours on a low-stakes game with old friends. (And many more hours if you delve into all of its secrets and relationships.) It won’t move mountains or change the way you view adventure games or visual novels. It won’t satisfy your craving for a Hero-U sequel. It is a fun return to a world that I grew up loving and that made it worth it to me.
Summer Daze: Tilly’s Tale is available now to backers of their Kickstarter and will be launched on Steam on March 28 with other platforms to follow. Don’t forget to comment with any questions that you might have about Hero-U or other projects below.
Adorable rouge sleeps with a bunny instead of sneaking around at night.
Nice article! The words I use to describe Summer Daze: Tilly's Tale are "funny and charming." It's the opposite of a high stakes, stressful game.ReplyDelete
That said, it can be very challenging to complete any character's story. You need to determine - the manual will help - where to find that character each day. We assume that players will play through multiple times, learning each character's habits through play.
We're more spending retirement funds on the games than risking our home, but it is very hard to break even making large indie games. Fortunately, it's also very satisfying to know that we're accomplishing something with our lives.
I never played the Quest for Glory series or any game by the Coles, but I just want to thank Lori an Corey for keeping on making games with such passion and love, even at the expense of their financial status. I hope the game do well in sales so they can continue to make what they loveReplyDelete
I hadn't put two plus two together before, but I have played an enormous number of multiple-choice games from Choice of Games -- which look superficially like Choose Your Own Adventures, but also keep track of stats in the background -- and often offer (QFG-style) mutually exclusive paths to prime the pump for replays. (Their game "the Hero of Kendrickstone" explicitly feels inspired by the QFG series.) This sounds a lot like their house style, only with the full production values of voices and illustrations icing the cake. I'm a COG fan, so to me, this sounds like a good thing!ReplyDelete
As a backer, I'm happily awaiting the eventual DRM-free copy of this! Thank you to Lori and Corey for persevering - the world's a slightly better place with your games and stories in it.ReplyDelete
Question: The financial side of development remains a bit concerning. The core audience of old QfG fans isn't getting any bigger, and the overall game market is very competitive, so I find it hard to see how you, or indeed any indie, are able to make back their development costs. AI-generated art is a bit divisive, but it could help bring development costs down. Your games are about the story, not the art, so it wouldn't detract from your strengths; the change from RPG to visual novel was already based on this reasoning. What are your thoughts?
I'm not sure anyone is making money in the indie space except for a few exceptions. Wadjet Eye had a big hit with Unavowed, and Dave keeps their production costs tight, so I expect he's doing fine. Obviously Minecraft and Stardew Valley, maybe Thimbleweed Park.Delete
Lori and I tried to make a smaller, less expensive game this time, but it's still bigger than we intended. I do think having full voice acting is the right way to go. And maybe, just maybe, we'll get better at finishing a game in a year instead of taking 4-5 years.
Kirinn, the DRM-free version is available now at https://transolar-games.itch.io/tillys-tale. Also, our Steam version is DRM-free (as is Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption). You can play either game offline without a Steam connection.Delete
I love you both (Corey and Lori)Delete
Excellent, thank you! Since backerkit only shows the Steam key so far, I'll just need to wait the one month (as the kickstarter update explained) for the itch.io key. No worries!Delete
Life has gotten in the way, but I very much look forward to exploring Tilly's Tale when I have time. Thanks to Joe for this review, reminding me that it's available.ReplyDelete
Michael Berlyn (who worked on games covered on this blog such as Tass Times in Tonetown, a bunch of Infocom games and Les Manley 1) reported dead: https://twitter.com/MikeJMika/status/1641215685006356480ReplyDelete
Aw. I haven't been able to find anything more authoritative than just that tweet, though (which doesn't say where they heard it from); anyone got any other cites?Delete
I don't know about authoritative, but Steve Meretzky posted a brief note about Mike Berlyn's passing on Facebook. So I assumed it was true, even if it didn't give any source.Delete
@Torbjorn: I'll take it. I just had no idea who MikeJMika was so no idea why they might be privy to this information, and when I looked up Berlyn's Wikipedia article, the date had been changed but with no reference for where the information had come from. Steve Meretzky is "authoritative" enough for me. (And I do see the article Corey posted.)Delete
Need to give the Hero-U series a go... thanks for the post Joe - will come back to read it in full once I'm up to it.ReplyDelete
I've completed one playthrough now and I agree with Joe's observation that the game might be big under the hood, but it's very hard to see any of it in any given playthrough. For instance, I completely forgot there were any stats available: I never saw them and there was nothing obvious on any screen that suggested they existed. (Minor spoilers ahead) Also, after I spent enough time with Mooella that her main location was no longer available, Tilly started making comments about how she should have made more friends, so I tried going to the recreation room to find people. But no matter how many days I went there, Sitari was always playing to an empty room. Nobody ever uses the rec room?? That seemed very unrealistic. In fact, I only spoke to a total of five students (including the kitchen assistant) during my playthrough, and none were classmates. Where was everyone?ReplyDelete