Most of the Asian continent besides East Asia remains largely untapped as an inspiration for video games. Most games set in India that I know are action titles, and your character is often just there to knock the stuffing out of baddies.
So The Palace on the Hill is a breath of fresh air, a chance to actually take part in an ordinary, peaceful, local community. Here, you explore the beautiful Indian countryside through the eyes of young artist Vir.
Adventure Meets Sim?
It’s the summer holidays! Since you’re off school, make yourself useful to the community by foraging, farming, cooking and, don’t forget, painting. The hour-long Steam demo lets you sample each of these activities over 2 to 3 in-game days. Though Palace on the Hill is described as a slice-of-life adventure game, it feels part-farming sim.
There’s an in-game clock to measure the passing of time. But you can work on your checklist of “quests” at your own pace, whether it’s planting your first crop seeds, meeting a new friend, or painting a picture. In the brief demo, though, you’ll want to focus on progressing in these quests, or else there isn’t much to do besides forage and cooking.
Local flora yield leaves, petals, and fruits for cooking. They also provide seeds for planting, and materials for crafting like wood, clay, and bamboo. Most forageable items don’t sell for much but re-spawn within the same day, which is a lot faster than in farming sims I know.
Paint Me a Puzzle
What makes the game distinctive, besides its Indian setting, is the painting activity. Something neat about Vir’s paintings is that you’ll actually hang finished pieces in the school hall, in preparation for an upcoming event.
In the demo, you get to paint two pictures. The game prompts you when there’s an opportunity to paint. You’ll collect “references,” which pop up as icons in the surrounding area. When you have collected them all—they’re basically pieces of a puzzle, you must place these components in exactly the right spots on your sketchbook. This results in a finished painting, which the game then auto-colors for you.
Unfortunately, it’s not a creative activity so much as a memory puzzle, and I didn’t find it very enjoyable on my first try.
I had trouble finding the right spot for each component. Each time I checked the final-picture reference, to see where each component should go, the puzzle would annoyingly reset. There also wasn’t a shortcut button to open my sketchbook quickly. So it took longer than necessary to finish the painting.
Tea and Eggs, Please
I enjoyed cooking and exploring a lot more. You spend most of the day running around the entire map, but every tea time, Vir goes to his part-time job of making drinks and meals at Devi’s tea shop.
It felt rewarding to make some cash and fulfil customer requests. I also loved Devi’s shop and the menu, as both reminded me of home (Malaysia has a sizable Indian population, and has some cuisine and scenery in common with India). That made Vir’s village and the surrounding nature a pleasure to explore.
The world of this game is beautifully illustrated. I’ve probably said this of many games, but it’s like walking through a children’s picture book.
I don’t know how large the game’s map will finally be. But there are certainly new places to explore in the full game. Mystery locations, locked gates, and hints of an ancient kingdom. Discovering new locations is a great incentive for advancing the main story.
Long Summer Days
What might possibly deter me from playing, based on this brief demo, is the lack of fun gameplay despite the game’s attractive concept and visuals. Will tasks eventually turn into chores?
Each of Vir’s activities may be exciting at first, but the novelty can wear off quickly if new mechanics or rewards aren’t introduced soon enough, or if mundane tasks take too much time.
By late afternoon of Day 2, I was starting to get a bit impatient, wishing I could fast-forward time. I had done everything possible and was simply waiting for the clock to strike tea time. (I’m not sure how time passes: automatically or through character actions?)
So far it’s a beautiful, atmospheric, unique game. But while the setting is appealing, that might not be enough to go on, if basic gameplay doesn’t feel sufficiently rewarding or if progress is slow. It’s hard to judge from the demo if that’s the case. In any case, many games tend to open up slowly.
Despite loving the general concept and visuals, I’m feeling ambivalent. That could be because I’m uncertain of what to expect in terms of the game’s genre and mechanics.
Though described as an adventure game, I’m not getting a kick yet out of adventure staples like interesting puzzles or entertaining dialogue. There’s certainly story and exploration, but I wonder if these will be spaced far out between chores. Meanwhile, the demo has elements of a farming sim but doesn’t motivate players in the usual direction of “work hard all day, produce, get rich!” It left me wanting to do more with those long summer days.
So I found myself wanting to get on with the story, while on the other hand wishing there was more I could do with my garden in one day. Perhaps I’ll find my footing in the full game. I’m also hoping to discover more about Vir’s neighbours and his land, both modern and ancient.
Check out The Palace on the Hill‘s demo and more screenshots at Steam.