I’ve always had an affinity for action-RPGs that draw outside the lines of the genre’s hard edges. Something like Dark Cloud, the Level-5 adventure which smartly combined procedural dungeoneering with refined city-building; Persona 4: Golden with its imitable blend of social connection and murder investigation, or Moonlighter which uses exploration as an excuse to keep your storefront stocked with valuable items. With all of that in mind, it should probably come as no surprise that I’ve fallen in love with Dungeons of Hinterberg.
This upcoming Xbox Series X game is an undoubtedly ambitious first effort from developer Microbird, as much a love letter to the idyllic Austrian Alps as it is a guarantee that all eyes remain on Xbox Game Pass in 2024. You can think of Dungeons of Hinterberg as a wellness retreat for aspiring adventurers, where stuffy everyday-types flock to a colorful ski resort turned demon-slaying hotspot to indulge in a little hack-and-slashing by day and socializing with locals by night.
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Perhaps the smartest element of Dungeons of Hinterberg is the way Microbird has intertwined its social systems with core adventuring. 25 magical dungeons appeared around Hinterberg a long time ago, creating a thriving tourism ecosystem for the otherwise sleepy alpine village with an exaggerated visual style that has echoes of Lake and Sable. A new day and a new dungeon to conquer, giving you something to gossip about with other tourists over a cold drink or some well-earned food. Take the time to make new friends and you might just unlock a new dimension of the skill tree, earning new attack patterns or improving magical defenses, or earn other helpful abilities and consumables.
Admittedly, I was a little worried about Dungeons of Hinterberg’s combat coming in – the trailers made it look a little like Hi-Fi Rush without the rhythm. But there’s more depth than meets the eye once you get your hands on a controller, battling demons with a stab of heavy and light attacks. Time a dodge against more towering foes just right, and the world will slow around you for a brief window – a flurry of sword strikes soon follows. What I really admire is how magic weaves out of exploration and into combat; a quick hookshot ability is used effectively in puzzles, scattered liberally throughout dungeons, but it has even better application in battles – slingshotting through enemies and then striking a second time when you summon the chain to return. Combine that slick attack with a summonable bomb and it’s possible to manage mobs in some really creative, aesthetically–pleasing ways.
Where Dungeons of Hinterberg truly shines, though, is in its structure. Microbird has effectively developed a rather abstract Metroidvania, where progression into new areas is governed by your relationships rather than some ability you earn from besting a boss or locating some hidden room in a labyrinth. With 20 residents to befriend across the Hinterberg lodge, each has something to share if you put the effort into being a social butterfly. Familiarity, Relaxation, Amusement, and countless others – progression is tied to your attempts to make this tourist town a home. One new friend may teach you a new combat ability that’ll help you push deeper into dungeons, while another could share information that they have collected on their own travels across the wilds, or maybe you’ll find someone who can remove those pesky goo stains from collected loot. Intertwining relationship statuses with the skill tree, and your capacity to understand and navigate the world, is a genius creative decision, and one which really helps this adventure stand apart from its contemporaries.
I like this wrinkle to Dungeons of Hinterberg’s exploration, where the camera zooms out from over the shoulder and takes a wider lens on your adventure. Truth be told, I love the entire vibe of this experience. It’s calm and collected, smart and honest – and one of my most anticipated games of next year.
Dungeons of Hinterberg doesn’t have a firm release date just yet, but it’s already one of my most anticipated Xbox Series X console exclusives and upcoming PC games for 2024.