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Kingdom Review

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Kingdom is a new 2D, side-scrolling tower defense game from Raw Fury. As the king (or queen!) of a kingdom of dirt and peasants, you are tasked to wisely spend your hard-earned coins to build up your kingdom into the envy of the land. Or to be swarmed by legions of demons that spew from ominous portals spread throughout the beautiful, pixel-art landscape.

Y’know, whichever.

At first, Kingdom seems almost like a sand-boxy combination of kingdom builder, resource management, and horse riding simulator. You ride around on horseback gathering coins (either through scattered chest or as tithes from your loyal subjects) to recruit scattered peasants, build them tools to become builders, archers, or farmers, and spend money to have them build and upgrade the structures in your kingdom from rickety wood to stone and beyond.

Occasionally you’re attacked at night by disturbing little shadowy demons who steal your peasants’ tools or their paychecks, forcing you to pay them again to keep them productive and loyal, or even your own crown, which is the only way to lose the game that I’ve found. But for the most part, it seems to have a slow, almost relaxed pace. Even the game’s gorgeous pixel-art graphics (I know it’s a bit passe to gush over pixel art at this point, but Kingdom really does make the most of its graphical style) and its soothing, relaxing soundtrack help drive home this feeling of majesty and serenity.

But this is a lie.

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While it may seem almost relaxing at first, Kingdom is actually a race against time and a horrifying and unethical psychological experiment for how to induce pentaphobia (the fear of the number five for those of you who don’t know Greek) in the general populace. For you see, while Kingdom generally plays at a pretty steady, even relaxing pace, every fifth day – like clockwork – is a blood moon and your burgeoning kingdom is pretty much going to be steamrolled by the aforementioned hordes of thieving little demons in a way that I’ve yet to figure out a way to reliably stop.

Even after having a pretty good grasp of the mechanics and with a favorable starting position, the very first of these blood moons regularly sees me completely defenseless against these demons, forcing me to basically rebuild my kingdom from scratch.

Fortunately, the game makes it relatively easy to rebuild upgraded structures. Walls – the only thing the demons are interested in destroying but, conversely, the only thing that actually blocks their terrifying wave of destruction – can be upgraded from rickety wooden barricades up to impressive stone monoliths and are actually very effective at doing their job…until the blood moon, where the horde breaking through is less a possibility and more an inevitability.

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But at least you aren’t forced to rebuild broken walls step by step, you just pay a flat, lesser fee and they’re rebuilt as they were, which is very forgiving. So if you have a bunch of impressive stone walls, it’s pretty easy to get them back up and running again after a blood moon attack. That is, assuming you still have any workers left to rebuild them.

The real problem isn’t in rebuilding your kingdom’s walls, it’s in re-recruiting your peasants because, while the demons are only interested in mugging them for their lunch money, there is no easy way to stop them from trudging like miserable, colorless zombies back into the woods, no “wait while I get out my checkbook!” button.

If you have a stockpile of money you can run back and forth dropping coins like rain and catch most of them – which is a time consuming prospect that can easily take an entire precious day – but unless your archers were particularly effective in killing the little demonic thieves, most of the peasants’ tools will be gone by daybreak and you’ll have the monumental expense of reforging them since without them, peasants just stand around like lumps doing And unless you’re particularly astute or keeping good records (the game sure doesn’t), it’s also very difficult to tell what kinds of workers you’ve lost. So if you had a good balance of builders, archers and peasants before the attack, it’s going to be very hard to recapture that balance after the wave of destruction has ebbed.

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Unfortunately, most of the time your archers aren’t particularly effective at killing much of anything. Unless you’ve built up a lot of archery towers – which sadly can only be built where the game already has a foundation for one, meaning they may not be in the most tactically-sound places – more often than not, your arches will just sit there night after night shooting blindly into the very walls you build to protect them. And eventually, the demonic hordes start sending flying horrors that will just snatch your archers right out of their towers, making even those of dubious usefulness.

So at its core, Kingdom isn’t any sort of kingdom building simulator. It’s a fast-paced, resource management/tower-defense game. But good news, game-fans: it works extremely well in this regard. The game does a poor job preparing you for the eventual slaughter you’re going to face – I, at least, thought it would ramp up slowly like tower defense games, but the night-five swarm always takes me by surprise – but when that first wave of demons washes over you on night five, the monumental task before you becomes very clear.

You’ll probably lose that first game shortly thereafter as you rebuild from scratch, hopefully well enough to survive night 10, but once you start learning the ins and outs of the game, you’ll find yourself doing better and better each time.

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Unfortunately, some of the game’s other shortcomings become apparent at this point. First of all, the game’s tutorial is woefully inadequate. While it does teach you the bare basics of how to to walk (well, ride) and recruit peasants and spend your money on tools and structures, it doesn’t adequately prepare you for the challenges ahead – or indeed tell you that there are challenges ahead – nor does it explain to you any sort of context of what’s going on. The latter is a bit less of a problem, I suppose, but it sure would be nice to know what these things are that are attacking us. There’s no story to speak of here, just a little pixel monarch and their doomed kingdom of sticks and stones.

Far more problematic is the fact that the game does not tell you how to progress. At first, you’ll find yourself trapped with wooden walls that are easily destroyed night after night, and unless you’re particularly astute (or experimental), the method of upgrading them further may be impossible to deduce without going online and finding the answer.

Kingdom is a game that invites exploration and experimentation, but it doesn’t tell you that it invites exploration and experimentation. The answers, you see, are hidden in the forest, sometimes beyond the ominous portals that will occasionally, even during the day, spit a hostile little demon at you. Personally, my first thought was that these portals were impassible and nothing in the game hinted that I should explore beyond my burgeoning kingdom. But this is a recipe for disaster as there are shrines and monuments to be found in the forests that are absolutely crucial to your success.

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But I readily admit to not being particularly experimental in games like this. My own personal playstyle is to try and find a bit of self-sufficiency and let the game play itself as much as possible while I try to pick up the pieces. At the same time, perhaps if the game had at least a subtle hint that exploration was necessarily, I might have been a little more willing to try it.

Unfortunately, you’ll never find any level of that self-sufficiency I so crave in Kingdom, and this also discourages exploration and experimentation a bit. While the kingdom basically does run itself four days out of five, you’ll find yourself spending much of those four days rebuilding after the fifth, when the blood moon destroys your defenses and populace. This is beyond slightly irritating when you want to get out and find what secrets lie in the forest. The fact that even finding anything in the forest can take an entire day or more of riding, particularly when you’ve expanded your kingdom even a little, also makes it difficult to justify spending the time when you know that your kingdom is going to get steamrolled again in less than five days.

The other thing that Kingdom rather fails to inform you on is the fact that there does actually appear to be a way to “beat” it. But I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t stumbled upon it online. Supposedly you’re able to destroy the various portals that spit out demons every night. But I’ve been unable to discover the method of doing this in my several (admittedly casual) play sessions.

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In addition, while reading about it online, it sounds like there’s a sort of time limit in accomplishing this goal. If you don’t get enough of them down fast enough, it becomes almost impossible. Not only does this impose a time-limit on the game – which I’m not a fan of in general, particularly in a kingdon building game which I like to take at my own pace – but it also imposes a “right way” to play. If you have to optimize how you play in order to beat the game and any deviation from that path will end in inevitable defeat, then it’s little more than a flow chart-following simulator.

I can’t back this particular point up, however, and I’ll grant that the game did just come out this week and people are still learning the tactics. But the fact that I still legitimately have no idea as to how to accomplish the purpose of the game says something about the game’s lack of a tutorial. I could always look up the answer online (and the fact that the answer exists suggests that it’s at least possible to figure out), but that seems like cheating.

But maybe after a few more playthroughs (and some experimentation), I’ll figure it out. And really, that seems to be what Kingdom is all about: failing and trying something new the next time until it works. And Kingdom is certainly enjoyable enough that I feel like I’ll keep going back to it time and time again and, hopefully, do better each time.

Just…not for awhile. That last blood moon really wiped me out.

Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Writer, journalist, teacher, pedant. Reid's done just about anything and everything involving words and now he's hoping to use them for something he's passionate about: video games. He's been gaming since the onset of the NES era and has never looked back.

Review

SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead

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The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.

SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.

As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.

The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.

Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.

Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.

The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.

Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.

Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.

SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.

The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.

The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.

The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.

SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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