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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ZED Review — A Boring Walk
Players intrigued by the premise of ZED will have to look elsewhere for a game that delivers on the promise of an emotional journey set amidst surreal landscapes. Although the game does have fascinating visuals, the lack of any real gameplay makes the entire experience dull and uninspiring. However, despite being an altogether terrible experience, the ending is still somehow emotional.
ZED tells the story of an ageing artist suffering with dementia who must recover his lost memories to create one final artwork for his granddaughter. The player assumes the role of the artist, stuck in his own twisted mind, to collect important objects from the course of his life and bring him peace.
Gameplay entirely consists of two things: walking around to find objects and solving basic puzzles. In all of the game’s areas, only four objects are to be found. Finding the objects is an incredibly simple task in most levels as the design is linear and leads the player along a path or through a small collection of rooms to find these items. Occasionally, one of the objects will be placed in a ridiculous location. Breaking the linearity in this way is incredibly frustrating and forces the player to backtrack and find hidden paths that are not immediately obvious. As for the puzzles, they take seconds to complete even without searching for the striking blue solutions on the walls of the level. Such a simplistic and unoriginal gameplay loop makes the incredibly short game boring to play through.
The environments are genuinely fun to look at and do a brilliant job of capturing the mayhem inside the mind of a man whose memory is failing him. Disappointingly, the game has no interactive elements within the environments beyond the key items, toilets, and plush toys. Even then, interacting with these objects requires specific mouse placement, which is almost impossible to predict as a cursor has been omitted for the sake of immersion. The game has many quirky assets, yet the lack of interactivity makes them feel worthless.
Eagre Games tries to create an immersive experience, though falls flat for a number of reasons, the most annoying of which is the load screens. The player progresses the story by unlocking doorways to reveal the next scene. However, after getting this glimpse of art, the player is thrust into a brief black loading screen which ruins the point of revealing anything at all.
The narrative is told through voice-overs that belong to the protagonist’s daughter and two different sides of his deteriorating mind. Subtitles are turned off by default, yet, without them, the player has no way of knowing that the artist’s voice is represented as a dual identity. What is being said makes little sense as is, let alone without the context of a warring ego and id.
By the end of the game, the player just wants to see the result of this painful object search and, surprisingly, the conclusion is overwhelmingly touching. Against all odds, ZED somehow manages to finish on a high that acts as a reminder that anything is possible if you chase your dreams.
The ending is the only redeeming feature of this boring experience. ZED is short, uninspired, and disappointing. For a game that sounded so promising, weak gameplay prevents it from having any real emotional impact. Hopefully, the strong development team at Eagre Games will learn from its mistakes to create something that is as fun to play as it is to look at.
Reviewed on PC.
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