I just completed playing the final installment of King’s Bounty, which at this time is Warriors of the North. Let me start my tale where it began (such a good place for all tales to begin, really); buying a large bundle on steam for 59.99 and getting about 2 dozen games. I had just built my PC and wanted something to play around with, and I saw a new game called “Metro 2033″ on sale for some insane discount, so I watched the trailer and read about it. It turned out to be a hidden gem, but what was even better was that it also was part of a huge bundle that cost the same as the game would have cost had I bought it regular price!
After beating that game, I realized I now had to find something else to play, but really wasn’t familiar with anything else in my bundle. I scrolled through the list and found one that interested me a bit, since it reminded me of a style of RPG combat that I loved ever since playing the Shining Force games on the Genesis. There it was, King’s Bounty: The Legend. From the moment you start the game, you realize it isn’t going to be an easy, straightforward ride. The world around you has dozens of enemies that once you make contact with, you will have to fight in a hexagonal-turn-based-strategy. How this battles go is completely unexplained, and how the entire battle system works is also left pretty unclear.
For those that have never played it, here is a quick run down:
You can have 5 different types of troops on your team. Let’s say Swordsmen, Knight, Paladin, Priest, and Bowmen, as this is a combination I used frequently. The swordsmen has a set of stats like 10 attack, 10 defense, 3 speed, 2 initiative, 3-6 damage, and 20 HP (no I don’t remember the numbers, this is just an example :-D). Let’s also say the Swordsmen has a leadership requirement of 30. If you have 15000 leadership, you can carry 500 Swordsmen. While attack/defense/speed/initiative and not affected by this, your damage is. If you have 500 Swordsmen, their attack will do 1500-3000 damage. If your troop of Swordsmen takes 200 damage, you will lose 10 Swordsmen, and then the damage of the troop is reduced as well.
There are a few other things that go into the battles as far as planning, synergy, and strategy goes, and the game gives you options on customizing your strategy with a leveling system, but what really made the game shine was the amount of options and the writing.
Throughout the entire game, there are pop-culture references, science jokes, religion jokes, references to other game lore parodies of various video game tropes, etc, etc. The writing was fantastic, which is surprising considering that it was completely written and produced in Russia. Based on some of the quirky translation errors I saw, it really doesn’t seem like there was an American based translating team, but again, I can’t be sure. Mentioning the Russian origin brings me back to the ‘easy, straightforward ride’ line….
Games that are made by American companies or their European are pretty simplified and tutorial driven nowadays. “Look, there is something coming at you! Press the Left Mouse Button to get your weapon out, and move around him with the WASD keys!” And then the entire battle is laid out for you to completely learn the game right then and there. While I’, not necessarily complaining about that (I’d prefer it done more tactfully), playing King’s Bounty is quite different. There is a brief tutorial on how to do some basics, such as digging for gold, and walking around the map, but there is no training for how combat works. The one paragraph I gave you above is more instruction than the game provides. To top that off, the world you are exposed to can’t just be approached from any angle. You need to figure out which of the enemy troops scattered around the map are weak enough to fight at the start, and you can only clear the first map slowly and deliberately, returning to purchase more troops as your level and leadership grows.
Once you’ve become accustomed to the fairly unforgiving game play (don’t forget to save between EVERY battle), the game becomes highly addictive and you can easily fall into the Just One More Level mentality. I can’t remember how many times I’d just stop after I turned in a quest, or made it back to base, or cleared one more battle, all just to get a new item, level up, or a quest in an area where I had to turn another one in, or something similar that just pushed me to play for a FEW more minutes.
The first game was a really fun adventure filled with a lot of learning and laughing. The differences between the player types you can pick seemed to fade as the game progressed, and the traveling back and forth to replenish soldiers got tedious after a while, but all in all, I really looked forward to playing the second game, since it was already purchased in my pack!
The second game: Armored Princess greets you as if you are a complete newcomer to the game and style, and it actually fixed most of the problems I had with the first one. Differences between the character types were a bit more defined, they’ve added a fast-travel system that means you don’t have to walk through the entire game to get back to the main base to replenish your troops. They tweaked the secondary spell casting system to make it more useful on game-play and added boss battles that required unique strategies to beat. One boss has a “strong hand” and a “weak hand” (this is only mentioned in the lore, not something that a Navi like character points out to you mid-battle). Using this information, you can position your attacks so that his counters are weak and you can win with less trouble.
The second game also came had some expansions that provided an arena mode with only boss battles as well as a direct expansion to the Armored Princess game that added a quite a few item sets, some quests, some new creatures, and a new race with their own resource. I never bothered playing through it, since it followed the exact same story line.
The final game, the one I just completed, fell way short of the expectations the second game had given me. The second game was such an improvement on the first in so many ways from just the design perspective. They differentiated between player’s classes, made player choices play a small part, revamped the partner system (you could ‘marry’ people and get stat bonuses from them) to be funner and more impactful. They fixed the monotony of running all over the place to gather more Knights because they got destroyed last battle by implemented a new fast travel system. They made trading hubs centralized and rewarding with niche builds and items on side quests. They had a boss system! They added spells and fun achievements that could give you in-game rewards such as 3% resistance to all damage types because you used defensive magic 50 times in the first 10 rounds of battles. Things felt like this series learned from its mistakes, took its criticism and improved their game to become a real hidden gem. The first game had a metacritic score of 79. Armored Princess had a score of 82, a slight improvement, but an improvement none-the-less. There was more room to grow, of course, and I was hoping that would lead to Warriors of the North being a solid addition. The metacritic score fell to 74, and I fully understand why. When the game was released it had around 20 game-breaking bugs that would result in you not being able to progress. Fortunately, I was busy with work and school and did not start the game until well after the initial bugs had been fixed. I still have a quest unfinishable because of a bug, but it wouldn’t have mattered.
Warriors of the North is supposed to be a sequel, but the game recycles around 40% of the in-game world from the first game. The minimap is bugged a bit in certain areas, the troop variety and placement of central troop buying hubs is nowhere close to being as awesome as the second game, and the new rage system is nice, but it isn’t as intuitive as the second game. In this game, you have a collection of 9 spells based on the various Valkyries you possess. I have yet to figure out, even after having beaten the game, which spell will cause which spell to be on cooldown/rest. I at first thought it was based on the Valkyries that gave me those skills, but that pattern fell apart. I’m sure a simply Google search will answer it for me, but I really shouldn’t have to go that far. It got to the point I would just cycle between 3 that I knew didn’t affect each other.
They added a few item sets, quite a few spells (some of which were originally just rage spells from the previous game), and the Viking Race. They removed the marriage system and mixed it with the Valkyrie rage system, which means they took two cool things and made it one cool thing. That’s not cool. They tweaked the class differentiation again, which I think improved it slightly for early to mid game. But by end game, I had leveled nearly everything in every tree, so I’m not sure it really had any impact late game.
The boss battle progression in the second game was fantastic. You needed specific strategies for each one. This game had 3 boss battles and they were strangely scattered around the game. One was a spider that was recycled from game 2 and, while a boss fight, wasn’t the end of a level. It was just a large spider that was in the way of you getting to the actual boss, which was just a regular fight. Similarly, the second boss was just a large guy in the way of you getting to the next area, and not a true boss. The only boss fight that was a real boss was the final boss, and he was pretty tough until I realized they missed something in designing the boss fight. I don’t want to spoil it, but when I realized it, the boss battle became boringly easy.
The difficulty progression of the game was off too. In the other two games, each time I got to a new island, I’d have to try my hardest to avoid certain enemies until I leveled a bit, and occasionally I had to go get an entire new army because the enemies I was facing countered my composition. Once I got to about 20-25 hours in, the entire game was smooth sailing. I literally didn’t have to return to replenish troops for the last 20 hours of the game, until the last few climatic fights.
While it sounds like I’m ripping this game apart, I don’t want to take away from many of the positives. The writing was just as witty and reference-laden, so it was still enjoyable to explore the world and talk to people. The main quest line was pretty cool as well, although it felt like they redid Dragon Age Origin’s story line and ending sequence, where the groups you convinced to join you were there to help you defeat the various enemy troops, although I probably could have done that without any problem with my own unit set up.
I pre-ordered this game because of my experience with the last two, but I probably won’t be doing that for the next one. I’ll wait for a review and probably wait for a steam sale to bring the price down a bit.
Overall, if you are a fan of turn-base strategy games, this is definitely a series you should check out.