This is something of a new realm for me. And I mean that with all puns intended: my preferred choice of videogame at the moment usually involves cutting edge graphics, wide open spaces, and a plot-line that doesn’t involve excessive use of ‘ye,’ ‘shall,’ and ‘nay’ (The Witcher was a big no-no). But then again, until very recently I was about the most unadventurous gamer you could imagine, only really straying from the world of the first person shooter to dabble in some mainstream platforming and certainly never considering the possibility that a PC could play more than just Minecraft. And d’you know what? That sucks.
It sucks because my tastes have been neutered, which makes me prone to turning my nose up at indie titles simply because they don’t bear the triple-A mark; it also sucks because Call of Duty has recently dug its own grave, made its own coffin, and lowered itself slowly in whilst babbling hysterically about war in our solar system, which would up until very recently have rather limited my playable options. As luck would have it, my interests have changed over the past year, but I’ve been too blinkered to know where to start, and so have decided that for the time being the best thing to do is just sort of try all the things. With all that in mind, then, I closed my eyes, grabbed a dart, and offered to write a review of whichever game caught my attention the most.
Kingdom was that game.
Produced as a collaborative effort between 2 hardened Scandinavian game developers – Licorice and Noio – Kingdom is a side-scrolling, 2D, minimalist RPG survival game that is designed (and I quote) to be “easy to play, difficult to master.” Now, this alone ought to have set the alarm bells ringing, but I was far too busy trying to decipher the meaning of ‘2D;’ it is sad to think that the closest I’ve ever got to fully pixelated, 2-dimensional gaming was a New Super Mario Bros. game on my Wii.
But I digress. After having invested a good portion of my week in getting the hang of Kingdom, I can say without hesitation that the quotation above rings true: the game is designed to be deceptively straight-forward, but is also filled with subtle quirks that render any attempt at real progress fiendishly difficult. So what’s it all about?
The basic premise is very simple: by spending coins on increasing the size and defenses of your pixelated settlement, the player must attempt to survive as many consecutive nights as possible without losing their crown to the creepy little purple monsters that come out when the sun goes down. Coins are earned upon surviving a night, but can also be collected by having your villagers hunt deer or farm the land, or even by coming across a loot chest in your bi-directional travels.
The more coins you spend on a particular aspect of your settlement – the outer walls, for example, or the guard towers – the more effective they will be when it comes to fending off the hoards of terrible beasties. Whilst I have yet to actually progress beyond day 15, I have already noticed that wooden battlements become stone once they are developed enough (for example). Villagers can be ‘recruited’ by throwing a coin at them, and will adopt the roles of archer, builder, or farmer when a bow, hammer, or scythe is purchased for them at their respective trading stalls. Later additions include knights and royal guards, but I’ll leave those to your imagination.
The reason I’m going into such detail about the game mechanics is because I’d like to point out that it is possible to list them all in the space of a few lines – as I have just done – without ever suggesting that this subtracts from the gameplay experience; using only the left, down, and right arrow keys, Kingdom somehow manages to make full use of a minimalist design, maintaining player interest for as long as their King/Queen survives. I find it particularly infuriating that venturing into a forest means you lose all sense of night and day, which is potentially deadly when the portals through which the creatures appear are strategically placed within said forest.
This feature alone means that exploring your world is a risky undertaking, as the creatures run faster than your horse can walk and so run out of energy – as your horse often will – and you’ll be watching your crown disappear in the hands of a little purple thing before you can make it home. Similarly, earning coins is simple enough, but the further you progress, the more expensive upgrades for your settlement become: all in all, there is a wonderful balance that Kingdom strikes between contrasting elements of the gameplay that more than makes up for the apparent simplicity of the game.
Kingdom is a survival game first and foremost, and to that end, can be painfully frustrating, especially if you decide to wander a little further than usual and get caught with a knackered horse by a gang of purple critters on day 20. And there really is nothing you can do in situations such as those, which ups the difficulty substantially and forces you to consider whether going on a trip to the local magical-shrine-of-arrow-enhancement is really such a good idea. The only thing that softens the blow a little upon being de-crowned is the knowledge that you’ll be back in the thick of it within 10 minutes; Kingdom is tailored to learning from past mistakes and also trying over and over and over again to beat your previous record until it’s 2AM in the real world and you’ve forgotten to actually do anything with your day.
If I am to criticise – as I suppose I ought to – I think it’d be best to address the issue of just how little the player can actually do. I understand that the phrase ‘minimalist RPG’ is not just for show, but I do have some concerns about the extraordinary lack of talent that the player character has. Aside from throwing frankly extortionate amounts of gold around, the player’s only real ability is carrying a torch at night or occasionally startling a deer into running straight at one of your archers; I’d like to see a little more by way of intuitive controls, maybe, and that doesn’t necessarily mean giving the player a bow. Why not give the up arrow key a function? Just a thought. And I know it could be potentially game-altering, but I would also love the ability to hop off my horse every so often…
I mentioned earlier that I am not a fan of games that are set in a fantasy world, specifically those set in a medievally-themed fantasy world: it is the endless potion-crafting and spell-casting that tires me, I reckon, although I also think that a large portion of my animosity toward the genre comes simply from fearful ignorance. Kingdom succeeded where games like The Witcher failed, fortunately, because there can be no denying just how cool a thatch-roof hall and surrounding spiked walls can look when just a moment ago it was little more than a few tents. It helps that a lack of dialogue or substantial story means that it is that much harder to annoy me with overbearing language and confusing pronouns, and I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the occasional fantasy elements – ancient ruins that provide magical enhancements, for example – are equally understated. It’s difficult to analyse the plot of a game that doesn’t really have one, but look at it this way: the medieval theme adds a certain level of satisfaction to continued survival, particularly when you discover certain forms of advanced archaic weaponry.
I suppose one complaint would be the very literal linearity of the game: again, I can’t really fault the layout of the world, because it is as minimalistic and 2-dimensional as the description suggests. It would be nice, however, to see a little bit of topographical variation. I bet adding a few hills and valleys to the otherwise flat path – or at least the occasional rocky outcrop upon which a watchtower might be built – would alter the dynamics of your survival. But I’ll admit, that’s a little picky.
Where Kingdom really shines, however, is in its dashing good looks. I was expecting the pixel-art graphics to match the rest of the game in terms of simplicity, and so was stunned to see a fully-fledged, constantly-shifting environment complete with dynamic weather and very satisfying shadow effects. Nothing is ever still, or so it seems, as the NPCs wander about or chase madly after deer or the flocks of birds flee as you fly past on horseback: what I loved the most, though, was the water that comprises the foreground of the 2D world. It adds a depth to the environment that a standard side-scroller lacks, being affected by mist, rain, and even the occasional arrow (should your archers be just that bad).
The musical score is also quite something, with a fanfare announcing the dawn of each new day and the occasional burst of eerie synthesized strings serving to make you jump out of your skin whilst engrossed in walking a herd of deer back to your settlement. The backdrop shifts depending on your location, and darkness falls upon entering a wooded area; small streams trickle their way into the foreground, and the passage of time is marked by the sun and moon shifting across the sky (just so you always know when it’s time to run home). To put it bluntly, Kingdom looks beautiful and, more importantly, feels alive.
Alright. I’m going to stop rambling on now, because you’re probably sick to death of my hypocrisy and are wondering why I have only just realized the potential of games that don’t have a marketing budget the size of Wales. And you’d be right to. Kingdom has engrossed me for days on end without stylishly rendered 1080p graphics, vast open worlds, or even a smidgen of dialogue; the addiction lies in its intricacy, in the way that within moments of beginning your journey a settlement begins to form with banners flying and campfires roaring.
What I think is the most promising thing about this game, however, is the as of yet untapped potential: Kingdom has only just left Beta development, and is already shaping up to be a genuinely thrilling excursion into a minimalistic, 2-dimensional world. I look forward to seeing how the game progresses in time; whilst the tagline reads, “Nothing Lasts,” I would very much like to see Kingdom survive and thrive for as long as it possibly can.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Kingdom: minimal style, maximum satisfaction
Gameplay - 8/10
Plot - 8.5/10
Design - 9.5/10
Call me melodramatic, but I've been humbled
Kingdom provides a fiendish challenge encased within gorgeous pixel-art graphics and a wonderfully simplistic user interface. It is a fledgling game, but one that has taken to the air with no hassle, and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing which direction the developers take it from here.