King's Bounty: The Legend Review
A lot of games these days are exploring the boundaries between genres, mixing and matching game elements to create a product that blends the attractions of strategy, action, adventure and/or role-playing in a gamer’s cocktail that often ends up inducing more of a hangover than a buzz. With King’s Bounty:TL, however, Katauri Interactive has managed to create a game that capitalizes on the strengths of the two genres it combines: turn-based strategy and traditional fantasy role-playing.
The original King’s Bounty was the brainchild of Jon Van Canegham and New World Computing, the creator of both the Might and Magic series and the turn-based strategy classics that were Heroes of Might and Magic I-IV. Katauri Interactive’s game builds on all of these and more and somehow manages to do so without seeming shallow or derivative.
RPG or Strategy?
King’s Bounty is a game distinguished by balance, and layers that build on each other in perfect equilibrium. It bestrides the fence between these two genres with unusual grace, and while being a hardcore strategy game at heart, manages to layer in more traditional role playing elements than many action rpgs. It’s a game that brings the old slogan of bygone days to mind: “By Gamers, For Gamers.” Every detail seems both a bow to those who have gone before, and a personal tweak springboarding from a comfortable familiarity with the conventions of both genres. This is the main force that takes the game in its own unique direction and lifts it above the Tolkienian clone level too many fantasy games endlessly revisit.
The RPG Layer
The core role-playing elements that stand out in Kings Bounty are threefold; skills, items and quests. Many games including most arpgs have the first two down, but flunk on the third. Not here, where the quest system is alive and well and quirky, with both a perfect willingness to replay the golden Fedex oldies like clearing the cellar of rats (or in this case, a garden of overly-aggressive plant material) or to work in some of it's own twists on the usual, like helping the dwarves improve the quality of their wartime brew, coercing the portrait of the griffin king out of an extortionate artist, bribing your way into prison, or swindling a scamming pirate. NPCs abound, and conversations range from the sublimely nonsensical to the ridiculous, but seldom are they without the opportunity to pursue an avenue to wealth and/or experience and thus feed your need for checking off each NPC’s box in a satisfying and occasionally mind-boggling way.
The skill system is both simple without being monotonous and complex without being tedious. The player can chose to be a user of 3 schools of diverse and powerful magic, a straight-up warrior, or a paladin. Paladins can concentrate on the Mind skills or are well adapted to combine aspects of the other two classes into whichever flavor of hybrid you prefer. Each class receives two class specific skills, but other than that, shares the same potential skill trees of Might, Mind and Magic, which means theoretically they can learn all or any of them. However, because of the balance of runes a given class generates on level up (that is, the specific types of skill points needed to advance in each tree), doing so involves sacrifice and prioritizing. While there isn’t quite the focus on builds that action rpgs like Diablo and Titan Quest revolve around, there’s still ample room for customization and that’s one of the joys of replaying the game.
Items are a world of their own, literally. Many are alive and have morale, a quality that requires you to keep them happy or deal with their rebellion, a state that removes their powers. Others have to be conquered to provide higher levels of benefits. To do either, you undertake a battle within the closed world of the item, and the higher the upgrade or more valuable the item’s powers, the more difficult the forces arrayed against you. Again, the concept of layers applies; as you gain strength and level up yourself, you have the opportunity to treat your items to the same progression.
Through the quest system, you can also acquire a more intricate item in the form of a wife, who will confer various stat benefits, and produce children who will equip as items with benefits of their own if you agree to fatherhood. If you decline the responsibility of offspring, your wife will provide you with quaint dialogue and four extra equipment slots, varying in type depending on which damsel, the Elf Queen, The Frog Princess, The Zombie or the Demoness, you eventually lead to the alter. There’s also a romance with a lusty pirate wench to pursue that ends in a horrific boss battle with a tentacled monstrosity, just to show that courtship isn’t all roses.
The Strategy Layer
The strategy element of the game is most apparent of course in the turn-based combat, with its hex-gridded arenas and stacks of creatures. The most enjoyable aspect here is the wide array of units available, both to recruit and to fight. Of ranged units alone, there are three types of bow-wielders (elven, human and skeleton archers,) dwarven canon operators and alchemists hurling bottles of toxic chemicals, imps throwing fireballs, ents breathing out nasty wasp swarms, whip-cracking demonesses and mace-whirling marauders who operate from one cell out of melee range, and of course, the deadly beams of beholders, rocks of Cyclopes, and the fire breath of dragons. Each unit has a remarkably individual set of characteristic strengths, weaknesses, talents and uses, and again the layering of these units in multitudes of possible combinations adds to the depth. The only restrictions on your army are your level of leadership and the fullness of your purse, and of course, the small issue of incompatible worldviews between elves and dwarves or Undead and almost everything else. A few units and a few spells could be better balanced, but on the whole this doesn't spoil the overall synergy.
There’s also the element of Rage and the Spirits it can summon. Rage accumulates during combat and is used like mana. You have access eventually to four Spirits, each of which has a set of four combat skills that advance in intensity as the Spirits gain experience, making another layer of tactics to add to the interest of the battles.This dynamic lets all three classes have some of the area-affect attacks that usually belong only to spellcasters. The attacks of the high level Spirits can be powerful, but are available fairly sparingly so that what could be a potentially devastating weapon is only one resource of many necessary to win.
While the combat is the traditional satisfying step by step, unit by unit battle of turn-based games since the dawn of time, when I’m sure the early hominids sat on the floors of their caves moving different colored pebbles around in between mammoth hunts, the adventure or overland map is real-time. This adds two major enhancements to the game: first, a freedom from the tedium that plagued most earlier turn-based strat games of waiting for countless AI heroes to take their cyber-turn, and second, the exhilarating old school RPG feel of exploration and map-mowing.
There are also four user-selectable difficulty settings available when you begin a new character, with the game providing a pretty decent experience of challenge without frustration on the normal setting. However I found on subsequent playthroughs that the ‘hard’ and ‘impossible’ settings are definitely there for a reason.
Miscellaneous: Graphics, Scripting and Technical Aspects
The graphic art in King’s Bounty is emphatically colorful and partakes heavily of the brighter schools of fantasy, but has an undeniable charm of its own without being particularly cloying. Sailing off in a patchwork dwarven dirigible or in your own ship with sails the color of blood in the dark Land of Death feels totally appropriate and adds to the sense of a living world.
Katauri Interactive is a Russian developer, and it shows most notably in the translations of long-winded and inscrutable quest dialogue that sometimes pop up. I’m normally into reading every word presented to me in a game, but I had to click through many dialogues to save my sanity. Others, however, were clear and some were hilarious. Russian versions of English pirate slang were particularly entertaining, with some truly creative epithets. On the whole, I’ve played far worse localizations, and the game experience emerges from its scripting pretty much unscathed by the linguistic mangling.
Technically, the game is extremely bug free and playable right out of the box, though there’s a patch out that fixes a few bugged skills and quests. Load times are frequent but short, and the interface is intuitive and user friendly up to and including an area that a lot of games get wrong, the inventory.
If you haven’t already picked up on my positive bias here, I’ll state plainly that this game is probably going to come in pretty high on my list of all time favorites. Other than a few minor localization and translation defects, King’s Bounty is an outstanding entry in the strategy genre, and should also have some appeal for those who cut their teeth on the old role-playing games featuring turn-based combat and wide open worlds. If you like both as much as I do, this game will be a hard one to beat.
Information aboutKing's Bounty: The Legend
Developer: Katauri Interactive
Play-time: 40-60 hours
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2008-09-23
· Publisher: 1C Company
- Compelling gameplay
- Functional fusing of genres
- High replay factor
- Reasonably bug free
- The occasional lumbering translation issue
- Lengthy turn-based battles may not be for everyone
- Some units and spells could be better balanced