Thursday, October 09, 2008

King's Bounty: The Legend Review

By Zeus Poplar, Official Out of Eight Adventure and RPG Correspondent

King's Bounty: The Legend, developed by Katauri Interactive and published by 1C Company on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Picturesque graphics, addictive tactical combat, intricately designed locations, fun quests, a high sense of adventure
The Not So Good: Skimpy instruction manual doesn't offer enough information on combat, erratic difficulty level might bother some players
What say you? A fantastic turn-based tactical RPG destined to be hailed as a classic: 7/8

King's Bounty - The Legend bears a great resemblance to the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and for good reason. It's a remake of King's Bounty (1990), a game designed by Jon Van Caneghem, who would go on to create (you guessed it) Heroes of Might and Magic. Despite being a thinking man's game, it plays out a bit like a fairy tale: Bright, colorful, and full of wonder. But around every corner, danger lurks in the form of roaming monsters and rival champions.

Kudos to the art team. Real care went into the tropical beaches, dark forests and eerie swamps of King's Bounty. The characters have a World of Warcraft sensibility that places more emphasis on brilliant art design than system-taxing special effects. The scale is all wrong (everyone's taller than you even though you're on horseback), but it adds to the charm. And the sea! I got to sail on water that looked far too good for my cruddy old video card; that was on medium: when I set it to high, I just about fell overboard. The fantasy music, written by a Moscow composer, is good enough to slap on a MP3 player. Which is exactly what I did, since they were nice enough to offer free song downloads on their website.

You are a royal treasure seeker, a knight with a special talent for sniffing out buried treasure. First thing to do is choose a class: Warriors specialize in Leadership and Rage, which means a bigger army and more access to summon spells (which I'll discuss later). Paladins are battlemages and scholars who excel in mental abilities like bonuses in experience and trade. Finally, there are Mages, who wear airbrushed capes and drive monster trucks (kidding!). Even though each class has its own field of expertise, you are free to learn skills from Might, Mind or Magic thanks to a clever system based on runes. Not only do you obtain runes each time you level up (bonus Might runes if you're a Warrior, and so on), they're also strewn about the land, often hidden behind trees and around mountains.

The tactical, turn-based battles are viewed from the side, like a spectator watching the world's coolest game of chess (you can use the right mouse button to pan the camera around somewhat, though not enough for my liking). Treasure chests appear randomly, first come first serve, though I'll never figure out what bears and spiders want with my treasure. Rather than physically appear on the battlefield, players serve the role of General, casting spells and giving commands. Troops are nicely animated and represented by a single unit. The size of your army is limited by your Leadership attribute, as is each stack of troops. This means that even if you max out at 24 swordsmen, you can still have enough Leadership to hire some griffins or bowmen. There's a wide variety of troops: Elf Werewolves are high-damage regenerating humans with Freddy Kruger claws who can transform into wolves capable of paralyzing enemy troops with an eerie howl, while Ents are giant treefolk who shoot bees at faraway foes, and the aptly named Horde is just an unwashed mass of pitchfork waving yokels who boost their attack by +1 for every 30 peasants in the stink pile. Each unit type is loaded with talents both passive (poison resistance) and active (bless other units). Troops have so much personality they actually reminded me of Magic: The Gathering creatures. There's even ample opportunity for "combos," with spells available to enhance strengths and diminish weaknesses.

During battle, Spirits can be summoned from the Chest of Rage, a Pandora's Box forged in a demonic world where mana is a rarity and magic is fueled by a single emotion: Rage. The Chest is a trap, a prison for powerful Spirits from other dimensions. You can talk to these Spirits in the hero window and eventually earn their trust, but only after completing various quests. Lina is a chatty disembodied Ice Spirit, who hails from a dimension of high technology and needs the help of an ignorant “medieval Knight” (that's you!) to recharge her batteries, while Sleem is a prehistoric Crown prince of the Great Swamps who just wants you to feed him twenty or thirty poisonous troops -- yours, not the enemy's -- before he'll burst onto the battlefield and sweep away foes in a tidal wave of predatory fish. Spirits gain experience and either learn new attacks or upgrade old ones. Summoning a Spirit costs Rage, which you build by defeating enemy troops; double points if you wipe out an entire stack. Just be careful resting on the overworld map to recover your mana. It tends to have a... shall we say, calming effect.

If combat is the highly respected lead actor taking center stage, then the overworld map is the fun up-and-comer waving its arms around and stealing the show. I've never seen anything like it. It's almost as detailed as a location in an adventure game. There are just so many people to talk to, magic items to find, totems to investigate, friendly troops to join the cause, caves to explore, tournaments to fight, wives to marry (and children to bear), you can't walk five steps without bumping into something new. But beware, because that "something new" could very well be deadly. Contrary to the conventions of modern RPGs, this game don't scale. That means impossibly hard enemies are scattered everywhere, even the first zone. And since enemy parties not controlled by a rival hero are represented by a single, innocuous troop, one Knight could be a cake walk, while another ten feet away could spell certain doom. Adding to the challenge, movement on the overworld map is real-time, but it's possible to avoid enemies with careful maneuvering around the terrain. I actually found the unpredictable challenge enjoyable, as it lent each encounter a real sense of tension. But if you forget to hit F5 (save now, save often), don't worry. Except for special tournaments, when you die, you reappear at the King's castle with a bonus bag of gold to buy new troops.

Quests are fun, simple, and varied as a sky full of snowflakes. At one point, the proprietor of the Dragon Fang Inn sent me to fetch his business' namesake. What could have turned into a nasty battle with a blue dragon was resolved with a mean left hook. That's right, I knocked the dragon's fang out with my bare hands, and he thanked me for it. (Medieval dentists are hard to come by.) Another time, a creepy royal wanted me to fetch him a frog, so he could kiss it and turn it into his bride. Naturally, the first frog I came across was male, and none too happy that all his women were being snatched up by a perverse prince with a propensity for puckering up with those of the warty persuasion. Before this game's release, there were a lot of rumors concerning the translation, but I'm happy to report that the dialog is a blast to read. When I asked to join a swamp witch's coven, she interrogated me with a series of questions. After carefully considering each response, she finally hit me with a stumper: Can you be a woman? Because this is a witch's coven (yeah, yeah... she got me)! Early on you encounter a Dwarven dirigible pilot. When you ask for a ride in his airship, he says, “Sorry, but that's not going to work out... maybe it'll go for a few miles, but after that... Ehh...” Your reply? “Well, I don't want 'eeh' to happen.”

As a child, I used to pour over a book called Trouble For Trumpets, a sort of Where's Waldo meets World War I (as far as I was concerned, Waldo could get lost -- I had fuzzy little Red Barons soaring overhead as tiny hippos tossed acorn grenades at each other). But no matter how closely I examined the page, there was no way I could find every hidden surprise. Playing King's Bounty is a lot like reading Trouble for Trumpets. I was constantly spotting some hidden rune or lopsided wizard's house that made me want to pause and take a screenshot. King's Bounty is labor of love, flawed only by its steep learning curve and erratic difficulty level (both of which could be considered a plus in some circles). Buy this game, and I'll be surprised if you aren't still playing it years down the line, hunched over the computer into the wee hours of the night morning with an aching back, bloodshot eyes, and mumbling false promises of, “just one more turn, just one more turn...”