Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Kingdom for Keflings Review

A Kingdom for Keflings, developed by NinjaBee and published by Wahoo Studios.
The Good: Extensive tech tree, side quests, cooperative multiplayer
The Not So Good: Terribly linear with static and repetitive research paths, needlessly tedious and restrictive building construction, very inefficient and cumbersome interface, requires explicit direction of all workers, non-existent citizen interaction, no in-game matchmaking, lacks alternative scenarios
What say you? Unnecessary tedium reigns supreme in this city builder: 4/8

Playing an omnipotent power has always been an important feature in PC gaming. From an all-knowing commander on the battlefield to the mayor of a city, directing your peons to complete tedious tasks you would never dream of doing manually has been a staple on our gaming platform for quite some time. Only a few games, however, have allowed you to be an avatar, wandering around your little creation and kicking the residents for no good reason. Originally released for something called an “XBOX” over a year ago, A Kingdom for Keflings has you manage a prospering little community, building new structures to show how awesome you are at carrying logs around. How does the game translate onto the PC?

A Kingdom for Keflings has functional graphics. The game isn't a scene-stealer, by any stretch: it looks like a budget-level indie game for a console. Some of the buildings look nice with some attention to detail, but they are all similar in appearance and hard to differentiate between on the fly. The landscape is generally bland, apart from the resource areas and some pleasant seasonal effects (snow, mainly). The Keflings themselves are small and animated in a repetitive manner. I'm trying to pinpoint what the game looks like, and the best approximation I can think of is Kohan II, a strategy game released five years ago. Yeah, not so much. At least the game runs in a window. The sound design is only slightly better, highlighted by a charming soundtrack and a handful of effects like screams when you manhandle the population. Ah, getting in touch with the people. Overall, A Kingdom for Keflings delivers what I would expect in a budget title in terms of graphics and sound.

In A Kingdom for Keflings, you, as a giant freak of nature, must direct a town from small village to thriving kingdom. The single player game features slightly randomized maps: flat terrain surrounded by plentiful resources and impenetrable, vertical mountains. You are always given the same starting town; there are no scenarios with different conditions, and no objectives other than building a castle. The technology tree also remains the same: despite having a lot of buildings to construct, new structures are unlocked in an identical pattern every time. Subsequently, replay value is quite low. The game does have an in-game tutorial that teaches the mechanics as you play, but A Kingdom for Keflings does lack a manual. The game does feature cooperative multiplayer, which would make the game far more entertaining. Unfortunately, it’s a massive fail since it only uses direct IP addresses. Yes, there is absolutely no in-game matchmaking of any kind, a total killer in a multiplayer-enabled game.

The interface has clearly been designed with the lesser consoles in mind, and A Kingdom for Keflings is horrendous to navigate on the PC. The primary issue is the difficulty in accessing important information: the game lacks hot keys for things like finding buildings or accessing specific blueprints. There are no tool-tips for icons, no mini-map to figure out where you are, no chart showing resource levels at all your buildings, and the list of available structures has no organization whatsoever, making it impossible to find things quickly. The developers have evidently not played any recent city builders to see that buildings needs to be organized somehow, by type, for example. A Kingdom for Keflings is clearly not designed for a mouse and keyboard. A year of additional development? Certainly not for the interface.

Most of your time in A Kingdom for Keflings will be spent building things, and here the game is disturbingly inefficient and likes to waste your time. Blueprints for new structures are unlocked in a set order that remains the same each time you play. Each building is made of several (to many) components that must be individually built at a workshop, manually carried to the construction site after being completed, and placed in a specific location. While the blueprint lists the components requires, the catalog is not cross-referenced with the workshops, requiring you to access multiple menus to get the menu correct. The required components are highlighted in the workshop menu, but there is no indication of how many more you need. Additionally, the proper placements are highlighted when you are holding a new component, but the lack of variety means this aspect of the game could have been automated. Of course, then there would be nothing to actually do in the game, but the tedium involved in construction is too much for my tastes. Advanced buildings have a lot of parts and require a lot of resources, which makes not having a missing component list even worse. There are a lot of buildings to choose from, however, once you progress far enough in the game and construct the prerequisites, from resource collectors to workshops to plants and painting services. Some buildings require activations, such as “love” or educated citizens (from schools) in order to function; “love” works as an artificial population cap, restricting the size of your community until you perform specific tasks and unlock more love. You also need to find specific items to unlock more advanced abilities (like mining crystal), a process that is so simple that it’s inclusion is superficial at best.

The residents of A Kingdom for Keflings are complete morons. You must tell them exactly what to do, as they will not automatically start tasks on their own (as in the Stronghold series of games). This involves picking up a worker, dropping them on a resource, then pick them up again and dropping them on their destination. Yay tedium! This is a real problem without an idle worker button, which, of course, A Kingdom for Keflings lacks. The game also needs a listing of all the workers and their current tasks, so that you can efficiently run your kingdom. For being a giant in charge of a bunch of underlings, A Kingdom for Keflings features no meaningful interaction with your subordinates. You can kick them, but that’s it. And kicking them actually does nothing; why even have your character present in the game? You can earn extra powers through side quests (like moving faster), but these don’t impact the gameplay in any significant manner. The slow, deliberate pace also requires a lot of waiting for resources to be collected. Simply put, A Kingdom for Keflings doesn’t offer much to do, and what it does offer is entirely too repetitive and restrictive.

Playing A Kingdom for Keflings is too much menial work: you have to tell everyone exactly what to do, you have to memorize building components and place them in exactly the right spot, you have to remember the resource relationships, et cetera. The problem is that none of this can be automated: you have to manually construct the buildings to exact specifications (and no help with missing pieces) and precisely train each of your citizens: nobody can think for themselves. It’s no wonder they need a giant freak to lead them. The game uses the same small town on a slightly randomized map; the lack of scenarios with varied starting conditions hurts replay value. The promise of cooperative multiplayer is fantastic, until you realize there is no matchmaking and direct IP is the only way to go. The interface is frankly horrendous for a PC game: important information is buried in menus and you can’t compare blueprints to manufacturing locations, making it quite impossible to construct buildings in an efficient manner. The buildings can only be accessed in the technology tree, a huge list that is not organized in any way. There are no mini-maps or charts of any kind, a testament to the fact that A Kingdom for Keflings was initially developed for an inferior gaming platform. Even your interactions with your minions are limited to simply kicking them, which has no effect whatsoever. Add in average (at best) graphics and sound and we have a city builder that can be ignored. A Kingdom for Keflings is a tedious game mired in an bare PC translation.