Monday, April 30, 2012

Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe Review

Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe, developed and published by iosoftware.
The Good: Loads of maps, solid AI, retro gameplay, nice graphical style, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Completely derivative, spotty interface, no online play, no map editor
What say you? An almost exact replica of Heroes of Might and Magic 2: 5/8

They say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and computer gaming is full of copycats that come out soon after a major hit: a pioneering title is often succeeded by a deluge of substandard fluff, hoping to cash in on the new craze. A hallmark of fantasy turn-based strategy gaming was unleashed on the world in 1996: Heroes of Might and Magic 2. This title successfully combined heroes (that gain experience over time), might (with tactical battles), and magic, too. Plus, elements of 4X strategy (with exploration) was included for good measure. It’s been 15 (!) long years since the original series made its mark on PC gaming, so I dare say its time for a revisit. Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe comes to the personal computer by the way of iPhone and iPad (whatever those things are), promising a healthy reinvigoration of a classic game.

Like pretty much everything in Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe, the graphics are strongly reminiscent of a certain classic fantasy turn-based strategy game. That said, I do like the relatively high-resolution 2-D sprites that are used. The map terrain, buildings, and other scenery features look nice (though they are occasionally too small) and create a pleasing backdrop for your adventures. The units also have a lovely level of detail, although the animations during battle could be more fluid. I also enjoy the paintings used for your castle strongholds, with new structures added in when they are built. Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe certainly makes the case for preferring attractive 2-D graphics over a bland, blocky 3-D presentation. The sound design isn’t as enjoyable, however, with decent music overshadowed by basic, repetitive effects during movement and battle; the groan emitted when units are injured gets tiresome quickly. Still, Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe delivers some nice visuals that will evoke strong feelings of nostalgia.

Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does not feature a campaign, but does have over seventy maps where heroes will fight each other for domination. The maps are evenly divided between those offering more exploration and more action, and have a nice assortment of sizes as well. Usually, a map has a “kill everyone” objective, but occasionally alternative victory conditions are included, such as a time limit. Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does not feature a map editor or randomized layouts (which probably wouldn’t have been as interesting anyway) to extend the life of the product, but it will take you quite a while to run through all of the map content the game has to offer. Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does let other humans join your game, but only if you are playing on the same machine, as there is no internet play to enjoy. The game is available on both Windows and Macintosh systems (plus obviously inferior mobile platforms), and has a tutorial plus plenty of messages to guide you in your early adventures.

The interface of Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe leaves a lot to be desired, with shortcomings in several areas. The master list of heroes and castles utilized in Heroes of Might and Magic 2 is not present here: your only tool is the “tab” key, which only cycles between heroes. The map cannot be zoomed in or out or rotated, which can make finding some of the smaller location icons difficult. Some important items, like spells and resources, don’t come with tool-tips to explain what they are or what they do. The left-click heavy interface makes moving and selecting accidentally commonplace: clicking on a hero does not select it, instead issuing the currently selected hero to move to the other hero’s location. Units are not given health bars during combat (you must right-click on them to get detailed information), and it’s terribly difficult to gauge the relative strength of armies before combat: I can see that’s a pack of ghosts, but are they stronger than my army? You also can’t change the screen resolution, although I accidentally stumbled upon the ability to put the game in a window when I was trying to record a video (it’s the F11 key, by the way). I never did get the video to record, though. Finally, pressing the “quit” button doesn’t, which I think speaks volumes for the areas of Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe that could be improved.

There are seven heroes in Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe that can lead troops, which is only one more than Heroes of Might and Magic 2 (the Varagian is the only new addition, while the other heroes are exactly the same). Each hero is rated in several areas, including attack, defense, spell power, mana, travel points, morale, and luck. As you fight battles and gather treasure chests, your heroes will level up, unlocking two choices (again, identical to Heroes of Might and Magic 2) that can improve spell abilities, attack, or defense. You can also collect artifacts scattered on the map that generally do the same thing. The units you lead are plentiful, although they either perform ranged or melee attacks, and may fly if so inclined. It’s disappointing that something innovative couldn’t have been added in Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe.

Each of the game’s 70-or-so maps contain various things to find scattered around the map. These include treasure (which can be exchanged for experience or gold), artifacts, one-time or continuous resources, or buildings that offer stat upgrades. Most of these locations are free for the taking, but some are guarded by enemies that must be dealt with first. Resources (gold, wood, gems, iron, and others) are used to buy troops or buildings in your castle that produce specific units, unlock more spells, improve defense, or trade resources. You can build one structure per turn, and lower-level buildings unlock better versions. There is enough variety in building types to allow for different strategies when upgrading your strongholds. Units also need to regenerate over time, so you can’t simply recruit as many units as you can afford. The non-gold resources can be difficult to gather, so you may have to resort to the unreasonable trade the game offers, exchanging significant amounts of gold for one gem or iron.

You’ll need to fight things, and Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe includes tactical battles for this very purpose. During the battles, you’ll move units, attack enemy units, and use spells. Basically, you’ll screen your ranged or magic units with melee fighters and slowly wear down the enemy health. Like units are grouped together, but they have individual health (which is not displayed as health bars, requiring you to right-click on a unit to see how much health the most wounded unit has), which is a bit counter-intuitive. Because of this, it can be difficult to figure out how good your army really is: a 30-skeleton squad with only two health per unit is weaker than a 8-mage squad with twelve health per unit, but it doesn’t look like it at first glance. The spells only make a minor impact on the battle: slow mana regeneration only allows your commanding hero to cast one (maybe two) spells per battle until you increase his or her mana pool significantly. As for the AI, it plays the game well: it attacks vulnerable buildings, scopes the landscape for useful items, and will retreat from battle when appropriate. There are instances when computer-controlled heroes will simply stand there and not move, but these are relatively rare.

If you liked Heroes of Might and Magic 2, then you’ll like Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe, because it’s essentially the same game. It has the same heroes (with one new addition), a lot of the same spells, a lot of the same map items, a lot of the same castle structures, a lot of the same units, and the same structure for tactical battles. Basically, the developers were trying to remake the original game on modern machines, and they succeeded. While this is a strike against innovation, Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does preserve what made Heroes of Might and Magic 2 so great. The few areas of the game that are actually different vary in quality. I found the AI to be quite competent at the game mechanics and behave intelligently throughout the game. The map count is satisfyingly high with over seventy creations to explore, though the absence of a map editor means the total will stay at that number. While Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does feature hot seat competition, there isn’t any online play, which is disappointing. I do like the detailed art style of Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe, though I bemoan the inability to zoom or change the screen resolution. The interface is some messy combination of mobile and desktop conventions with a restrictive reliance on left-clicking and inconsistent use of tooltips that never feels smooth. In the end, I would like at least some improvements to be brought to the table instead of a constant, pervasive feeling of déjà vu.