King’s Bounty: The Legend
Posted at 00:23 on 11th January 2009 - permalink

King’s Bounty: The Legend (KB:TL) is the latest product of the burgeoning Russian game development scene to have piqued the interest of Western PC gamers. It was brought to my attention by Rock Paper Shotgun whose initial puzzled amusement seems to have snowballed into championing the game as a shining example of where PC games should be going and how Russian developers are going to be riding the crest of that wave.

KB:TL is a strategy RPG taking its name and inspiration from Jon Van Caneghem’s 1990 game King’s Bounty, generally seen as the forefather of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. For the uninitiated, the HoMM games were sort of a fantasy version of Civilisation. The player would move one or more hero units (each accompanied by an army) around a turn-based overworld map, collecting resources, visiting (and laying siege to) settlements, and battling enemy heroes.

Combat was represented on a single-screen hex grid, with each legion of the same type of unit (‘stack’ in game parlance) represented by a single animated sprite. This representation allowed battles to be fast-moving and easy to follow without completely foregoing strategic subtlety, and also rewarded the player with a bit of gladiatorial eye candy (anyone who remembers Battle Chess will appreciate how much more engaging turn-based battles become when the pieces graphically knock seven bells out of each other).

KB:TL makes significant changes to the HoMM formula. The player now only has to worry about a single hero (and their army), who acts as their avatar. Managing settlements has also been omitted, with the various castles and buildings visited by the player mostly acting as shops where equipment, troops and spells can be purchased, or dwellings for quest-dispensing characters. The overworld is now navigated in real-time, and consists of several large continents or realms, each broken into several smaller areas. Completing main-line quests progressively opens up new areas of the world. (I found that at normal difficulty, resources were scarce and enemies tough enough to require most of the optional subquests and dungeons to be completed just to scratch together a strong enough army to progress.) The net result is that King’s Bounty feels more like an RPG and less like a generic strategy game.

Character development is managed through no fewer than five distinct systems. The primary system is the player’s army, accumulated by buying (or otherwise obtaining) up to five kinds of units at any one time, from the boggling variety of creatures scattered around the game world. The overall size of the army is limited by the Leadership stat, and its effectiveness can be influenced by the mix of units (mixing good and evil, elves and dwarves, chalk and cheese golems, etc. resulting in lowered morale for those units).

You also have a spell book, to which new spells (in three different ‘schools’) can be added and upgraded throughout the game. One spell can be cast per combat turn. While no substitute for a decent army, some of the more powerful spells, deployed at the right time, can drastically reduce the number of casualties suffered in a given battle.

While enemy characters can in theory have access to all the units and spells available to the player, there is also a third, exclusive class of weapon in the player’s arsenal: the Spirits of Rage. Early on in the plot you come into possession of a magic chest which allows four spirits (something akin to Espers of Final Fantasy games) to be summoned in combat. Summoning the spirits costs Rage, a resource which is accumulated by dishing out and receiving damage in combat. Most of the spirits’ abilities are too weak or undirected to drastically alter the course of a battle, with a few exceptions such as the Reaper’s Black Hole ability which spectacularly sucks a proportion of the enemy army’s souls into a howling, barely-controlled vortex.

Rounding things out are the RPG staples of a skill tree (strikingly similar to the one in Silent Storm – I guess this is one of those Russian game design tropes) which gives access to stronger spells, extra troop abilities and various stat boosts, and a set of equipment slots. The equipment system incorporates two other aspects of the game which have been widely discussed – wives and upgrading.

At various points in the game you encounter NPCs who you can propose to marry (not all – in fact, very few – of whom are 100% human). In game terms, your wife represents a specific stat boost (for instance the pirate queen boosts the morale of all pirates and robbers in your army) and four additional equipment slots. You can also optionally agree to have children, each of which entitles you to a boon from the King, and gives another randomly chosen stat boost (my favourite so far being a baby described simply as “a biter” who increases my Rage level).

Certain magic items in the game are infested with gremlins which operate their special powers. The player can elect to go ‘inside’ these items to fight the gremlins, either to deal with insurrections, or to unlock more of the item’s abilities. Oddly, defeat in these battles results in a ‘Game Over’ screen (whereas defeat in more conventional battles respawns you at the starting location with some money to hire a new army).

This rather functional rundown of the game’s components doesn’t go far to explain why I’ve been playing it obsessively of late. What the Heroes of Might and Magic comparisons don’t get across is the sheer level of detail and richness in the game world. For the first few hours the player is overloaded with information, before they get a handle on the game’s semiotics. At every turn there are new things to collect, examine and otherwise poke at. The nearest analogue that I can think of would be something like Metroid Prime, where each new area contained new, unique things to interact with, scan, or just walk around and appreciate. (Somebody had to model and animate hummingbirds going from flower to flower for this game. Polished would be an understatement.)

Each of the main realms or continents manages to change the mood of the game beyond just changing the scenery. The second realm (the Islands of Freedom) takes on a pirate theme, with the scope for ship-to-ship combat and treasure hunting that entails. The Dwarves’ realm is one big subterranean dungeon, the Elves’ dusts off the trusty old ‘light/dark worlds’ cliche, and the Demons’ realm will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been annoyed at having to do yet another Oblivion Gate.

The combat (which I freely admit I often let the competent and above all fast AI auto-combat mode deal with for me, only occasionally jumping in to make obvious moves) has an addictive quality. Even when there is no devious tactical interplay going on, it’s satisfying to see your forces encircle and chip away at formidable enemies over several turns. I’ve developed a preference for certain unit types, based partly on their combat effectiveness and partly (I’m sorry to say) on their appearance and animation.

Giants, clad in armour built from dragon’s pelts and a ship’s prow, make up for their ponderous lack of mobility by being able to cause shockwaves by jumping, damaging every enemy on the field. Polar bears can quickly breach enemy lines and chew up lightly armoured infantry (such as priests) as effectively as you’d expect them to be able to in real life. Evil Books, a special unit which can only be magically summoned, waddle across the field spewing random spells and biting people. Impractically-clad Demonesses charm enemy units to turn on their brothers in arms. Knights, who spend most of the game getting clobbered by anything that isn’t encumbered by several pounds of steel armour, come into their own against Dragons, who for their part can be magically resurrected as Bone Dragons. And then there’s the Werewolf Elves, Molotov-throwing Alchemists, hypnotic Beholders and axe-wielding Zombies. And some rather large bosses, too.

While the game’s production values are high (although I’ve seen a few reviews complain that the graphics look a bit out of date, presumably because they’re stylised in a similar fashion to Blizzard’s games), and the design (both as a game and a piece of software) is commendable, there are still some faults.

The translation (while a great improvement over the comedically bad scripts that still hamper most non-natively English games) is sometimes turgid and hard to follow. Some of the artwork later in the game looks a bit ‘placeholder’. Traversing the world can be a pain – even with shortcuts between realms, there is a lot of clicking around (with less than stellar pathfinding) and calling up the map to get one’s bearings. The demon world is particularly bad, with unskippable ‘tram rides’ between areas. The realtime nature of the map sometimes results in Benny Hill chases and frustrating quick loads when you accidentally disturb an impossibly strong enemy. Worst of all, the last third of the game sees side quests becoming scarcer and progress being slowed with an interminable stream of tough battles which it’s hard to see as anything but padding. It’s rumoured that the forthcoming expansion pack addresses some of these issues.

As Rock Paper Shotgun’s coverage of the game insightfully points out, King’s Bounty: The Legend is fundamentally a game that couldn’t have been developed anywhere but Russia, or for any format other than the PC (although the developers would be remiss not to at least consider adapting the game to consoles, in the light of its positive reception).

The Russian scene reminds me of the Hong Kong movie industry of the late 20th Century: young, frighteningly talented and not bound by convention. King’s Bounty has so much content because it’s trivially cheap to build (compared to in the West), and it’s built on top of a rock solid technical foundation. While I’m sure Katauri didn’t make the game up as they went along (based on the extraordinarily exacting level of detail I’ve seen in development documents for other Russian games), I suspect that building and testing a new unit, spell or quest could have been achieved with a rapid turnaround, and this efficiency allowed them to implement more of their target features than would have been possible had they followed the Western methodology with it’s preoccupation with cinematic production values and genre pigeonholes.

If you need any more encouragement to give the game a try, there’s a demo here, and at the time of writing the game is available for €19.99 from Gamer’s Gate. The game is also available at retail in the US, and will be reaching UK shelves some time next month.

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