Push And Pull
HIGH The art style. The stripped-down formula.
LOW Not figuring out certain things until nearly the end of the game.
WTF Getting rocked in the blink of an eye playing Demon mode.
When I first saw Death Crown, I had no idea what kind of game it was, but I knew that I had to play it. Just one look at any screenshot and it’s obvious why. Rendered in stark black and white with a refined, uber-detailed pixel style that strongly resembles pencil sketching, it looked like nothing else, and I needed to know more.
After sitting down with it, Death Crown was revealed to be a fast-paced and hyper-streamlined Real-Time Strategy (RTS) in which every aspect is as minimalist as the visuals. Not what I expected, but it didn’t matter – I was in.
There are a few other modes available, but the core campaign tells of a king who’s been so successful in subjugating the land and cementing his rule that he can’t bear the thought of succumbing to old age and leaving it behind, so he steals Death’s crown in a bid for immortality. Of course she won’t stand for this, so she marshals her army of the undead to punish his impudence.
The campaign begins with the player in Death’s role, and there are only three structures that can be built on the battlefield – mines (the Y button) produce resources used to build more structures, crypts (the X button) produce skeletons which attack and destroy enemy buildings, and towers (the B button) enlarge the player’s territory while also attacking incoming enemies with projectiles. It’s all smooth and reflexive, and everything the player needs to know can be seen at a glance.
From this point, Death Crown delivers the expected RTS gameplay — generate resources, build as fast as possible, overwhelm the enemy — but it’s appealing in its simplicity and aesthetics.
Each level is the size of a single screen, and the visual tone is barren, abstract and nihilistic. As the player frantically directs their forces throughout each skirmish, they’ll advance across each landscape and topple enemy castle after enemy castle until there’s nowhere left for the king to run. Eventually, Death will reach ‘boss’ fights against enemies that have special powers, and each win rewards another small chunk of story.
With so few elements to manage and absolutely no fat or padding, the gameplay is hyper-focused into an RTS in its purest form. I loved not having to dip into any menus, and keeping everything simple kept me engaged — it almost felt like an action game at times, more about fast management than long-term strategy. And again, the graphics. This art design whispers desolation, decay and ruin. It’s perfectly on-point.
While I adore Death Crown‘s extreme minimalism, I will say that the team hasn’t quite nailed it.
For example, the story is told through dialogue-free cutscenes that are striking in their presentation, but they’re not as clear as I’d like. With such a cool world, I’d like to know a bit more about the bosses I’m destroying, or about how the king got to where he was. I was hoping that the “Human” campaign available in the menu would offer some answers, but it only raised more questions.
I’ll also say that the difficulty can be brutal on the normal mode. I fully admit that I’m a greenhorn when it comes to RTS titles, but I found the margin of recoverable error to be razor-thin and I was overwhelmed and overrun often. Luckily, there’s an easy mode that’s manageable for genre lightweights like me.
With so much emphasis on the despair-drenched visuals, one might assume that Death Crown is a case of style over substance, but that’s just not true – the gameplay is frantic and gripping, and the developers’ ability to cut away anything except what needs to be here is admirable. The fact that it looks absolutely fucking metal is just icing on the cake.
Disclosures: This game is developed by CO5MONAUT and published by BadLand Publishing. It is currently available on PS4/5, Switch, XBO/X/S and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately four hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the Normal and Human campaigns were completed. No time was spent in co-op or versus multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood and Violence. Most of the game is about sending tiny characters across a map, but the visual style of the game is fairly creepy and some of the cutscenes are a bit gross. I’m pretty sure I recall a beheading or two. There’s no salty language or any sexual content.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There is minimal text in the game, and what’s here is not resizable or alterable in anyway. There are no audio cues needed for play. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The left stick moves the onscreen cursor, the X button deploys crypts, the Y button deploys mines, the B button deploys towers, and the A button is used to set destinations.