Leading My Army Down The Drain

HIGH The end of the ‘assemble a skeleton’ quest.

LOW Realizing that I’d played so badly that the game had become unbeatable.

WTF The research-focused magician who’s just a step away from realizing she’s in a videogame.

The King’s Bounty series started as an RPG. It had quests to complete, monsters to battle, and a map to explore — all of the standard elements were well-represented. The big difference was that players didn’t have a party, they had an army. Noticing that the combat was — by far — its most popular aspect, the franchise was rebuilt as a strategy series and renamed Heroes of Might and Magic, which was always more focused on resource development and army management than story or characters.

King’s Bounty 2 is the first attempt (since 2008’s King’s Bounty) to move the series back into RPG territory, maintaining only the army-focused turn-based battles from previous incarnations. It also goes out of its way to establish its RPG bona fides by beefing up the narrative — there’s a conspiracy to murder a king, magicians who are up to no good, and a mercurial dragon… hell, the game literally starts with the player being let out of a prison and tasked with fixing all of the nation’s problems.

So, how does it work as an RPG? Fairly well, right up until the point where the series’ strategy roots kick in, and then it gets really bad, surprisingly quickly.

The player is initially tasked with rooting out a conspiracy that threatens the crown, but as they go out into the world and meet various NPCs they’ll stumble across a truly enormous number of quests. Everywhere I turned there were liches to fight, chickens to find, books to return to a magical library and more. The writing is solid, and KB2 is unusually helpful about how to complete quests by dropping markers all over the map when a mission is prioritized. The player will never be lost.

The character-building system is a high point. After players choose from between three heroes — one with excellent combat skills, one focused on magic, and one that can start with larger armies than the rest — they have to make decisions about how they want to solve quests. Do they value order or anarchy, strength or finesse? Every time a quest is done, points will be awarded points in one of those four categories, and as points start to add up, powerful upgrades become available for purchase. The tricky part is that the best upgrades require a player to get the maximum number of attribute points, but the only way to do so is to utterly commit to single a worldview or default strategy.

After they’ve chosen a lane, the player will no longer be given choices on how to complete quests. This might sound restrictive, but I see it as something of a coup from a design standpoint. The path that led to this point will turn the character into a certain kind of person who then starts making decisions based on the kind of values their player has instilled. It’s a great system for making the player feel like they’re impacting not just the game’s plot, but the character’s relationship to the world.

King’s Bounty‘s combat is also pretty great. Players can have up to five types of soldiers in one army, and their ranks are governed by what they are — ten regular, human-sized troops equal three or four cavalry or trolls, for example. When fights start, the map is immediately transformed into a hex-based battlefield, complete with obstructions and elevation differences that complicate the use of ranged weapons. In addition to troops, the player can cast one spell per turn, allowing them to directly attack, buff troops, or even summon new goons. It’s a system that has been honed for literally 30 years now and it shows — skirmishes flow beautifully and are manageable as long as players take the time to learn the ins and outs of each unit and how to best use them.

So, if the story and quests are good and the combat is great, why did I stop playing? The developers forgot to include one of the most important elements of an RPG — the option to grind. Somehow, this mechanic is completely missing from King’s Bounty 2. Obviously I understand having a finite number of story quests, but finite enemies in the wild? Finite treasures to be found? That’s considerably less acceptable, especially given how healing works.

At the end of any match, the player can pay gold to resurrect members of a damaged unit and bring them back up to full force. This generally costs about 40% of what it would cost to buy them in the first place, and is almost always covered by gold won in their last fight. If an entire unit is killed, however, they can’t be healed. At this point the player has to go to a recruiter and pay full price for a new unit, but this consistently costs more gold than the player can win in one fight — it doesn’t take long to see how this system can go wrong.

Essentially, players who aren’t good at the combat will find themselves stuck in a downward spiral where every time they barely win a fight they’ll be left bankrupt, meaning they’re less prepared for the next battle. If they take a beating there — which is likely — they’ll soon find themselves left with with a pathetically-weak and damaged army, out of money, and ultimately, with only a single fight left on the map. It’s an impossible position to put a player in.

This kind of fail-state is an expected part of certain strategy games. I’ve had Heroes of Might and Magic wrap up in exactly this way more times than I can count, but the difference is that a game of old-school HoMM takes 3-4 hours to play, and has no story to speak of. I’d put nearly fifty hours into King’s Bounty 2 before it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to finish it, and to me that’s simply unacceptable design.

The tragedy here is that these problems are so simple to fix. The devs could have added adjustable difficulty levels, wandering monsters or repeatable quests to provide a renewable source of gold. Any of these would have gone a long way towards making the experience more manageable. I met King’s Bounty 2 more than halfway by fighting every monster, completing every quest and searching out every bit of treasure, but at the end of the day, I was left broken, bankrupt, and frustratingly unable to roll credits on a title that was almost great.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by 1C Entertainment and published by 1C and Prime Matter. It is currently available on PC. Copies of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 45 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: The game was rated T by the ESRB, and it contains Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Suggestive Themes, Mild Language, Alcohol Reference. There’s drinking and some scantily clad women, but nothing too salacious or offensive in the game. As a strategy RPG it’s fairly safe for even younger teens.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles can be resized. I played almost the entire game without sound and encountered zero difficulties. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.

Daniel Weissenberger
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