Making Space in a Crowded Genre

HIGH The focus on economy.

LOW The focus on economy.

WTF Enemy AI that occasionally reminded me of HAL 9000, just a little bit.

Knights of Honor II finds itself in a tough position, best exemplified by the fact most readers of this review have probably never heard of it. I don’t think this is merely because Knights of Honor is a generic-sounding name, though this no doubt a factor — I’d argue it’s largely related to Paradox Interactive’s total monopoly on grand strategy, to the point that their company name is virtually synonymous with the genre.

A modern sequel to Knights of Honor in a post-Crusader Kings 3 world was inevitably going to have trouble finding a consistent playerbase given the similarities between the two — in a nutshell, both titles give the player the reins to a kingdom or smaller province during the time of the Crusades. Luckily, despite its relative anonymity, I’d argue that Knights of Honor II does a respectable job carving out its own little niche by emphasizing the novel aspects of its gameplay.

In setting up a match, the player’s character cannot be customized, but they are free to choose any kingdom or province on the map. Then, with little fanfare—without even so much as a proper tutorial—the player is dropped into the world, and put in charge of all the high-level decisions of their kingdom. They can build structures in each of their provinces that provide a range of resources, they can diplomatically interact with other nations, control troop movements in battle, and more.

In a neat move, reminiscent of a 4X game like Civilization, the player is able to oversee these tasks in a full isometric 3D view if they wish, watching their soldiers and peasants scurrying around like dutiful ants. Knights of Honor II looks crunchy and dated and occasionally visually cluttered this way, but it gives the whole thing a cartoonish city-management charm that I can’t help but love — appropriate, given Knights of Honor II’s obsessive focus on economics.

Though some provinces limit the type of structures that can be built (a harbor can’t be built in a landlocked city, for example) the player is generally given a vast amount of freedom to construct their civilization in whichever way they please. They could stack multiple military buildings in every city, or build a ton of churches in order to harvest Faith and make Daddy Pope happy. Unfortunately, this fixation on managerial flexibility can, at times, cause Knights of Honor II to lose sight of grand strategy’s inherent strong-suits.

Unlike a more traditional strategy title, the world of grand strategy is typically asymmetrical. Rather than creating and expanding a domain within a (relatively) level playing field, the player can choose freely from a number of wildly different starting locations, each with their own unbalanced quirks. This is not ‘fair’ game design of course (I probably wouldn’t enjoy a game of Monopoly if I started with $2 and my opponents had $1000) but the expansion and development of said domain is made tolerable by the roleplay aspect these games often incorporate. The player is navigating both personal and large-scale political issues, and the unbalanced and chaotic world offers infinite opportunities for emergent (and often quite amusing) stories to develop between player and opponent. In a sense, winning ceases to matter as the journey takes precedence over the destination. Unfortunately, Knights of Honor II is all about the destination.

Though the player can toggle on a number of ‘minor’ win conditions to accompany the preset ones (there’s an especially interesting win condition that requires the player to destroy a randomly selected civilization) all of them incentivize the quick accumulation of resources and/or the destruction of opponents, coaxing the player into treating their new sandbox like a utilitarian competitive environment.

This effect is further amplified by the relatively sparse character interaction system. The knights I hired to my court did not seem to have any sort of past or personality of their own — they were spawned out of the ether with randomized names and served my every whim until they died or I cut them loose.

Similarly, the diplomacy system is somewhat barebones—the player can send or receive requests from the leaders of foreign nations, but the range of possible actions is limited and the responses from the AI can often be frustratingly opaque. On one occasion, for instance, I offered a non-aggression pact to a foreign nation, who then refused my offer. I next offered a trade agreement. They would accept the trade agreement, but on one condition — that I enter a non-aggression pact with them! Truly, playing against the AI can at times be like trying to understand the desires of a malevolent alien — which is also one of Knights of Honor II’s strengths, weirdly enough.

See, as suboptimal as many of Knights of Honor II’s macro design choices are, they add up to a vision of the grand strategy genre that, at the very least, provides a much different rhythm and feel from its contemporaries. Instead of the player securing their family line for future generations, or expanding an empire from the stone age to the space age, the player is given a modest patch of land and tasked with developing and defending it at all costs from inscrutable opponents that often feel like a swarm of angry wasps buzzing at the player’s stoop. Its core systems could use some elaboration, perhaps, but fans of this genre who need this particular itch scratched could do a lot worse!

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

— Breton Campbell

Disclosures: This game is developed by Black Sea Games and published by THQ Nordic. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 15 hours of play was dedicated to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. 2 hours of play was spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ for violence. The violence in this game is quite stylized and removed from the player given that Knights of Honor II is an isometric strategy, and that strategic element constitutes the only real ‘mature’ content in the game. The violence is composed of different styles of medieval warfare, such as sea battles, pillaging, and sieging.

Colorblind Modes: there are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered or resized. Every in-game action is explained through on-screen text or numbers, from the text hints the player gets when they first start playing, to the requirements to craft a new upgrade or hire more troops. At times, it can be easy to miss notifications for diplomatic messages and the like with the sound off, but nonetheless there is still a visual indicator that pops up in the corner when these messages are received.

Remappable Controls: yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

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