I’m late with this review. Not in a way which might prompt angry, whip-laden visits from the IncGamers editorial team, but because this boxed version of King’s Bounty: The Legend is something of a second wave release. The game (in its original Russian and various translated forms) has been available as a digital download for a couple of months now – but thanks to the British Pound going into a death dive, has been prohibitively expensive for those living in the UK. Plus it wasn’t being distributed by Steam, so quite a few people in other countries may have missed it too. Apologies to those who’ve already experienced its joys; but for those who haven’t yet … gather ’round.
King’s Bounty: The Legend is something of a tribute to the original King’s Bounty game, released in 1990 for the Amiga, Commodore 64 and Mega Drive. In this, your mission was to toddle around a randomised fantasy land searching for some vital treasure or other, slaying evil beasties and hiring allies to fight on your side. This modern tribute takes much the same path, though as it’s made by the developers responsible for the multi-genre insanity of Space Rangers 2, you’d be right to expect a few quirky twists.
Like the original (and like the Heroes of Might and Magic series, which the game also strongly resembles), King’s Bounty is unashamedly high fantasy. That means dwarves, trolls and elves galore, alongside magic, runes, mystical items and pretty much any other Tolkien-esque cliché you can think of. Players even have to make the classic character choice between warrior (able to command a large force), mage (master of spellcasting) and paladin (decent at both but has silly hair). However, the game isn’t afraid to subvert all of these hoary conventions with a sense of impish glee.
For a start, the translation can be a little odd at times – which in a strange, fantasy setting simply adds to the surreal atmosphere. But there’s more to it than that. Far more. Finding myself needing to clear a village of curious walking plant creatures, I travelled to a swamp for a meeting with the head plant-person. He insisted that his race were peaceful and simply wished to partake in fertilised soil. After a chat back at the village, I was able to return to the plant chief with a cow I had been assured would make the soil extremely ‘tasty’. Problem solved, quest completed. All thanks to a particularly scatological bovine.
Later, it’s possible for your hero to take a wife. Not just any wife though; chances are she’ll either be a zombie, liable to turn into a frog or a saucy demoness. Oh, and the zombie wife has a tendency to eat any children she bears. Such details are what make King’s Bounty great – the usual po-faced conventions of high fantasy being tweaked into a ridiculous carnival of the bizarre.
These details are gradually revealed as your champion rides around a colourful (and rotatable) 3d world, chatting with locals, occasionally digging up buried artifacts and engaging wandering foes in pitched skirmishes. When this occurs, the game switches to the combat screen – featuring lots of lovely hex shapes which will be instantly familiar to those who remember the heyday of turn-based strategy gaming. For those who do not, it’s relatively straightforward. Each unit has a certain number of action points to spend, which it can use to move, attack an opponent or unleash some kind of special ability. Armies line up on each edge of the ‘board’ and batter each other until there’s only one set of warriors left standing. It’s simple to grasp, but has a great deal of tactical depth.
The main reason for this is the sheer amount of troops available in King’s Bounty. It’s possible for your champion to befriend or hire any of these troop types, so none of them are out of bounds. This can open up several strategic conundrums as, for example, you quickly discover it’s not a particularly good idea to charge into a werewolf’s lair with a number of human troops who are suseptible to ‘Fear,’ the special ability of wolves. Instead, such an undertaking should be approached with some wolves of your own, perhaps backed up by bears and the aforementioned weird walking plants. When you add the ability to cast spells of various disciplines and use the spell-like Box of Rage (which summons unruly spirits to do your bidding), the tactical variation runs even deeper.
It’s this variation which keeps things nice and fresh. At heart, the game is a series of mini-quests and combat encounters, and while this can get repetitive after many hours of play (and it will take MANY hours to finish this title), the promise of a new troop type to play with or new ability to unlock acts as a near-permanent hook.
Further strategy stems from the necessity to manage resources well. Unlike Heroes of Might and Magic there’s no utterly tedious building of castles to do, but it is important to keep an eye on the stocks of allies and gold available. Fritter away too many soldiers in unwinnable battles and each area of the realm will become far harder to overcome. It’s vital to pick combat wisely, as most maps will contain stacks of enemies which are overwhelming to a lower level character and need to be revisited at a later date.
Indeed, this can be something of a problem. Certain quests whose difficulty seems acceptable throughout can suddenly become impossible with the introduction of a much more powerful boss. It’s reasonable for some wandering bands of monsters to be too tough to handle, but seems rather jarring when the majority of a quest has been a match for your merry band, only to end with an unbeatable final foe. Nonetheless, it is satisfying to return at a later date and put a previously difficult encounter to the sword. Speaking of returning, wandering back and forth across the land can also get a bit tiresome – especially once whole new continents are discovered. It seems the developers are already aware of this, as the newly announced expansion pack hints at rapid travel between lands.
King’s Bounty: The Legend traces a direct line to exploration and turn-based combat titles of the past. As such, it can’t claim to be especially innovative in design, nor is it mindblowing to look at (although pretty enough). Crucially though, it’s tremendous fun to PLAY. Rather than trying to completely reinvent the original King’s Bounty for a modern age, Katauri Interactive have tweaked and prodded the classic gameplay, reviving an old school strategy game with humour and charm. So thoughtful are these developers that they’ve included options like the ability to auto-skip the corporate logos on load-up and the chance to decide whether saved games should be stored in documents or in the program’s main folder. Small things, but all done correctly. That’s what this wonderfully realised homage is all about.