Having deemed Fallen Champions (the standalone expansion) somewhat of a fall from grace, it was with an unpleasant mix of expectation and apprehension that I once again launched myself into the Arthurian atmosphere. With grand battles, grotesque monsters, text adventures and some attempt at macro-management, this game unites numerous elements under the banner of the once and future King. Is this a flag you should follow, or a Standard one shouldn’t bother to bear?
King Arthur lays critically wounded, the Holy Grail has shattered into numerous shards and a new threat, the evil Fomorian race, are laying siege to Britannia. With the Knights having long since left the Round Table and Merlin nowhere to be found, you, as King Arthur’s son William, must save your father, save your land and of course save often in order to try and negate the game’s numerous crashes.
In all fairness, the game generally ran surprisingly well. This isn’t a bug free affair by any stretch of the imagination, and it won’t take long before you develop an almost obsessive save schedule, but it’s generally well refined and the core elements function flawlessly to a large extent. With exhausting initial load times, and reports of horrendous performance on some high end machines, stability is a consideration that needs to be taken, but shouldn’t be placed above the experience itself. Well at least up until the point you can no longer access the experience. Having developed a known, but as yet unfixed, error I verified my game cache’s integrity, reinstalled the game and crashed to my desktop once again. As it stands I am unable to finish the game, but thankful that I had enough of it behind me to have an informed opinion. Many players may never have this, or any, problems but it’s something well worth warning you about.
A significant proportion of your time is spent negotiating your way around the various branches of the text adventures, narrated to you in such a way that one can’t help but imagine the whole affair as a nightmarish bedtime story. The narrator not only gives the required amount of gravitas to the tale but charms his way into your heart by voicing all the characters you meet along the way by affecting various accents and inflections. It may sound somewhat silly, and in all honesty if I hadn’t have heard it myself I would have presumed it was, but it adds an awful lot to the tale. One complaint I had with Fallen Champions, was that many of the text quests seemed to branch off only artificially and inevitably converged upon the same point. There are a few instances of this, but the vast majority genuinely differ through the rewards they yield, the men you lose, or their effect on your morality.
Morality brings us nicely onto some of the overarching RPG elements of the game. Largely inconsequential but affecting what abilities you unlock, morality has, like much of the grander management options, been streamlined in the sequel. Some will miss the greater depth within the first game, and I am one of them to a certain extent, but it certainly makes it more accessible. The morality compass, for me at least, largely led to no new abilities as my seemingly schizophrenic character (yes it was the characters fault) managed to remain fairly central for an awfully long time. Controlled provinces have certain upgradable features and castles allow you access to your reserve troops, but there is little else in terms of management. Diplomacy is equally bare bones, consisting of largely optional and ineffectual options such as peace treaties and the like, but it is a welcomed element for those that want to deal with the more intellectual side of a power struggle, or at least the illusion of it.
As one might expect, given ‘The Role-Playing Wargame’ byline , the game’s focus is upon the battlefield. With Total War-esque grand scale battles to conduct, you may find yourself initially overawed with the sheer scale of it all, but rest assured the challenge is worth overcoming. With various units, from the ‘realistic’ staples of general infantry types such as archers and footmen, to the more beastly variants like giants and flying units, there is enough flexibility to facilitate several strategies.
Preservation of units is crucial not only due to the gold they cost to replenish/replace but due to the fact they level up their experience with you. Whilst the tangibility of this levelling up is somewhat negated by the unlocking of higher tier units periodically throughout the game, it still rewards the conscientious commander and reinforces the RPG element.
Anyone familiar with the RTS, battle centric style of games will be able to negotiate their way around the core concepts that King Arthur presents almost immediately. However, magic is a large, somewhat defining aspect of the experience, and there are various other nuances that one can’t help but appreciate. It is difficult to describe the satisfaction that comes from using your cavalry to trample over the enemy, or emerging from the forest with an ambush induced offensive bonus and laying waste to the Fomorians you have just out flanked. Some purveying annoyances from the predecessors remain, such as the difficulty in manoeuvring your troops sometimes and occasionally having to wrestle with the camera controls, but overall the battles are brutal, challenging and rewarding if somewhat lengthy.
This length is largely derived from the fact that you have to eliminate every enemy unit in order to win each battle. I am not sure what this brings to the game other than the seemingly inevitable (at least with my play style) cat and mouse chase between yourself and the enemies rather skittish archers. Future titles would be much improved with a more realistic approach to victory. Perhaps upon decisively decimating their ranks the remaining forces could flee, leading to them forming a retaliation force late in the game whose strength would largely depend on what units were left standing and in what condition.
Magic, whilst fundamental to the game, can also become somewhat of a crux as in order to preserve your units you will often find yourself remaining at a safe distance whilst hailing fiery/electrical/mysitcal death down upon your enemies. The magic shield system, which protects from low penetration spells but gets worn down in the process, and cool down times discourage this tactic to some degree but it still far too tempting. Complementing this aspect is the welcomed return, and thankful refinement, of the ‘victory locations’ which now simply offer either passive or active bonuses to those that control them as opposed to being a pre-requisite for victory.
The turn based aspect, which takes place on the overworld map, is largely pointless with the open world nature of the first game being replaced by impossible enemies, the most visible invisible wall I have ever seen, creating an incredibly linear path. It is a disappointing development to the series and it undermines the experience as a whole. Other, more welcomed additions, include a fairly robust crafting system that allows you to combine three items into a partly random amalgamation that combines some of their stats. The items effects are, like much of the statistical boosts in the game, somewhat intangible. However, certain combinations can generate powerful pieces, and it highlights the rich and diverse selection of items present within the game.
There is still a profound place in my heart for the first game, not so much the standalone expansion, and in many ways this sequel doesn’t quite measure up. However, in so many other ways it exceeds it. The atmosphere is as compelling as ever, the learning curve slightly less steep and the animation of your troops is at times astonishing. The Holy Grail of gaming? Perhaps not, but King Arthur II is as potent as the Pendragon name.