Changing up a formula for the sake of creating something unique is a risk I am always intrigued by. Steamworld Heist turned into a tactical, side-scrolling shooter, Mario Golf on handhelds are RPGs of all things, and Actraiser had you take on action-platforming stages while also being a God of societies that had to grow in order for you to get stronger. Combining genres or creating something new requires a steady hand and consideration for the shortcomings it might lead to. Kingdom, was a title I heard plenty of mixed opinions about and understandably so. It was a slow and short game, but still had some great ideas for its mix of side-scrolling and tower-defense. This is at least what I got from the reviews I read, but with the New Lands expansion Kingdom got more content and fixed design-choices from the original title, making this the definitive experience. So is this title fit for a king?
Monarchy ain’t this useless
You start the game as either a king or queen, where your goal is to build your kingdom on this land you have come across, and whenever the game lets you, make a ship in order to discover new lands. This part is different from the original, as you simply had to survive for a specific amount of time on one single land in order to finish the game. There is much more added to New Lands, but we will get back to that later on in this review.
While more was added, what you actively do as a king or queen is the bare minimum. You will be always mounted on your steed and can run left or right, double-tap to gallop and either drop or spend money in order to improve your kingdom. Your mounted creature will be a horse, and while it can run fast, it does not take long until it is out of breath and needs to slow down. This is severely annoying, as Kingdom: New Lands will provide a stretched out area, making this seem like a forced handicap. Even the warp-points don’t help reduce the constant backtracking, as you will only explore on one plane with no altitudes to speak of. You can find money out in the field, recruit peasants by giving them a coin, and there are monsters coming out at night to make it unsafe to travel without keeping track of the time of day. Despite this, the land itself is incredibly dull and uninteresting, with little added in for exploration or variety.
Your kingdom is not much better. You can at least use your coins here to create different weapons and tools for your villagers in order to make them work, such as farming and crafting, as well as create walls and watchtowers. It all works fine, but there is not much to the way of strategies, as you will quickly learn tricks to make your time as a royal comfortable. One great example is how you can have a banker, which gives you interest each day depending on how much you gave him, as well as a merchant that can gather coins on your behalf, as long as you pay him one single coin. When you abuse both, money should not be a problem, and thus, you are rather playing a waiting game and hoping you will get enough coins for your next project. Not because of how dire your situation is, which is never, but because there is nothing to do.
This is probably the biggest problem overall with Kingdom; It is slow and boring. There are no strategies to get involved with as long as you think of the minimum requirements, and the exploration gets tedious once you have seen what the land can hold. Yes, there are additional elements added with New Lands, such as different mounts, a harsh winter-season, and statues that can provide boosts and buffs if you donate to them. However, these are not enough to make for an engaging time, as you will simply boost up your kingdom when you get money, and then wait and hope your servants can fend off the creatures that only attack at night. Even the tower-defense mechanics are completely shallow, as there is little planning required, and fighting off monsters and taking down their portals, are at best visually pleasing.
This tedium is not helped by the game’s lack of explaining certain mechanics, such as how you can pay villagers to make them more durable, why making bridges can be a decent idea, and even how to progress to the next level works. You can’t even get a good idea of when you can upgrade something, forcing you to always check just to see when you can at least interact with something. When there are so many online guides on the internet for beginners, you severely failed at giving the player a good tutorial and a good first impression.
Actually, I was not even aware that I could die, until I lost my crown and some creature stole it before I could pick it up again. This is where you will also learn that this is a roguelike game in the truest sense, since you will start all the way back at the beginning upon death with slight alterations in the location that feels almost meaningless, and play the waiting game all over again. Honestly, I believe this was added in just because of the popularity rogue-light titles for a while, as it never makes replays more intriguing or different.
As you can tell, I was just bored with this title. It feels like a proof of concept through a flash-game or at best a free game for your smart-phone. There are no strategic moments, only dull exploration and minimum interactivity. Really, it reminds me of those poor mobile-titles that only exists to give the player a boost of adrenaline through minimal interaction.
Gameplay Score: 1/10
Scandinavian landscape sure is pretty, however….
While Kingdom: New Lands sports fantastic pixel art, it does not add much in the form of variety. I am impressed by how far it goes with the quality, with every rain-drop, fog, and day & night cycle brimming with details. Even the fire from your torch provides fantastic and immersive lighting. However, besides the seasons and certain creatures to witness, the landscapes are never memorable or distinct, making runs feel repetitive. I think the parallax scrolling in the background is a great example of this: these scenes are visually impressive and you can see how every pixel is being made with care, while the moon or sun rises and descends subtly. Sadly, when there is little variety, it is easy to take it for granted and feel the visuals are rather monotone.
The creatures are also somewhat mixed, as they fit the medieval setting and have clear attire that represents their line of work, and the king is different every time you start a new game, with the last incarnation becoming your ghostly guidance. However, little is provided with diversity here as well, but it is easier to see this as a way to complement the setting Kingdom: New Lands goes for, and the slight alteration with mounts and monsters, adds to make the fantasy-aspects more mystical. A beautiful title, that sadly is the victim of quality over quantity’s shortcomings.
The soundtrack is lovely ambient, fitting the long days, and creates an atmosphere that feels lonely and peaceful, yet mystical and uncertain at the same time. Everything sounds according to the quality of this game’s bit-look, meaning instruments sound, for example, similar to trumpets, violins, and piano, but have a clear digitized feel to them, making sure it stays in tune with the visual presentation. Some songs are fast and are a clear contrast to the medieval soundtrack the game, in general, goes for, but then fits the aesthetics of the era the visuals try to mimic in terms of hardware. Overall, it is pleasant and even the stock sound effects feel appropriate to this title for its era.
Presentation Score: 6/10
Like a half-assed vacation
There are 5 lands in total, as well as an extra-challenging one to uncover, with each area getting harder than the last. This helps to create a decent difficulty-curve and make other aspects of town-management apparent. Sadly, I was completely done after the first one and was just feeling awful after getting through the last one. There is never a sense of satisfaction or relief after finishing a run. Just indifference and existential crisis on what I am doing with my time. I will admit that there is an attempt at being intriguing as a rogue-like title, with new elements to see like mounts or even decorations depending on the holiday season, but when it does not help the core-mechanics, it is just trying to mask its shortcomings. It is kinda like masking a cake where you confused sugar, baking soda and the all-purpose flour for salt, and try to hide it with cream. It is still bad.
Extra Score: 3/10
I did not want to be too harsh on Kingdom: New Lands, as I do appreciate the idea and really think it could work. We have in fact already had some stellar side-scrolling strategy-titles, such as Castle Storm and Swords and Soldiers 2. Not to mention, other 2D titles that combine interesting genres, like the stealth-game Mark of the Ninja, and Salt and Sanctuary being kinda like Dark Souls’ odd sibling. However, Kingdom: New Lands only adds additions in order to seem intriguing and is covered in quality pixel-art, that simply is not enough when variety in every aspect of this game is lacking. I was pretty much on autopilot playing this title. Whenever it was on, I was making food, watching a movie, doing taxes, anything to just keep me up and engaged in something. When a game can’t muster any form of interest and just adds more for the sake of seeming big, it is just sad. There are other kingdoms more worth your time. Personally, I am a big fan of Hyrule.