"Whoever's making these design decisions is just too afraid to take risks..."
My love of King's Bounty knows no boundaries, and as RPGFan's resident KB fanatic, I jumped at the opportunity to tussle with 1C's latest game, King's Bounty: Warriors of the North. With Crossworlds a bit of a disappointment, I was ready for a refined sequel. After all, The Legend and Armored Princess were exceptional, especially for someone longing for another game since the 16-bit era. Have they brewed up some tasty ale for us to gulp down in this fourth iteration, or has someone spit in the grog?
I hesitate to call WotN a sequel, since there's nary a mention of the previous universe. Presumably, this game takes place in some other part of the world – or turtle, for those in the know. The current game follows a Viking named Olaf, younger son of a famed warrior now grown old whose older brother torments him for being the weaker of the two. Meanwhile, reports from other lands warn of a hostile takeover from the undead. Cause? Unknown. Severity? Pretty bad. Inspiring? Not really. Though, few play King's Bounty for the plot.
Rest assured, hovels litter the countryside with the odd lighthouse, castle, or tower. Here, the staple dialogue and side quests add flavor to the otherwise benign tropes. Non-playable characters range from comically absurd to generically realistic. Though not everyone will enjoy the sometimes endless chatter, one cannot deny KB's unique voice. Certainly, this must be the same universe as the previous games, right?
Then again, I can't comment too much on the locale, since I didn't beat the game. In fact, I only played through fifteen hours of what seemed to be a significantly longer adventure. So, why am I writing this? Well, I ran into a game-breaking bug that crippled my progress. A map I was supposed to receive at a certain point simply did not show up. Although I enjoy the game and will likely revisit it once it has been patched, I could not bring myself to cleave my way through the first fifteen hours again.
King's Bounty: Warriors of the North is one of those games that demands calculation, finesse, and strategy. I took the game seriously and worked hard for my progress. To have that torn away from me by a dire glitch was too much. However, I can comment on what I believe to be the essence of the game. As I just mentioned, the balance and difficulty demand thought, rather than mindless engagement. Unlike most games, nearly every battle matters here, because whether fighting a multitude of bear-herding druids or half a horde of zombies wearing red shirts and another half wearing olive, WotN demands different tools for seemingly similar jobs.
Like previous games in the series, each unit has unique traits. In fact, some may feel inundated with information. Is the game like chess, demanding precision and acknowledgment of every trick a unit has up its sleeve? Well, it can be. Depending on the selected difficulty, players can slog through the entire game without even looking at unit details. Conversely, the hardest difficulties will punish a player for ignoring a trait that offers a 15% offensive buff to neighboring units of the same race. To claim that KB ignores numbers would be irresponsible, but those who embrace Sun Tzu's militaristic philosophy know that numbers alone do not win battles – even a short-changed player entering a battle against a "very strong" opponent can walk away with a victory.
Similar to its predecessors, WotN allows players to walk along winding paths on horse picking up treasures and running into enemy units. Upon encountering said unit, a zoomed-in battle occurs in which the player uses hired units to battle enemy units – typically, five versus five on a hex-based field. Each unit has its own initiative which determines the order. As is the standard, melee units trade blows while ranged units typically hit without punishment. Players can use magic to aid their army or "rage" for much the same function, which is earned by dealing and receiving damage. The hero can equip armor, weapons, and accessories, which somehow increase the stats of his army. Magic!
Of course, what would the newest King's Bounty game be without the same three classes to choose from in the beginning! Veterans of the series, I hear your groans. This game is the fourth in the series. Fourth!
So, why are we still choosing between the same tired classes? Why can't the developers come up with something a little more unique? For those unsure of what I'm talking about, one class specializes in magic, another in rage, and one just can't seem to decide (he's the green one). The skill trees are slightly different from previous games, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy
playing the rage class for the third time in a row, but variety would be a welcome change.
Game-breaking bugs aside, this is the problem with WotN: it's the same game, just with a bearded fellow instead of a barely clothed princess. Again, more of the same isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does not instill confidence in future installments. I could tolerate the third game piggy-backing on Armored Princess and offering a couple horrible tagalongs, but at this point, I have little hope for the series. Whoever's making these design decisions is just too afraid to take risks and drive the series in a new direction with some novelty, and with stagnation comes the overrated title of "cult classic." 1C can crank out eight more iterations of the same game and probably make some decent pocket change as they take loyalists' cash, but newcomers will learn to avoid these titles if the same old thing just isn't good enough. Warriors of the North excites, stimulates the brain, and offers immersion – but know that little has changed.
Speaking of sterility, the presentation shamelessly copies WotN's ancestors. In fact, I wonder what took 1C so long to come out with WotN. Between game design, music, graphics, artwork, and the relatively small and simple script, WotN might as well be a mod developed by the users. Some new sprites appear and I think some of the music's new, but the first boss – caution, spoilers – is the freaking huge spider boss. Again. Is this a joke or brazen laziness?
The world remains vibrant and engaging to the eye. Quirky, almost cartoonish houses are both endearing and indicative of those often dwelling inside. In terms of music, familiar tracks greet ears throughout the experience. Battle tracks seem randomized, which helps keep battles fresh. Traversing the world seems relatively bug-free, which has been a problem with previous games. Maybe that's what's taken them a couple of years to hammer out.
Repetition and game-breaking bugs cannot be excused. While I understand that some bugs just slip by and patches will likely rectify issues like the one I experienced, this is what separates top-notch games from the rest. On top of that, why am I still starting the game with spiders, snakes, and thieves? What has changed besides the skin on the models or even the palette? Why is the first boss a spider? I conclude with questions only because I do not understand the lackluster design decisions. Then again, "decisions" implies that thought went into the game.