Kingdom, the first of 2016’s challenge-reviews from Indie Game Riot (they select a game they think I’m unlikely to select for myself, I purchase and review it, and they match my purchase price as a charitable donation to the Epilepsy Foundation) is one of my favorite indies ever. It didn’t start that way though. It’s follows the recent trend of giving players very limited instructions and almost no tutorial. Because, you know, “back in the day we didn’t need no stinkin’ instructions!”
The idea is you play as the ruler of what looks like an abandoned KOA who must recruit people to help you build-up and defend the land, while you ride around on a horse and look stylish while wearing your crown. At the start of the game, you’re given a handful of coins, one of which you must spend to start a campfire that becomes the center of your kingdom, two of which you’ll need to recruit the first two guys at the camp you seemingly commandeer from them, and the rest you’ll spend assigning them their jobs. There’s only two available jobs at the start: builder and archer. Archers (poorly) hunt animals during the day to nab you coins, and (poorly) defend you from monsters at night. Builders (slowly) construct stuff for you. What kind of stuff? You have to figure that out on your own. The stuff you can assign them to build has no label identifying what it will eventually be. It’s mostly defensive in nature, but still, it assures that you’ll spend your money unwisely and die quickly your first few go-arounds.
I’ll never understand the “figure it out” mentality of some developers. I think the idea is supposed to be “tutorials are boring.” Yea, they can be, but so can aimlessly wandering. Solving the tutorial problem by such an extreme measure as not having one at all seems a bit drastic. Not to mention you might fail to hook people outside of your target audience. Like me. Imagine if you could spring one person from North Korea, and then give them $2 to buy one of our delicious American soft drinks. But then you unleash them in the soda aisle and give them no clue what are the good ones and what are the bad ones. You run the risk, even likelihood, that they’ll select something disgusting like a Dr. Pepper and be soured on carbonated drinks forever. I was hoping Steam starting a refund program would slow down the volume of them, since most gamers don’t have the patience I do when it comes to games like this. Sadly, it hasn’t. I would be curious what the refund rate is for Kingdom. That opening hour can be pretty demoralizing, and actually, really boring too. The only games that should have players repeatedly mumbling “oh, I get it” are puzzlers. Kingdom is a world builder/strategy/roguelike without the faintest hint of puzzles.
For what it’s worth, once you figure stuff out, the game genuinely is exhilarating. Not the “ta-da” moments where you figure shit out. There’s really nothing all that fun about that. But, once you get going and you start making progress, every extra day you survive is cause for celebration. I settled for starting with two archers, using the first coins they nabbed me to recruit a builder (you find more people at campgrounds), and spending everything else on the first two basic defensive walls. From this point, I fell into a good rhythm and went from only making it to day five to making it to day ten, upgrading my home base a few times, building a decent army, and having a sprawling land that is actually too big for anyone to reasonably expect to maintain on their own. Given the frankly so-absurd-it’s-practically-sarcastic difficulty spike that happens every fifth day when a blood moon causes a large army of monsters to attack, I was fairly proud of myself.
Kingdom’s main problem is that those spikes in difficulty completely throw the pacing out the window. They’re not remotely balanced or fair. Intentionally so, as it turns out. The trailer for the game is centered around its extreme difficulty, how little progress you’ll make, and how often you’ll die. It’s one of the worst trailers for a good game I’ve seen. It turned off at least one friend who I raved about Kingdom to, because it’s about as inviting as a fence made out of urine-soaked barbed wire and rabid rottweilers.
That’s one thing even the smartest developers, indie or otherwise, fail to grasp. In games where you die a lot, the dying part isn’t what’s fun. It’s surviving that keeps players coming back. Take my best run thus far. I finally made it to the dreaded day fifteen, which I had been warned was a roadblock for many people who were satisfied with Kingdom, but not in a happy-glowly kind of way. I had never made it that far before, but I had poured my resources into a defensive strategy AND had buffed-up my archers. Additionally, I had a large bag of coins and I knew that if you drop the coins, any enemies who pick them up leave the current raid. I was ready.
Yea, I got FUBARed something good, losing roughly 80% of my total resources. Most players told me they would just quit and start over when this happens. Me? I’m no quitter. I persevered. Low and behold, I not only survived, but by day 18, I was actually in better shape than I was before I lost almost everything. “Bring it!” was my motto. Which the monsters did. On day 20. This time, they were flying. I was so not ready to fight flying things. Eventually, every person I had was dead and all that was left was me getting my crown knocked off, which is half of the fail-condition for the game, the other half being if one of the monsters picks up the crown. But, I kept recovering the crown just enough that the sun started to rise and I finally completed level 20, earning an achievement and literally dying a second later.
It was fucking awesome.
The good stuff is really good. Once you figure it out, at least. Another problem with the lack of explanations is you could be having a killer run only to stumble upon something new that costs coins. Since you don’t know the effect of the new thing, it’s a gamble on whether you’ll benefit immediately or if it’s something you shouldn’t invest in at the stage you’re at. This is a roguelike. Making the wrong guess (and really, it is a guess,) could cost you hours of playtime investment. I found something that looked like a fancy outhouse and couldn’t resist the temptation to put money in it. Honestly I’m not sure what benefit I got out of it, but the result was my run went to crap. Which, in retrospect, I should have anticipated.
Kingdom frustrates me, but not in the way it wants to. It’s so intentionally unintuitive and unfair that it’s practically pretentious. But, despite that, it’s a really fun game. I mean, I’m going to get back to playing it some more as soon as I finish typing this. In fact, as of this writing, it’s one of the ten best indie games I’ve ever played. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. I’m not. That’s why I’m so annoyed. Because I love spreading the word on understated, unsung indie gems. As someone who isn’t a fan of games that take joy in high body counts or throwing players in the deep end on their first day of swimming lessons, Kingdom was not a game made for me at all. And I love it. For all the muck I just raked up, every moment past the first hour or so had me dazzled AND on the edge of my seat. Amazing. Imagine what it could have been if it found a healthy middle ground. Maybe adjustable difficulties, or an optional tutorial that could be skipped by the type of sadomasochistic dweebs who get off on stuff like this. “Oh yesssss, I’ve been a naughty, naughty little twat. Whip me more you sexily aggravating game.”
Kingdom is Chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.