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!”

Does anyone else find it disturbing that an entire generation of gamers brags about all the books they didn't read?

Does anyone else find it disturbing that an entire generation of gamers brags about all the books they didn’t read?

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.

You recruit people by throwing coins at their feet like street urchins.

You recruit people by throwing coins at their feet like street urchins. I find this comical for some reason.

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.

I avoid talking about graphics for the most part at IGC, but I should point out that, as far as this particular style of pixel-art goes, I think it's in the top tier. I only wish the characters & enemies were slightly larger and more distinct looking, but otherwise, top notch atmosphere and effects. See, I can be nice.

I avoid talking about graphics for the most part at IGC, but I should point out that, as far as this particular style of pixel-art goes, I think it’s in the top-tier. I only wish the characters and enemies were slightly larger and more distinct looking, but otherwise, top-notch atmosphere and effects. See, I can be nice.

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.”

headerKingdom was developed by Noio and Licorice
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$9.99 wants to know when someone will port the board game Key to the Kingdom to digital form in the making of this review?

Kingdom is Chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Thanks to Patrick Scott Patterson and his Video Game Media Archive for the instruction book pic.

My Ten Favorite Games Ever – Part 2

Continuing from Part 1, these are my personal ten favorite games ever.  Not the best games ever made, or even games I want to play again.  But the ten games I had the most fun playing the first time I played them.

Shadow of the Colossus

Age I was: 16

Last attempt at playing it: last year when it was re-released on PlayStation 3.  Shadow is one of the rare games that I’ve finished twice.  But there won’t be a third time.

Would I ever play it again: No

Between you and me, I never really liked Ico all that much.  Despite the massive amount of praise it got from pretty much everyone, I hated the combat and I detest escort missions in general.  A game that is all escorting, all the time was like being forced to listen to someone take a nail file to Gilbert Gottfried’s teeth.  So while the artwork was nice (I guess) and the puzzle design was alright (if you’re into that sort of thing), it did nothing for me.  As a result, Shadow of the Colossus was nowhere on my radar.  I had no faith in it.  Thought it would be a piece of shit.  And then I played the demo from the official PlayStation Magazine.  And I had to have it.  Like, right then.

There has never been anything quite like Shadow of the Colossus.  What made it work is how alone you feel in the world you’re in.  With no secondary enemies, treasures to find, caves to explore, fetch-quests, menus, and so on, and so on, everything is focused on intense, rewarding gameplay.  The storyline isn’t exactly deep, but you’re given just enough snippets of what’s going on to be curious exactly what you’re doing and why.  Despite the open-worldness of it, it felt like a dark ride at an amusement park.  You’re pushed from one goal to the next, feeling the exact emotion the developers want you to feel.  Fear from a lake monster.  Apprehension from a twenty-story tall behemoth.  Thrills as you soar through the air on a flying giant.  Even a true sense of loss when your horse seemingly dies.  Then again, I’m not sure they were trying to provoke “how the FUCK did it survive and limp all the way back here?” when it shows up during the final cut scene, which is what I was like.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Shadow of the Colossus is a one-and-done experience.  Yea, there’s a lot of hidden content, like lizards and fruits that increase your abilities.  And yea, they’re special weapons you get for beating the bosses a second time.  But the best parts about Shadow of the Colossus can only be experienced one time.  Those moments when you encounter a boss for the first time, or gaze in awe at a new area of the land to explore.  Once you’ve done that, there’s no turning back the clock.  Not even an HD upgrade of the game made playing through it a totally worthwhile use of my time last year.  I loved Shadow of the Colossus, but I can’t get anymore out of it.

XBLIG equivalent: Ha, right.  One game did try to recreate the whole “fight giant-sized enemies” schtick, Ogre’s Phantasm Sword Quest.  But that wasn’t even trying to be like Shadow of the Colossus.  It’s not an XBLIG, but the closest any game has come to reminding me of it was PlayStation Network hit Journey.  It wasn’t about the slaying of giants or the minimalistic presentation.  It was about the emotional focus.  A game that gives you the illusion of having freedom, but in reality pushes you from point A to point B while evoking specifically targeted reactions in the player.   Lots of games try to do that, but few are smart enough to keep it simple and aim for very specific nerves.

Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II

Age I was: 13 and 16

Last attempt at playing it: I’ve only played them once.

Would I ever play it again: No.  Well, define “again” since every single spinoff and sequel feels like the same fucking game, only increasingly less coherent.

I can’t really defend my love of Kingdom Hearts.  The story was absurd, the camera was unworkable, the characters as they originally stood all had the complexity of a straw, and it was fucking awesome.  It’s a real shame what has become of this series.  It reminds me of what happened to the Matrix series between the original flick and the two sequels, where the creators fell in love just a little bit too much with their own top-heavy mythology.  When it was just about Sora and Riku being separated from their home and their friend and being in a strange world surrounded by cartoon characters, I liked it.  Pitiful me totally melted when I saw a moogle.  “Oh gee, there’s a moogle, in this game that has Donald Duck and Goofy!  Tee hee!”  But as the sequels and spinoffs started adding evil organizations and Nobodys and all the stuff you see is real but maybe it’s not or maybe it’s a dream or maybe you’re remembering it wrong or you know what fuck it.  I wish I had played the original and then had myself hypnotized to get physically ill if I was ever tempted to play another game in the series.

Maybe I’m being hypocritical.  My inner anti-critic is saying “It’s Disney and it’s Square!  Come on, Cathy!  Of course it’s going to sound like raving insane fan-fiction!  Nothing at Disneyland makes sense either, but the rides are still fun!”  I chose to pair Shadow of the Colossus with Kingdom Hearts here because both feel like rides.  They give an artificial sense of being bigger than they really are, when they’re really drawing your attention to very specific things on a linear path that you have almost no control over.  Yet, it never feels like a fan service (see Smash Bros) or pretentious (see Epic Mickey) and remains charming.  At least the two main games do.  All the spinoffs can get in line to kiss my ass.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Even with all the options to change-up combat, with various combos and formations, the limited variety of enemies and ultra-repetitive nature of fights gets old quickly.  Both Kingdom Hearts and its sequel over-stayed their welcome by a good five to ten hours each.  Yes, too much of a good thing can and does happen.  I’m also increasingly uninterested in a possible third proper sequel.  That’s thanks in no small part to several spinoffs with titles that sound like badly translated Japanese.  358/2 Days?  Birth by Sleep??  Dream Drop Distance???  You made these incomprehensible pieces of shit instead  of #3 why?

XBLIG equivalent: Again, I really didn’t think this part out too much.  Seemed like a good idea when I came up with this feature.  Nothing really compares to it on XBLIG, so I’ll just end right here.  But, if you do want to try to make something like this yourself, remember to focus players attentions on very little while making them think there’s a lot more going on then there is.  It sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what Shadow of the Colossus and Kingdom Hearts both did, and did very well.

Continue to Part III: Cowboys and GoldenEye playing Aliens.

And yes I cheated: I’m counting Kingdom Hearts I & II as one game.  Just wait until the next chapter.  I do that twice!  So really this the top 13 games.  Why not?

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