Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Noio , Licorice
Publisher: Raw Fury
Kingdom takes the epic, sprawling kingdom building of games like Civilisation and compacts it into a tiny, pixellated, side-scrolling game where, as the ruling monarchy, your primary method of interaction is to hurl money at things and let the peasants take care of the rest. You must build your kingdom, defend it and hopefully claim victory, once you figure out how to actually do those three things.
The game begins with a basic tutorial that encourages you to start a fire in order to lay the foundation of what will hopefully become a powerful civilisation. Once that’s out of the way the game politely teaches you how to hire peasants by throwing coins at them, a tactic which seems to work in real life, too, and then guides you through making a bow and a hammer. The peasants will automatically pick these tools up and be assigned their roles in life as archer and builder respectively, thus you’ve learned how the basic requirements to slowly construct and defend the kingdom. The archer will immediately head out and begin shooting rabbits with every innocent rabbit slain being worth a single coin, which in turn can hire another peasant and then with another two dead rabbits a bow to arm him or her with and so on. From there the game refuses to teach the player anything else directly, rather all knowledge must be gained through trial and error, like learning that peasants will always pick up the very first tool they come across or that by charging ahead of a herd of deer they can b scared them back toward the archers for some early game quick cash. You need to figure out how to access masonry for better defenses, or how to field knights, or how to earn money, or what strange monuments in the forest do.
This makes Kingdom a tricky game to review, because talking about the mechanics in any real detail automatically acts as a spoiler, ruining the surprise of figuring it all out for yourself. However, I do feel I’m going to be relatively safe talking about something like the defensive walls. You simply sidle the King or Queen over to a mound of earth, hold the down key down and hurl money at the project. A builder will eventually make their way over and begin construction of some simple wooden spikes, but a word of warning; they’ll complete projects in order, so don’t leave them trying to build something outside of your defenses when it comes down dark. Easier said than done, though, because learning how long each upgrade takes is a matter of experience. From there the wooden spike can be upgraded to a better wooden wall, until eventually the only way to advance is to find out how to gain access to stone, thus you set out to figure out the next step in building up the kingdom. Everything you can build or buy is handled in this way, but certain things will only be accessible once you’ve figured something else out.
Everything is in preparation for night when hordes of weird little creatures come scurrying in from the edges of the map and begin to attack the kingdom, hopefully doing nothing more than denting the walls and providing some target practice for the almost comically inept archers who struggle to hit anything. A balance has to be struck between constantly maintaining enough archers and strong walls to hold off the evil hordes, and expanding the kingdom, a tricky task since the days pass quickly and your horse’s stamina levels mean getting from one end of the map to the other takes an entire day by itself. As each day goes by your granted some bonus money by way of a chest, but every five days a massive stampede of enemies will wreck everything but the strongest of kingdoms. If the enemy do break through then aside from walls they leave most structures alone, and don’t normally kill peasants, either, rather they make them drop their tools and run away, forcing you to re-recruit them. Special flying foes, though, do kill peasants, which is obviously a pain in the ass, plus walls need to be rebuilt. A stampede can leave you struggling to rebuild before the next attack. The game is lost if the monarch’s crown is stolen.
Money also comes from the inhabitants of the kingdom. Archers out slaying the local wildlife will gather up coins until the monarch comes riding past and gathers them up, likewise farmers will toss out money as well. All of it goes into the little animated coin bag at the top left corner of the screen which does have the slight problem of making it hard to tell how much gold you have at a glance. This bag can even be overfilled, at which point money will be lost.
Everything boils down to choosing what to spend that money on, and when. A single mistake can often result in a an unrecoverable chain reaction of events. It can be a tough game at times. My first defeat came when I ventured too near something and got attacked by an enemy. The second came on the first mass stampede when a terrifying amount of enemies battered down my meagre walls. Its far from the most challenging game out there, but it should still kick most players a few times before they figure out the keys to survival.
Arguably the game’s single biggest flaw is that while playing is a constantly learning experience death is not. There’s not much to be learned from failure, and slowly building back up roughly the same position you were in last time has a sense of weariness about it that only grows the more times you have to do it. It’s fine at first when death comes just ten or fifteen minutes into the game, but later when you manage to survive for damn near an hour having to repeat it all again is a chore. You can try slightly different tactics, but ultimately reconstructing the kingdom feels a lot like the last time. This can also make playing the game after achieving your first victory feel considerably less satisfying, since you’ve already figured most of the tricks out and know roughly what needs to be done for victory.
That’s largely because it isn’t a complex game, both its strength and its weakness. I reckon that in about two hours most players will have figured out all or most of the game’s mechanics, while good players will have it worked out in slightly less. Victory will take a little while longer, though, because figuring out the mechanics isn’t the same thing as knowing when to spend money on what, such as how many archers are needed, or builders, or when to expand. This lack of complexity can again potentially weaken further play throughs, but at the same time its simplicity is what makes it all work so well.
The hands-off nature of growing the kingdom can also lead to a lot of frustrations. Archers, farmers and later on even the valuable knights have a horrible habit of getting themselves killed by roaming the countryside at night instead of retreating to safety like they should, a problem that can become incredibly costly as you rush to replace them. Archers also have a tendency to group together at one end rather than evenly disperse themselves, thus it’s entirely possible to find thirty archers happily watching the scenery, completely oblivious to the fact that at the other end of the fort there’s a mere ten archers fighting valiantly to hold of a massive enemy horde. Without any way to manually order these fools around you’re simply left to swear loudly at the screen as the enemy break through the walls and begin to decimate the camp. Likewise being entirely unable to stop engineers blithely wandering out into the night in order to construct something is a frustration beyond belief. Replacing such morons is a time-consuming process since civilian camps only generate two peasants a day. As brilliant as Kingdom can frequently be, it can also be incredibly bloody annoying.
It’s hard to stay annoyed for long, though, as the game quickly draws you back in with its gameplay, and its presentation. Obviously the pixellated art of Kingdom isn’t going to win any awards for technical prowess, but it’s frequently a lovely looking game that boasts a great style. I mean, just gaze at the screenshots for a few minutes. Beautiful. The audio is solid, too, with a gentle, soothing score during the day that lulls you into a false sense of security before those evil little bastards strike at night.
In many ways Kingdom is a perfect example of what’s so interesting about the indie scene. It’s got the now rather over-used pixel graphics, yes, but it also sports unique mechanics and ideas that so rarely come out of the larger studios who are more afraid of creating something that may not have mass appeal. It’s honestly more akin to a puzzle game that a strategy game most of the time, with the feeling that there’s mostly just one right way to beat it, with some minor variation along the way. Subsequent playthroughs can still be fun, but they never do have the same sense of enjoyment without those eureka moments. In short, it’s a game worthy of the recommendation sticker, but does come with a simple caveat; go into expecting just a couple of victorious runs before tiring of it. That first victory, though, is super sweet.