Every now and again I come across a video game trailer and screenshot and before I know anything relevant about the game in question I know I need to play it. Kingdom was one such a game. I think I randomly saw it while browsing my Steam Discovery queue and, being a sucker for pixel art, I immediately knew I had to have it in my life. I didn’t even know what genre I was jumping into: platformer? Atmospheric sidescrolling exploration game? It’s refreshing to jump into a game almost blindly and just slowly discover what it has to offer. Little did I know how reflective this was going to be of how Kingdom worked.
My Kingdom and my horse
You start off as a queen or king (or rather, a person wearing a crown, since there’s no kingdom yet) of randomly generated looks and essentially just start walking, on horseback, to the right. Immediately striking, to me, was the game’s audio-visual style. There’s a sense of bleak tranquility as you take your first few steps, on the shore of a still lake with a droning chiptune melody setting the gloomy tone for the rest of the experience. You are immediately greeted by the tutorial, which is short, and bare-bones. You are familiarized with the core mechanic of the game: Get coins, throw coins at problems until they go away.
Kingdom is minimalist game design at its finest in terms of player interaction with the environment. There are intricate and complex systems in place, but your only way of interacting with them is spending gold coins. Immediately after being given your first few pennies, you are taught to throw coins on the ground next to NPCs, which will then automatically pick them up and become citizens of your start-up nation. You may also spend coins to buy hammers or bows which villagers pick up and acquire either the builder or archer profession. Archers will spend the day trying to hunt rabbits and deer, while builders stand by for orders. Spending gold at a dirt mound or rock formation will prompt a builder to construct a wall or tower. And that’s pretty much all the tutorial teaches you. It gives you the very useful advice: build, expand, survive before leaving you to your own devices.
You spend the rest of the game exploring the world, finding interesting things in the forest and building defenses because, of course, at night the monsters come. If the sunset ever catches you away from home, it’s best to gallop back as fast as you can. Your horse occasionally tires, but letting it graze for a bit will refresh its stamina. You don’t want the monsters to get you. They won’t kill you, but they’re greedy. Each hit knocks a coin out of your purse, which they promptly steal. As soon as you run out of coins, the next hit you take will knock the crown off your head. Should one of the creatures claim it before you do, it’s game over.
And this is where I fear that discussing the game’s systems in depth will take away from the experience. I’ve already mentioned a few things that you find out on your own. Kingdom has a pretty large map which your ever-expanding camp, village, town, city, et cetera slowly grows into, but there’s little in terms of environment randomization and thus replayability. Thus, the game’s charm (whether by design or by accident) is for the most part discovering the various interactions and devising an optimal strategy to keep your kingdom safe. The purpose of the game is to have your army venture deep into the woods and destroy the four portals that spout out monsters each night, in greater numbers and more dangerous each time. In the interest of letting you properly experience the game I’m going to take some advice from the game and be deliberately vague in describing the some of the mechanics.
Coins being the only resource readily available to you, you need to acquire it. Most tasks your workers perform generate some amount of coins. Approaching a worker prompts him to give you everything he’s gathered whether by hunting, chopping wood or farming. Any coins thrown on the ground will be picked up and stored by your people for later, since you can only carry a finite amount. The rest of the game you need to spend carefully planning, recruiting and arming NPCs while upgrading your defenses and your main town proper in order to get access to the highest tier of military units. Every five nights, a blood moon occurs, during which the creatures will come in greater numbers and be far more aggressive. You are almost guaranteed to take heavy losses during those nights, so storing some money to rebuild the next day is probably a good idea. I could talk more about farming, expanding, merchants and the strange monuments in the forest but you’re better off learning about those on your own.
Wow, these puns are getting exponentially worse. I might have to think up a new review format this year. Anyway, let’s talk critique!
Now, granted, I’m very biased in favor of pixel art games. I loved Gods Will Be Watching, I liked Sheltered and it’s only because I want to keep at least a semblance of professional facade that I only tell you that Kingdom has “one of” the best damn pixel art visual style that I’ve ever seen. The character models are nothing special (and this is me just nitpicking for things to critique), they just serve the purpose of showing you what everything is supposed to be, but the environments are drop-dead gorgeous. The forests are dark and foreboding to an extent where even finding a small grove gives you a small sense of relief.
Kingdom being an atmospheric game, however, the real stars are the lighting, reflection and weather effects. The lake’s water shines, rain and fog make everything feel bleak, while fire radiates light and warmth. The atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the soundtrack. I’m pretty bad at describing music, but I will say that Kingdom makes use of an interesting blend of chiptune and classical music to really drive home the retro aspect while not skimping out on quality. All in all it’s refreshing to see games using “retro” as an opportunity to be creative rather than an excuse to be lazy. It also has full controller support and I must say, playing it on a big TV screen is not something I regret.
I’ve spoken a bit previously about how I appreciate minimal game design in terms of player interaction. After all, Portal had (depending on whether or not you choose to include jumping) two or three of them. However, in order to make such game design compelling to the player, you need to have complex systems in place that interact with each other mostly independently of the player. While some of Kingdom‘s early hours (or playthroughs) are spent studying and understanding the systems in place and then an additional few to devise an optimal growth strategy for your realm, the rest are, I am sorry to say, a bit of a slog.
Day in and day out, you do more or less the same thing: collect coins, enhance your defenses, expand, recruit, retreat to the walls, wait out the night. While there is excitement to be had during the late game with massive assaults of creatures trying to destroy everything you’ve built, the early game will be spent more or less in the same way each time, with few to no differences. This is where I think the game might have benefited from more varied environments, scenarios, or even just map layouts. Still, it’s good for ten or so hours of play and there are many challenges and achievements to keep you playing. Plus, the developers are constantly working on enhancing it, so who knows what the future holds?