King’s Bounty 2 is a cross-over RPG/tactics game from Russian coders 1C Entertainment who have quite the softography of lesser-known titles behind them. Of course, this is a sequel to the original King’s Bounty, a 1990 tactical RPG that originated on the PC but did good business on the Amiga and Sega Megadrive. As is common with long-running video game franchises, despite this sequel being named number 2, there were a bunch of sequels in between, all spawning from 2008’s King’s Bounty: The Legend.
Of course, when a developer and publisher decide to bring in the number for the sequel, that suggests that this is the true follow up. Sometimes that works but sometimes you get Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5. But before we move on, there’s something of an elephant in this particular room. King’s Bounty is my favourite game of all time. That might sound like a hipster pick but it gets worse. While the Amiga version (the version I played back in the day) was great, it wasn’t the one. The one was a freeware port for Windows Mobile 6 by some random Russian kid. I still to this day have an old Vodafone 1615 that has the sole purpose of being my King’s Bounty handheld console. I’ve completed the game countless times, putting in hundreds of hours, and it is a better-than-perfect port.
So, with that in mind I was nervous about this one. I’ve never dabbled with King’s Bounty: The Legend or the spiritual successor to the original game, Heroes of Might and Magic. I never felt that the original needed anything added. King’s Bounty 2 therefore is my first time looking beyond the original game in the series. Of course, we’re now a shocking 31 years on from the original game (and at least six console generations) and so this reviewer needs to put on his big boy pants and get on with it. So, what’s new, King’s Bounty?
King’s Bounty 2 mixes the tactical, turn-based battles of the original game with some third-person RPG-style exploration. You play as one of three characters, a warrior, a mage or a paladin each of whom have varying stats when it comes to combat and magic and you are charged by the Prince with a mission to rid the world of blighted creatures threatening to destroy the continent of Nostria in the world of Antara. As with the original King’s Bounty, this means you are given a horse and a small army and sent off to handle the task however you see fit.
Along the way you’ll need to complete quests in order to raise your leadership stats, in order to command larger armies, and funds with which to hire people, and creatures, to fight for you. While exploration is done in third-person in a fairly standard RPG fantasy world, the battles take place viewed from above, giving you a tactical view of the battlefield. There is no combat outside of those battles and foes will not engage you until you walk, or ride, into their territory.
In terms of the exploration, there’s a big world out there but one that is surprisingly linear for an RPG. Your character cannot jump and so you’re rather funneled through the terrain until you find your next fight. There is, however, a fairly large amount of backtracking thanks to quests that require you to go back and forth in the usual RPG fetch quest fashion. Quick travel points are also unlocked but are not plentiful so you’ll spend a lot of time travelling. This is only partly down to the large game world though as one of the immediate issues with the game is how slow you move.
Your character has walks everywhere and not at a very fast pace. Where most games would give you a run button (maybe with a stamina bar), King’s Bounty 2 makes the entirely unnecessary decision to waste a whole button on walking slower. You will never feel as though you want, or need, to walk slower in this game. So that’s a bit dumb. Of course, you might think that that’s all to steer you into using your horse more (after all, you were entirely on horseback in the original King’s Bounty) but the horse isn’t all that much faster and has the disadvantage of being quite sluggish to control, ultimately costing you time along the way. The horse also adapts to slow, stupid human speed whenever you are in a town or settlement.
However, the time spent between battles isn’t entirely wasted. Aside from searching for the usual barrels, boxes and crates in order to get gear and money you also get to overhear conversations and meet NPCs. The overheard conversations are reasonably natural, giving Nostria some much needed life, and there are plenty of side quests to embark on which isn’t a bad idea given that you’ll need lots of money to keep funding your war efforts. But before we get into the combat and how all that works, it’s worth skipping ahead to where I start talking about presentation.
Nostria is a pretty world with a decent sense of scale to the vistas it provides. Cheaper RPGs, and games in general, are a bit like low budget films with views being close and limited. That’s not the case here, you’ll see large structures or natural formations of cliffs and the like and it all seems like a large world to take in with some good detail. However, when you look closely it does all fall away a bit. Aside from a sluggish frame rate and a lack of detail up close (things even get a bit blurred as if you’re streaming the game while smearing Vaseline on your eyes), people in the game have a weird, unattractive outline to them. A kind of ugly graphical distortion that puzzles us as we can’t tell if it’s a technical flaw (like they don’t know how to render hair or something) or a terrible design choice. Either way, it makes the game look bad and overall the presentation really wouldn’t seem out of place on a PS3 game.
And while the music is okay, the voice acting is really stilted in this game. The writing is okay, standard RPG stuff but it is delivered by actors who a) weren’t great at acting and b) clearly weren’t together during recording. There’s no naturalness to the voices, no flow to the conversations and everything feels off and a little jarring. Of course this is nothing new in RPGs, but this is up there with Two Worlds for bad voice acting. On the plus side though, there’s a degree of consequence to your conversations and actions which leads directly to how your character’s skills and stats progress.
Of course, King’s Bounty was never about the exploration but rather those battles. As with the original, as you ride/walk around the world, you’ll appear to be alone but once you get into combat you’ll have up to five unit types, each of which will have multiple members. The more your leadership improves, the more units you’ll be able to command. But, of course, the further along your quest that you go, the larger armies you’ll face.
Once combat starts, you’ll be able set the starting position of your units and then a turn-based battle will commence on a hex-celled battlefield. Each unit has a movement phase and then an attack phase which all depend on the unit type. Wolves, for example, can move further than spearmen but their attack isn’t as strong. Other units have ranged attacks or use magic, while some units can fly. The key to success in King’s Bounty has always been in understanding the capabilities of your units and your enemy.
Now, look. I want to love this game and, of course, that all depends on the combat. Well, I like it but I don’t love it. On the face of it, it’s reasonably familiar but it is less intuitive than before. Units now have lots of stats as well as passive and active skills to understand. They have statistical relationships to each other based on which class they are (of four types) or relative positions on the battlefield (height and line of site matters). And visually the camera and washed out look of the visuals do the gameplay no favours.
In the original game, everything was clear, allowing decisions to be made confidently. You’d see an enemy unit, you’d observe how it moved, how it attacked and what its capabilities were. You were given all the visual information you needed without the need for stats but all too often in this game I found myself just throwing my units at the enemy and hoping that I’d have enough numbers to see out their numbers. It’s not even that clear which units you have selected or what they do. It’s not a King’s Bounty 2 problem though rather than just being the fact that games sometimes look this way now and doing a top-down, 2D view probably wouldn’t cut it with prospective new players.
To King’s Bounty‘s credit there’s a good chunk of lore here and a world that is worth exploring and the battles can be tense and exciting. The cost of failure means that you’re always invested in them. Losing units means you’ll need to pay for replacements and, worse, travel slowly to where you hire them from. But overall, your tactical acumen will be tested here and the depth of the combat means that there is plenty to master here. If you’re of the mindset to really dig deep, then you may well really appreciate the statistical depth of the gameplay.
It’s just a shame that the average presentation harms the overall appeal of the game and directly affects the combat. On top of that some sluggish controls, fairly awful menus and a real lack of tutorials to help you decode all the bloody stats really do make this one a missed opportunity. Ordinarily that’d be bad enough but when it fails to live up to a game that you love, it’s very disappointing. The other big issue is that being out in the world, away from combat, is just no fun at all. Sometimes getting to an objective is kind of tricky, just because the game isn’t very clear about how you get there. And because of that slow movement, we never felt as though we wanted to go and explore. Ultimately this meant the game was often frustrating and actually quite boring.
+ Semi-linear environments do limit the sprawl
+ Lots of world-building going on
+ Battles can be tense and engaging
- Combat is overly complex and not brilliantly explained
- Exploration is slow, frustrating and actually quite boring
- Battles are a visually fussy