The return of the King’s Bounty series is quite the blast from the past. 1C’s upcoming King’s Bounty 2 is a direct sequel to the 1990 original, without directly connecting to spin-offs that have launched in between. King’s Bounty holds a special place in strategy gaming as it can be considered as one of the earliest role-playing-tactics hybrid games and is widely accepted as the spiritual predecessor to the well-regarded (now infamous) Heroes of Might and Magic series. Can 1C’s newest entry in this ancient series reignite the fire and give the franchise new life?
Right out of the gate, it’s clear how much love, care, and attention 1C has put into the game’s visuals and aesthetic language. For a AA mid-budget game, it’s impressive that the overall art style, choice of color, high draw distance, and graphical design help with immersing the player in the game’s fantasy setting. Though not entirely original, the visual world-building is still an immediate highlight of King’s Bounty 2.
The voice work in the game doesn’t quite reach the same levels of quality as the visuals. The writing is pleasant and fun and on the whole all the voice acting adds to King’s Bounty’s immersion with the countess Katharine being a particular standout, however, at times the delivery feels robotic or lacking in energy. This is especially the case with Aivar, one of the main playable characters who feels lethargic and empty in his lines.
An area where the game shows promise is in its tactical combat system. It’s quite small scale, smaller than even HoMM’s tactical engagements and more similar to Gasket Games’ Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground in terms of unit numbers and map sizes. However, this doesn’t harm the overall structure of combat.
There are plenty of units with a wide range of active and passive abilities. Maps are quite varied and though terrain doesn’t affect combat to the same degree as in something like Battle Brothers, it still has a notable presence. The tactical battles can also be quite challenging without preparation and altogether the combat will provide fun tactical decision-making exercises.
Unfortunately, King’s Bounty 2 shows some worrying signs in its core design. Unlike HoMM, this series emphasizes the role-playing dimension of the game with a greater focus on character role-playing, morality choices, and exploration. In almost all these aspects, the game’s design feels like playing an old MMORPG (not in a good way) with its archaic systems.
To effectively role play as one of the three main characters, it’s vital to understand their motivations and traits. These need to be well established to provide ample opportunity for compelling character development. However, only one character has clear motivation while the other two seem to be a collection of muddled traits.
It feels like the devs tried to balance the clean slate approach of RPGs like the Elder Scrolls series where players create their own character and games where players take the role of well-defined personalities, like The Last of Us. As a result, the available characters neither seem established enough to be distinct, nor open or flexible enough for player freedom.
However, the most egregious element of the game’s archaic quest design is the backtracking combined with relatively slow character and horse movement, as well as clunky fast travel. It can be argued that backtracking allows players to take in the scenery and engage in exploration, yet in King’s Bounty 2 it feels way more like pointless padding.
The morality choice system also feels a bit too shallow as it can more often feel like window dressing or a simple stat increase that unlocks talents and skills (do you want to open the red door or the blue door?). While it’s too early to tell if player choices have wide-reaching effects on the game’s world and narrative, mechanically the system feels underdeveloped and in need of more refinement.
Despite King’s Bounty 2 providing large maps for each of its chapters or play areas, exploration is painfully limited due to its linearity. The effort put into the graphical design in particular begs the game to open up more and let players explore the beautiful vistas and locations so easily visible in the distance, yet players unfortunately have to move along a few limited corridors to reach their next objective. To top it off, the oppressive linearity becomes even more apparent when combined with the game’s exhausting quest backtracking.
Aside from the archaic role-playing design features, there are several other major concerns. While the tactical battles themselves are enjoyable, they are too quick and don’t give enough time for the player to really get invested. Balancing and pacing various components is one of the many critical challenges of genre-mixing games and it seems that King’s Bounty 2 is struggling with that right balance.
Another combat-related concern is the role of characters and equipment in battle. In essence, the main heroes act as glorified magical gun turrets and equipment doesn’t really affect how characters approach combat.
Buying new armor, weapons, and other gear only changes appearance and unit stats, which is a huge missed opportunity to involve heroes in a more compelling manner. This is doubly problematic where one character is explicitly stated to be really weak or inept at magic, yet the only thing they can do in combat is cast spells using scrolls.
The final major concern is the game’s fiddly UI and awkward control scheme. It seems the developers are porting console design sensibilities into the PC version, which makes the experience far more annoying than it needs to be. The UI isn’t terrible, but there are a lot of quality of life elements lacking and a number of odd element placements that make the UI quite fiddly.
For a game that’s just around the corner, King’s Bounty 2 is in a very worrying state. Ironically, aside from a few graphical glitches and typos, technically the game is quite solid, but instead has some potentially serious design flaws centering around the game’s RPG-related systems. Where King’s Bounty 2 can really outshine these concerns is in the quality of its narrative and challenging tactical engagements. It remains to be seen if 1C can work their creativity to give this venerable series new life in the current generation of gaming.
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