Review: Medieval Kingdom Wars20 Mar 2019 1
Review: Medieval Kingdom Wars
Released 03 Jan 2019
Reverie World Studios, purveyors of such fine and well-known products as Kingdom Wars (a very generic free-to-play isometric RTS mobile port originally called Dawn of Fantasy), Kingdom Wars 2: Battles (likewise a very generic three-faction fantasy isometric RTS with a free expansion that tried to jump onto the emerging zombie wave with mixed results), Kingdom Wars 2 (what the original purchasers of KW2:B thought they were buying, apparently, and promising a new engine; not released yet), and Stars End (a space-ship FPS/TPS survival/crafter which still has guys with fusion reactors making camp fires). I just want to set your expectations appropriately.
Medieval Kingdom Wars is actually still in an aggressively beta/development state. Nothing on the website or the Steam page actually says that, but when you compare the features actually in the game to what is “promised later this year,” there’s no way to escape it. This is $30 for Early Access.
What are you getting for it?
Where are we, exactly?
In perhaps the most criminally overlooked opportunity for promotion in the whole game, it’s set during the Hundred Years’ War conflict between England and France, which features some of the most pitched battles in history. Not only did the war burn for three generations but it encompassed the majority of Western Europe on both land and sea. If ever there was a conflict that invited being in the title, this is it.
The tutorial has you begin as a relatively undistinguished Lord in northern France pushing a raid across the channel and back. All well and good. There is a lot of voiceover, to the point where you might wonder if there isn’t more time spent listening to reading than actually giving commands and watching them executed. It’s all relentlessly, completely, over the top English. British English. You’re commanding a French force in northern France. All of your officers, all of your advisors, are aggressively British.
Once you escape from the tutorial and get into actual gameplay, you have the opportunity to choose any of the over 20 Lords with various holdings across Western Europe.
Don’t expect to actually be able to see the domain that you’re taking over because the map is behind the big panel displaying the characters and while it does shift to center on your domain, it’s behind everything.
Once you’re actually in, it’s not too bad, as long as you’re resigned to graphics which escaped from the early 2000’s. You have an adjustable, rotatable, zoomable isometric view which locks you to a specific tilt and never feels like you can truly pull back quite far enough, muddy textures, what often feels like a monochromatic pallet, and tolerable if stiff character animations.
What are we doing here?
It’s the onset of the Hundred Years’ War and you are a vassal Lord. Your job is to maintain your holdings by putting buildings in towns, hamlets, and cities, with the ultimate goal of earning more silver in order to be able to upgrade them to higher, more defensible levels. While expanding your military reach to prosecute wars against your neighbors to take their territory, as well as against the enemies of your king to improve your position and reputation. The overall gist intends you to dethrone a king and take their place.
The set of tools provided are relatively limited. You can organize armies of up to 30 units, recruited from neighboring towns which have the right buildings to provide that type of troop. You can interact with other Lords and Kings by sending them silver to reinforce your reputation or to tear theirs down, or you can literally give away some of your land on a city by city basis. You can push your armies around the map to attack cities and, if successful, loot, conquer, or burn them to the ground. Don’t expect a lot of subtlety.
Gameplay itself is split into two modes:
- Operating from the larger map which shows cities, towns, hamlets, and nations upon which you move armies,
- And a much tighter, zoomed in traditional RTS level where actual battles take place as well as some city management.
If there is one unique trait MKW possesses, it’s that it gives you the choice between simply buying city improvements with silver immediately at what I’ll call the strategic level or you can enter the city, go to the RTS/tactical level, and spend the time to build up individual buildings with resources harvested on that map costing no silver at all but does take time to gather the resources.
It’s here that the free-to-play history of the company becomes obvious because what you’re doing is literally paying “money” not to have to play the game, to not engage in the click-and-wait style gameplay you often find in mobile games.
How’s the bloodletting?
The actual combat is a bit confused.
On the strategic map, moving armies around happens in real time and a notification system in the top left of the screen lets you know what other “characters” are doing, whether it be going to war, ending a war, winning or losing a battle, etc. If they are in your area, you can literally watch their forces moving around independently of your activity. Mount and Blade does much the same thing but allows you to pull out and have a broader sense of the environment.
If you and an ally have forces close enough to one another, you can call them into battle when you decide to attack either another army or a town – but only the one ally. If you do, their force will be added to yours and an AI leader will run their own battle camp. This is also true if you are attacked; you can call in an allied army if one is in range, and that allied army can also belong to you but it’ll still be run by an AI.
Once engaged, the view changes to the RTS/tactical level and you are given either an empty siege camp or start within the walls of your town if that’s where you were attacked. If within your town, you have all of the buildings that you had constructed including the ones which allow you to build forces, right off the bat. If not, all you have are the units in the army you brought, which can include serfs to do basic gathering tasks and livestock which can be butchered in order to get food which is used to recruit new troops.
If you’re attacking a town, you’re probably going to want to spend some time to build up resources, build up a larger fighting force, and fortify the camp you start at so that you can throw enough against the enemy’s walls to get in and hold their central manor for long enough to win. There is a pretty generous 15 minute timer before you need to succeed at that.
Once it comes to blows, how much this game wants to be part of Total War is really apparent. Troops are managed at a battalion level, so any given unit is a bunch of guys who move as a block which you can’t control individually. Each type of troop has multiple stances and multiple formations that they can go into, some of which are better for attack and some for defense, some unlocked with specific researches. Some units are part of a complicated rock paper scissors set of advantages and disadvantages against other troops. Some have special powers that have to be clicked and targeted.
And it’s all a mess with very little visual or even notional feedback to you as the player to make use of any of that.
On top of having the necessity to micromanage the use of individual units special abilities (like one particular type of archer’s ability to fire a very small area affect volley which runs on a cooldown), the interface doesn’t actually give you a list of all of your units. Or all of your buildings. There’s no easy way to just click on an icon on the UI and get control. You have to click on the unit itself or on the unit flag, which perversely enough is always at the top left corner of the remaining elements. While the typical RTS control groups are available (0 – 9), there is absolutely no other assistance given to you and formations have a tendency to get very wide when you band box several battalions and move them with a dragged right click to put the lot in some sort of order before throwing them at the enemy. You do get a list of units that are selected, but good luck telling them from one another since they don’t light up individually when you mouse over their selection flag. With all of the things looking so much like one another, distinguishing types is rough.
Combined with muddy textures, difficult to distinguish outlines, a lot of micromanagement which involves hitting smallish buttons followed by other smallish buttons which all have the same color and very similar iconography in roughly the same place, there’s only one conclusion that you can come away with: it’s just not very good. This was forgivable in the late 90s because both design experience and processing power were minimal, but 20 years later it’s much harder to overlook.
There are a surprisingly nice group of siege weapons available, which due to their size and singular nature are much easier to pick out on the battlefield and move roughly into place. It’s extremely gratifying to take an assault tower from your siege camp, ram it up against the wall, and watch a bunch of infantry flood up the side onto the enemy’s stone walls.
Combat can also occur at sea where instead of a town or open area, your forces start on a boat at one end of a group of boats connected by narrow bridges, and you need to fight your way across to take the opponent’s boat. Because there’s no way to reinforce at all, it can be a bit tense but in the narrow confines of shipboard combat, the difficulty with selecting and managing units is worse. There’s also a mechanic where your forces can be depleted to the point where units will flee the front line, but don’t expect to see that mentioned in the tutorial or, in fact, anywhere else.
Something about research?
Yes, research exists. It’s something like a tree in relationships, though good luck having that visualized for you. Instead, you’re presented with a list of types of research, and each specific research is shown with a very similar type of icon with very similar colors, and you have to mouse over them in order to see what they require and what they will provide.
Requirements are those resources at the top of the screen. When you engage in combat out in the world, you have a chance of finding/looting some of them, and each of them has a value in silver. You can effectively buy and sell any of them at any time as long as you’ve got the money – and the money is going to be the stumbling block.
Until you’re engaging in combat and assault of enemy towns on a regular basis, you can’t depend on receiving these resources in quantities notable enough to drive the research you’re going to need to do to keep up with your neighbors. Certain research affects trade value and can make purchase of materials for more research cheaper, but you’ll have to hover over a lot of icons before you figure that out.
While this technically counts as a research system, in that it gates content behind clicking buttons, and some of that content is dependent on other content, it doesn’t really reflect trying to discover new things in a way that makes sense and it appears that every kingdom has the same set of researches, so it’s not even as though you’re going to differentiate yourself through a different kind of unit on the field, no matter whether you are engaging in the Spanish Reconquista or shepherding forces across the Scottish swamps.
This is one of the places that the truly “early access” nature of this title jumps out at you. It’s clearly not done. Information presentation is messy, it’s hard to get the information you need to make reasonable decisions out, and like combat, it’s just bad.
Is there anything good about it?
It’s clearly a labor of love. If you look back at their previous game releases, MKW shares a lot of the same design, engineering, and gameplay as most of the stuff they’ve released. In fact, it appears that the models and animations have just been lifted wholesale. If nothing else, they’ve been committed to this kind of design.
Choosing the Hundred Years’ War as a setting was bold and they really should have made more of it. It’s a time with a lot of good choices in faction, map position, and flavor. You could do a lot with that. The overall design is ambitious. That their ambition outstrips their reach is sad but not something to count against them.
What’s the verdict?
Let’s break down pros and cons.
- The Hundred Years’ War setting is an inspired choice.
- That old-school early 2000’s experience which will run on a modern machine.
- It says it’s grand strategy.
- Real-time strategy aficionados who are looking for more Total War-style formation management have another dealer.
- Buying it supports a small, independent three man studio.
- The graphics aren’t just retro, they’re near-monochromatic and mushy.
- It’s not really grand strategy, being absent almost every announced grand strategy mechanism.
- The UI does a terrible job of actually conveying the ability and understanding of what’s going on and what you can do.
- Despite wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, all it seems to do is remind you that you could be playing a better game you remember fondly.
If you want proper Grand Strategy of the period, pick up Crusader Kings 2 and relish the province-level starts. If you want Total War-like mass RTS, pick up Empire: Total War or Rome 2. If you want to support indie strategy developers, check out BattleTech (who have a big publisher distributing them) or Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. Any of them will present a solid and comprehensive experience which does almost everything better than MKW and aren’t a secret early access title.