12 Games of Christmas: King’s Bounty

By Alec Meer on December 24th, 2008 at 4:53 pm.

That King Herod, eh? Mass killings of youngsters? Both a king and totally mental is highly biblical, if not Christmasy. I wonder if there’s a game anything like that?

For the tenth game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me…

Zombies a-marrying. It’s King’s Bounty: The Legend!

Once again I find myself flying the essay flag for one of our 12 games on my own: one of those Meerpinions you’ve been warned about. While I’m personally disappointed that the rest of the Hivemind chose to sit out this particular celebration, I can’t tell you how glad I am it’s made the list nonetheless – King’s Bounty is more important than many people realise, and not just because it’s so silly.

King’s Bounty is my personal game of the year. That doesn’t mean it’s the best – because I honestly don’t believe it is – but it’s what I’ve most enjoyed. I haven’t finished it, because it so absolutely goes for it during its first ten hours or so that it’s pretty much running on empty in the final chapters, locked into a (still very pretty and characterful) cycle of repetition and attrition that unhappily places it in the shoes of the stony-faced Heroes of Might and Magic games it otherwise so gloriously escaped from. It’s still my favourite game of the year.

I’ve said why, and I’m not going to say the same thing again. You know – the humour, the affectionate irreverence for high fantasy, the diligent focus on making as interesting a world as it can… You already know about the zombie wife, the war inside the belt and the guy with a frog fetish. I don’t need to repeat it.

Instead, what I want to talk about it is how this defies the expectations and stereotypes of Russian-made games – many of which are negative. Partly that’s unfair, but partly it’s because of the historical truth that Russian game development is a comparatively new endeavour. While it’s a happy side-effect of the former Soviet union’s changed and changing socio-political status, it does mean there isn’t some prior generation of experienced designers. Rather, it’s a nation (and several splinter nations) populated by incredibly enthusiastic PC gamers who, traditionally, lacked the knowledge and resource necessary to make something punched at the same weight as Western games. So they’ve been making it up as they go along. And that’s been the paradigm: all the right ideas, but a critical lack of polish and even understanding about fun and accessibility. It’s shifted a lot in the last couple of years – with the first (but not second – brrrr) STALKER leading that charge. Still, though, even that leading light was buggy and incoherent and stuffed with weird decisions or oversights – ultimately reliant on modders to become the champ it is today.

That isn’t the case with King’s Bounty. There’s no way of knowing it’s a Russian game until you look at the credits screen. Bar a so-so translation that’s only off to the extent that it adds a dreamlike feel to the text, this is as slick and stable as any game I’ve played this year. It’s complicated without being fussy, ambitious without trying to do things the engine and structure aren’t capable of, and almost absurdly pretty.

Most of all, it’s a PC game. Not a game that’s on PC – it’s a game made for PC, with an understanding of how the platform works, what kind of people use it and – astoundingly – of the sort of standardisation PC gaming urgently needs, the under-the-hood necessities that you don’t see in games with ten times the budget and resources.

Glance back at that list of 10 things all PC games should do from earlier in the year, and this is one game that’s present and correct for almost all of them, and even more I didn’t include. First time I ran, it defaulted to my screen’s native resolution. It stores three different quicksaves at any one time as well as an Autosave. Escape is the go-to key for everything Escape implies. There’s an option to auto-skip the intro video. The video settings are all transparently-described and intuitive. It alt-tabs beautiful. It even asked me where I wanted it to store my savegames when I installed it . This a small Russian studio making its first game, and it absolutely understands what people who game on PC need and expect. Moreoever, it’s gone to the effort of including that kind of stuff without sacrificing or compromising the game itself. If Katauri Interactive can get the technological structures of a PC game so, so right, anyone can. And, to employ that moronic line angry readers use whenever we print something they disagree with, shame on you, bigger developers. Shame on you.

But that its publishers had anywhere near the same intelligence and understanding. It’s not on Steam, it’s still not available at retail in Europe, and downloading it direct from 1C or over Gamersgate costs a laughable £40 in the current moneyageddon climate. So it’ll never make it past cult favourite, because it’s been apparently screwed by its own financiers. This could have been the next Sins of a Solar Empire, in terms of laser-guided focus on a passionate audience, but instead it’s been left to die. I’m depressed that I can’t in good faith tell half our readership to go out and buy it right now, because the UK download price is so absurd. Its plastic-boxen form hits in February, with the likes of Play.com offering it for around £25. You have to go buy it, if you have any love of strategy or of roleplaying, and most especially of PC gaming. But you won’t, because it’s still not cheap enough and it’s too far after the fact. Americans, however, have no such excuse.

If this can find a profitable enough audience, King’s Bounty is the future of PC gaming. Stop staring in horror at all those dying MMOs and mendacious, mercenary big devs fleeing for console shores. They’re no loss whatsoever. What we have here is great ideas supported by solid game-making – a new breed of developers freed from the cheerless, focus group-governed rules and oversights of most Western publishers, but now able to pair that with experience and expertise. The Russian scene is about to become absolutely phenomenal, and this charming, thoughtful hybrid is the herald of that new age.

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43 Comments »

  1. Larington says:

    Hopefully I’ll have some spare time to grab it and play it in Feb, from what you’ve said about the way the games been built, this sounds like a lesson in good game design of the highest order.

    Can’t actually place an order yet, but play.com does handily allow you to chuck your e-mail address in so you get a notification when its available for ordering.
    http://www.play.com/Games/PC/4-/6073144/-/Product.html?searchstring=Kings+Bounty&searchsource=0

  2. roBurky says:

    I still don’t understand what this game is.

  3. pkt-zer0 says:

    Ease of moddability is also a good PC-game feature. The game is basically a bunch of zipped text files, so the things the community have managed to add on are quite nice. For instance, calculating the bonuses you’ll receive on subsequent level ups and displaying them in a popup, so you can plan for it. Or displaying all three levels of a spell/skill, so you know what you’re upgrading towards.

    Also, it’s not the first game the Katauri guys make, just the first game they make under the name Katauri. They’re the folks behind the Space Rangers series.

    Anyhow, my excuse for not getting the game (even though it only costs the equivalent of 25$ here) is the expansion pack. Gonna grab both of them together when they’re available bundled.

    If I can last that long without KBtL’s awesomeness, that is.

  4. DeliriumWartner says:

    I’ve been looking at buying this, but £31 is a lot this time of year, with the euro being so bad. Is there anywhere I can get it for less, or in British pound form?

  5. Jeremy says:

    @roBurky, that’s the beauty of it, the game is madness. I never knew Necromancers, Priests, Orcs, Werewolf Elves and Dragons could all comprise a single army. Genius. As an American I can assuredly say, go buy this game, on the cheap, and on the quick.

  6. Jim Rossignol says:

    Rob: it’s a real-time-yet-abstract RPG world, with turn-based battles. Like a JRPG or something, but in the Western tradition of the HOMM games.

  7. Heliocentric says:

    The temptation to steal this game by the tentacle like fibres of the internet is strong. But instead i’ll wait out and hopefully be rewarded with an impulse or steam release.

    But i will play the demo lots!

  8. RichP says:

    What a damn shame that King’s Bounty isn’t available on Steam or Impulse. After my miserable experience buying and installing Civ3 through Direct2Drive, I won’t use that service again. Anyone tried GamersGate?

  9. Cooper42 says:

    I get the feeling I’ll love this game. It looks and sounds like it’ll be wonderfuuly silly – a bit of knowing irreverance in an RPG is exactly what I need having recently played, for the first time, the sumptuous but occasionally po-faced Oblivion…

    Would RPS kindly add a note in their calander to remind us to go spend money when it gets released?

  10. Kua says:

    Any article discussing Russian games, should mention Debrysis. Wow, its good.

  11. Grey_Ghost says:

    I am an American Capitalist, where exactly is this game found on the cheap for one such as myself? 8P

  12. BonSequitur says:

    I haven’t bought Bounty through GamersGate, but I can say that while the GG downloader is a bit of an unnecessary hassle, (GoG is the only distribution platform so far that seems to have gotten it right on all levels), GG is DRM-free and works fine for me.

  13. qrter says:

    I wholly underwrite mr. Meer’s words on this game except.. I got really bored with the game, about half-way through. The gameplay became really repetitive, I found.

  14. Switchbreak says:

    I saw a stack of like 50 copies of this game in a retail store the other day. It may be completely borked for availability online, but it looks like it is doing okay in the shops, at least here in the US.

  15. nabeel says:

    Great piece, Alec. I still haven’t tried the game yet but I have respect for developers who make PC games for PC gamers in this day of deserters, and will check it out at some point.

  16. mist says:

    I bought it through GamersGate, downloaded/installed without any hassle, really enjoyed my first ~30 hours on the game, but then the quests seemed to get a bit less silly..

    ..and L4D was released.

    So yeah, I’ve yet to finish it, but I still feel the game was worth the money. It was quite a special experience.

    Btw, about the game not being available in Europe.. I saw 2 copies in a dutch video-game store today (held one in my hands, in fact.)

  17. mejobloggs says:

    Has this game got multiplayer?

  18. MetalCircus says:

    This is also one of my games o’ the year. Definately stands tall against some of the mainstream western efforts – good job kings bounty!

  19. ShaunCG says:

    I bought this a few weeks back and was absolutely hooked for 15-20 hours. After that, I tired quickly – perhaps thanks to the similarities to the HOMM series which I really think are more substantial than you let on. In a lot of ways this is a pastiche of the po-faced HOMM series. Still, I’ve enjoyed it a lot more than I did HOMM 4 or 5 (3 was my introduction to the series and won’t be beat easily – but I did play 4 and 5 a lot all the same). I’ll certainly be returning to it, and it’ll take a lot to pull my attention back to the series it cheekily mirrors.

  20. subedii says:

    Wait, GamersGate is DRM free? Like GoG? As in I can re-install whenever I want without using the service again or going online?

    Because I’ve been waiting for this to come out in stores so I can get the disc version (I’ll be honest, I don’t have too much faith in a relatively small organisation like GG during recession time), but if the GG version is DRM free that changes everything.

  21. Dan says:

    I think you can only download and install from your account, but after that it doesn’t require the installer or any other software to be active to play the game.

    As for King’s Bounty, it’s probably my favourite game this year. Thanks for writing about it Alec!

  22. subedii says:

    Hmm, the GamersGate website had this to say:

    Can I download the game on my office PC and install it on my home PC which does not have an internet connection?

    NO. An internet connection is needed to install the games.

    Whilst this is admittedly a similar system to what Steam uses, I think I’ll just wait until it hits the stores.

  23. Orange says:

    It’s a superb game, just the sort of lengthy and detailed game you only see on a PC. I have to admit like some others I didn’t finish it, but the enjoyable hours I sunk into it outweigh every other single player game I experienced this year.

  24. wcaypahwat says:

    @shauncg

    I believe the HOMM series was spawned from the orginal kings bounty. I have many fond memories of this game from my childhood/386 days. And dark memories of its draconian DRM.

  25. Meat Circus says:

    King’s Bounty: Do love this thing. Thanks, Meer. THEER.

  26. Xercies says:

    I’ve played the demo of this and will be definitely getting it in February when it comes out.

    It seems Russia is the hope for the PC Gamer, I’m starting to love eastern games and starting to hate western games now a days. Even the first STALKER was great and The Witcher was also great. Can’t wait for Crystasis and Metro 2033 has me intrigued.

  27. Severian says:

    easily one of my favorite gaming experiences of 2008. for those who have not yet played: make sure to play on “Hard” difficulty level and not “Normal” or “Easy”. i found that that added a great deal to its strategic (tactical) appeal and longevity. it seems odd that a game consisting almost entirely of series of turn-based tactical battles (literally, hundreds) would be so much fun, but it is. choosing just the right combination of monsters, spells, items, and skills to defeat your enemies is fantastically addictive. Towards the end of the game (Haas’ labyrinth and beyond), you really have to weigh your decisions in each battle carefully. this is a game where it is actually possible to fail (waste too much gold, run out of strong units), adding a tension to the game that most RPG’s lack. loved it in all its absurdity. although i did feel guilty dumping the frog-princess for a demoness bride, after all the blood and guts we went through together.

  28. Gap Gen says:

    All those childer to slay, and so little time.

  29. Po0py says:

    I might get it in Febuary if I see a cheapish price. £25 would be acceptable, imho, if the game is as good as people say it is. But given that it is kinda late; so late, in fact that you would be expecting the devs to announce an expansion for around that time, it would be easy to spend your money on certain other pc games that are slated for Febuary/March period.

  30. Frank says:

    Best game of the year? Best game ever! It has an audience in Russia, so an expansion’s on the way.

  31. Swabbleflange says:

    I too am only holding out on this for want of a physical copy or an appearance on Steam or Impulse. If it doesn’t show up soon I may have to give in and try the Gamersgate option though.

  32. Bertrand says:

    Hi
    About the release and “it’s still not available at retail in Europe”. King’s Bounty has been released in France since november (and probably in Germany too) and the game has so far won an award (silver “medal” on Cyberstratege 2008 best strategy games of the year ; you may see it there).

  33. jalf says:

    I saw it in a store here in Denmark a few days before Christmas. I didn’t buy it because I was busy panicking over all the presents I needed to buy, but if I remember which store I saw it in, I plan to buy it very soon.

  34. Funky Badger says:

    Xercies: Witcher = Polish != Russian

  35. Ian says:

    I still have to get this. Perhaps the early months of 09 will allow me the chance to do so.

  36. Irvin says:

    Hi ya all,

    Im playing this game for 8th time I think (Last 3 times on impossible difficulty mode), and I have to admit that I dont have all the time in the world for games…

    This game is just playable, you dont have to do the quest or read the storyline, combat and tactics is what hooks you to it. Fallout2 was the only game I played 10 times through, this one is getting pretty damn close…

    I live in Bosnia, thats not even in Europe! :D If I could get, anyone who wants to can!

    Cheers

  37. Deepo says:

    This is now 50% off on Gamersgate, so go buy it if you haven’t already! :)

  38. axxis says:

    What most fail to understand that this is really a REMAKE of the old 90′s title: Kings Bounty… the game that the HOMM franchise was born from. So ofcourse the similarities with HOMM is there!

    Try the old Kings Bounty (dos game, 600-900Kb “big”) then play Kings Bounty: The Legend and see how much of the original they actually kept (atleast the spirit :))

    And about the downloading from GG… works like a charm, that where I got the game.

  39. Jim Rossignol says:

    I think “remake” is a bit strong. It was called Battle Lord before they appropriated the KB name.

  40. Dave says:

    I bought this game shortly after it came out in the States and I say that it is a great little game. The animations are wonderful. I love the Spirits of Rage animations, especially the Grim Reaper ones.

    I do have the occasional CTD. But most of the time, they are not replicatable.

  41. Psychopomp says:

    Why in the name of hell would you spam a 6 month old article?

  42. Muzman says:

    ’cause he’s a bot, dude. Doesn’t care what page he turns up.

  43. ogeday says:

    hello…………………………………….