When Legends Fade: A Farewell To King’s Bounty

By Alec Meer on February 13th, 2009 at 5:23 pm.

I’m amazed that it took me so long to realise how I should really be spending the three weeks I recently spent offline thanks to a feckless ISP. Reading, walking, meeting exciting new people? Nah. Finally finishing King’s Bounty, my favourite game of 2008, but one that proved so long and so sadly short on its early hyper-enthusiasm in its later hours that I’d had to put it down long before its conclusion. If you wonder why I was quite so keen on this Vladivostok-developed RPG-strategy underdog, I’d much rather point you here, here and here than summarise myself again. Oh – it’s finally on sale at retail in the UK by the way, so you needn’t fret about the unreasonable Euro pricing for the download versions anymore.

Below is a slightly maudlin account of my final days with King’s Bounty – it includes spoilers of a sort, not that I can believe anyone was really in this game for its cheerfully incoherent plot.

With no access to Steam thanks to an offline mode balls-up and most of my boxed games in storage, my gaming options were minimal. Times were desperate. A few days ago, however, I had something of a facepalm moment when I remembered my PC had another Windows installation on a second hard drive, and one that was loaded up with non-Steam games. Including King’s Bounty, and that cliffhung savegame of mine. Back I must go.

I’d left off in Demonis, King’s Bounty’s visually fun but otherwise dull demon realm. It’s a world of floating rock lifts over lava rivers, of Succubi able to charm away opposing armies, of fireball-hurling imps and of spiders that were just like the non-demon spiders but a different colour. I’d run into King’s Bounty’s major failing – that enemies in a new area always seemed way beyond your own army’s abilities, offering you the miserable choice of a sound beating or tiresome backtracking around all the sidequests you hadn’t yet completed to earn some more precious XP. KB is a nearly-game, its great accomplishments usually deflecting its more unfortunate design choices. That occasionally it’s too much like wandering your World of Warcraft twink into an area that’s far too high-level for him is a mishap that gets harder to ignore as the game wears on.

By this stage, I’m quite attached to my army. I’ve found a few favourites amongst KB’s impressive selection of weird’n’wonderful beasties. Fairies, solely because I can field several thousand at once (and also panic/cheer when hundreds die in a single attack). Ancient Ents, stupidly slow but stupidly powerful – most especially with their long-range wasp attack. Killing demons by throwing wasps at them will always be funny. The Dwarf Alchemists, with their trio of specialist poisons, each super-punishing against particular enemies. Necromancers, able to turn any fallen units into a chattering skeleton, pustulent zombie or wailing ghostie fighting for Team Alec. And, boringly, a few human Knights, cos they’re pretty good at thumping stuff.

I was proud of Team Alec, and I’d worked out a just-so first round order of attack that was often pretty devastating. Team Alec, unfortunately, was almost entirely wiped out after just a couple of fights in Demonis. See you, chaps. I replenished my supplies with randoms from Demonis’ own plentiful army stores, and back to war I went. So it continued, a pattern of grinding through slightly too difficult fights that generally involved losing most of my guys in the process. While I was progressing, I felt guilty about it – at this stage of the game, my fights should be as much about minimising casualties as dishing out damage. Instead, I’d become the worst, most callous kind of general, treating my poor troops as disposable sacrifices. I could perhaps call it noble utilitarianism, but at this point I wasn’t aware it was all leading up to saving the world of Endoria. It was just about me earning gold and xp.

I crawled across Demonis, leaving a trail of my followers’ corpses in my wake. I bought up the entire realm’s stock of Succubi, Imps, Cerberuses and Archdemons, which surely put a crimp in the demons’ plans to invade the Dwarfs. I flirted with a demon princess – but, by this point, encountering some fantasy female who fell for me on sight in every new zone I wandered through was a foregone conclusion. I stole dragon eggs for a satanic collector of rare species. Other than that, the merry madness that so endeared to the game for its first dozen-odd hours was entirely absent.

This doesn’t stop from recommending the game to anyone: it’s truly great for long enough to justify the purchase. Even once the ideas have run out, it slowly blossoms into something more tactical than before. Rapidly running out of money due to my constant need to reinforce, I instead concentrated on playing better. My spell choices were no longer simply a matter of which I had enough mana for, or which would deal out the most damage most quickly, but of arranging elaborate complementary combos. Nullify rather than attack the most dangerous enemies, calculate common units’ greatest weaknesses, and even stuff as simple but crucial as arranging various obstacles between serious threats and my frail back-row support troops. Dropping a piece of rock onto a couple of hexes is hardly spectacular, but if that phalanx of 300 demons has to smash through it to move forwards, that’s one turn in which they can’t thump some of my guys to death.

In other words, I wasn’t having quite as much fun as before, but I become an awful lot better at the game. Its difficulty is a black mark against the gme, but it became increasingly clear that it’s not simply a case of Katauri Interactive being big meanies. Rather it’s that they’ve made a game that’s a whole lot more tactical than the cheerful, superdeformed art style implies. With my strategy hat on at last, I still lost of lot of good men, but generally I’d come out the other end of a fight with the bulk of my army still on their feet. I discovered recently that the British army had almost no concept of frontline medicine or barracks hygiene until the First World War. Even as late as the Crimean War, vastly more men died as a result of disease and malnutrition than did those on the battlefield. Basic ventilation and sanitation more or less ushered away the typhus and cholera that had gone hand in hand with warfare. Late in the game, I’d had a similar revelation – a few astoundingly logical changes meant far fewer meaningless deaths. I was, at last, a worthy general.

It remained a slog. Following Demonis was Haas’ Labyrinth, a lazy hotch-potch of earlier zones crammed into an irritating teleportational maze structure, and patrolled by viciously tough dragon armies. It’s about here that my plan to simply play better falls apart, and what’s more there’s finally an admission, of sorts, that the balance is off. The Labyrinth is inexplicably full of army shops, which doesn’t make any sense even by KB’s agreeably broken logic. Do the dragons who rule this maze want to be slayed? So it becomes this constant killing and shopping cycle, and it’s not long before I’m actively praying for the game to end. The ideas are long gone, lost to a lonely, MMO-like grind.

I can barely remember the next day of playing. After many hours in dragon-maze I stumbled into a small orcish kingdom, reliably patrolled by armies just a little bit too tough. Somehow I pushed through. Somehow I made it to the first new visual idea this once splendid game had offered for hours. A giant orc and his giant spaceship. Of course, there was a fight, but sadly against Just Some Orcs rather than the jolly green giant there. My reward? The following-up of an earlier reference that I’d hoped was just a one-shot gag. Endoria is a land atop a giant star-turtle. I’ve said before that King’s Bounty is in many ways a paradigm of PC gaming, one that harkens back to the old ways, before Doom changed everything. A gratuitous Discworld reference only compounds that, I guess, but it seemed such a sad resolution after the earlier humour of zombie wives and frog-fetishists.

The final fight was fought atop the star turtle’s scaly head, in theory against some ultimate dragon with indistinct plans of Armageddon. In practice, it was a simply a battle against a lot of dragons – no boss fight, no epic final encounter, just a hard, hard slog. It was, admittedly, the toughest battle of the game, with a sense of high stakes. I had to attempt it some five times until, finally, the battlefield came down to one enemy Ogre and one enemy Ent. All my troops had been wiped out long before, but I’d eked out the Mana and Rage enough to summon a few temporary warriors. A single skeletal dragon raised from a fallen enemy Red and the usual useless Ice Orb were all I had. For turn after turn, I had them either deal out pitiful amounts of damage or scarper around the screen until enough mana had recharged to cast the Necromancer spell again. It was David vs Goliath, only Goliath’s forehead was made of steel and David was a coward. My feeble slingshot wore the brute down with agonising slowness; should he ever connect with my tiny frame, it would all be over.

It was relief, not joy, that I felt when that last Ent finally toppled. I’d saved the world, but all I cared about was that I didn’t have to see that colourful screen full of hexes again. Now I’m away from it, I miss it terribly, and my brain seems to have blocked out the trauma of those last few days, leaving me with the memories of that first glorious week with King’s Bounty. Even if a relationship might eventually become loveless, the good times of its earlier days aren’t invalidated. It’s still my favourite game of last year, but the same can’t be said for the bits of it I played this year.
Really, King’s Bounty should be half the length it is; even after a good 60 or 80 hours with it, I still had sidequests left unfinished. The pirate, elven and undead realms could be excised entirely and it’d be a better game for it, surely far more able to sustain its early good ideas through to the end.

So my feelings about upcoming expansion Armoured Princess are decidedly mixed. It’s an opportunity to make a leaner, better-balanced game, hopefully replacing its parent’s bloat with focus. There’s also the terrible chance it’ll make similar mistakes to STALKER: Clear Sky – a loss of quality control in the name of rapid fan service. If I’m to revisit Endoria, it’s because I want to be entertained, not because I want to fight a thousand more battles.

, , .

32 Comments »

  1. Meat Circus says:

    Didn’t you get a bit tired of the repetitive nature of the battles after a while? I loved this game for the first ten hours or so, but after a while, I found ennui setting in.

    There are just too many battles of exactly the same kind. Far fewer, bigger battles are what was wanted.

    Also, the game’s unbalanced difficulty makes this situation even worse.

  2. Ian says:

    This was, in a sense, fairly sad to read after all the gleeful bonkers-ness spoken of in previous articles. It’s important though. It would have been very easy for me to go wading expecting nothing but laughs, mental anecdotes to my gaming friends who haven’t played it and good times all around.

    I still want to play it, but for this article I’d probably have ended up a bit more disappointed.

  3. James G says:

    A good example of why more isn’t always better I think. I’ve actually noticed it with all too many games, I reach a point at which I just think, “Lets finish this.” I think part of it is my desire to explore every nook and crannie, take every side quest, that the ending becomes something I choose to reach, rather than something that hits me. Given this, RPGs suffer more harshly than most.

    I’m playing Aquaria at the moment, and while its not an RPG, it has a huge exploration/non-linear element. Thankfully it is also very good at introducing new elements, so the constant provision of new abilities, and different environments, prevents things from becoming stale. However some games seem content to throw more of the same at you, just making the enemies take more shots, and the explosions larger.

  4. D says:

    I wonder if it’ll change the ads to the “purchase a foreign bride” variety if i utter the word: Russian. Luckily it’s somewhat relevant.

    I’m looking forward to reading the post, my experience with Kings Bounty was also a shortlived one.

  5. Funky Badger says:

    It you’d had stacks of phontomised Emerald Green Dragons it would all have been so, so different.

    Oh yes.

  6. Novaprae says:

    I think it’s a bit silly to criticize a game for being too long. I’d rather have a game that takes two months to finish than one I can complete two days if they cost the same, especially so if the game has no multiplayer.

    If you really want to see the story though to the end but are sick of the combat, 80% of the content is optional (not part of the main storyline) and there are cheat codes. Really though, the story is just there to facilitate the main focus of the game, which is the combat.

    King’s Bounty is a tactical RPG. The fun in the game comes from using magic, rage spirits, units and terrain to take on armies tougher than yours while minimizing casualties; most battles can be won with few to no losses. If you don’t enjoy that kind of gameplay, then it simply isn’t to your tastes, it doesn’t necessarily make the game flawed because it has too much of that gameplay. I’ve already started a second playthough with a different class because I want more combat (and be forced to rely more on rage than magic).

    The only game I’ve found myself asking “When will this end?” is Portal. Even though it only took 6 hours to complete and thought it was great overall, I found the “behind the scenes” part dragged on and one of the game’s charms (GLaDOS’ quips) had been reduced to random, canned clips.

  7. Jeremy says:

    I must have had much better luck through this game, although I am a bit of a completion whore, so my armies were usually adequately leveled as they needed to be. I also realized that “impossible” or whatever hardest encounters were called, weren’t actually impossible but just required a bit more planning out and swapping of units (I was also ripping through units in a quick fashion before this). Black dragons were probably my favorite unit, laying a path of destruction on multiple enemies without the fear of a counter-attack is pretty substantial.

    I actually felt that the game ended rather suddenly, with a lot of interest and preparation going into the first few areas and then a sudden and abrupt end with the next sections having a rather quick problem/resolution storyline. The orc land was more of a gauntlet without any real story attached to it, a way to level up before the final battle. That final battle was rather difficult and I thought I had all but lost it, but then, one by one, all the dragon armies just started dropping.

    For anyone who hasn’t played yet, I would recommend the extra xp ability. Most games I would never recommend an experience ability, but you’re actually limited in encounters to build up your levels by the end of the game, and there isn’t a level cap that I know about.

  8. Funky Badger says:

    Phantomised, that is.

  9. Pags says:

    Quick question, but an important one, especially considering the enormous wordthink Kieron posted: having finished the game now, would it affect your PCG score in any way?

  10. Flakfizer says:

    So what’s the story with DRM for the new UK retail release? Is this still using Securom?

  11. Still annoyed says:

    I only really lost substantial amounts of troops in the beginning of the game. Minimizing casualties was always my main goal, and I found lots of clever strategies to achieve that – the mirror spell, for instance.

    Also, the useless ice orb? It’s great! But only if you use it properly. Like the horsemen, the amount of damage it deals depends on how far it moves before an attack. So if you can make it move across the entire battlefield, it will deal massive amounts of damage when it hits. That’s how I took out the obelisk in that necromancer’s castle.

  12. Bhazor says:

    “Now I’m away from it, I miss it terribly, and my brain seems to have blocked out the trauma of those last few days, leaving me with the memories of that first glorious week”

    Nostalgia in a nut shell, exactly how I felt reading the Bloodlines love-in a few days ago.

  13. Novaprae says:

    The ice orb is also great as a damage magnet, as the enemy prioritizes attacking nearby summoned units first. Summoned units, walls, and traps are crucial in defeating large melee armies, as they give you time to whittle them down with impunity.

  14. Lucas says:

    I feel much the same about KB. The first couple hours of combat are very slow, but then it picks up quickly and gets better and better until around the midpoint of the game. Now I think I’m just a bit before the area where this article starts (just cleared the Elf continent Land of the Dead, didn’t open the big gate yet), and having cleared everything up to this point, with 85 hours on the clock, I can’t find the will to keep playing.

    I find it hard to believe Alec was really low on money unless he was playing on harder than normal difficulty. Money is more a scoring measure than a resource in KB. I’ve bought every upgradeable artifact and have 3+ million gold and most of the scrolls I’ve collected. I also didn’t spend a lot on replacing lost troops though, using resurrect and sacrifice frequently to keep my numbers up. Probably the troops, items, and spells you have access to make a difference here, as it’s randomized every game (along with the enemy stacks).

    The late game attrition definitely wears you down. The sheer number of battles is too many. Fewer tougher ones would be better, and IMHO KB would be a better game if it were shorter and better paced. I’d rather have played through it 3 times to use all the main characters and different armies and strategies. Changing up your forces when you get stuck or slowed down helps keep it fresh, but it’s really hard to abandon a set you love (my Emerald Dragons, Horsemen, Hunters, Orc Shaman, and Inquisitors).

    I frequently wondered if my completionist play style was hurting the game, by killing every enemy and doing every quest, as the scoreboard prioritizes time and lower finishing level quite strongly. Perhaps skipping as much as possible and fighting only the toughest battles you can manage would liven it up, and being under-leveled rather than overpowering should give a lot more experience. There is an auto-battle button for trivial fights, but you’d still have to sit through them.

    I think forcing myself to finish games is a bad habit but some day I may finally polish it off. Even a great game can go on too long. I’d also rather see Katurai do something new again than more KB, but who knows, maybe they’ll perfect it.

  15. Robin says:

    Interesting. It seems you approached army management quite differently to me. (My basic strategy being having one stack with loads of health and defence – such as Ogres or Ents – and basically buy in anything else decent I could afford until everyone was clobbered, by which time I hopefully had enough loot to finance a new army.)

    Once your equipment and rage spirits are levelled up enough I found you could generally wade into ‘Very Strong’ and ‘Overwhelming’ battles and expect to at least survive.

    The only place I had difficulty in the second half of the game was one of the incarnations of the evil dragon dude, who had 50(!) ogres in his army. I just managed to squeak through by selling everything in my inventory and finding out that Ancient Ents were able to wreck their shit with wasps before they got too close.

    My game involved rather a lot of Benny Hill chases in the Labyrinth and the (rather barren) last continent.

    I also found the last battle came down to one unit per side. I wonder if it fiddles the dice rolls or something to make it more dramatic.

    I accidentally completed the whole game (including every subquest, although I failed a few early on before I knew what I was doing) in ~40 hours on normal difficulty. I can’t imagine doing that for Oblivion, Fallout 3 or Stalker, but then in those games most of the side quests were actually optional rather than the only way to get enough cash to stand a chance of progressing.

    The game is does go on too long, or at least, there’s not enough genuine variety in the last few continents. The land of the dead was very poor (even the graphics were noticably worse than the other areas) and required too much back-and-forth (perhaps the shops in my game were dealt an unusually bad hand there), and the orc land didn’t have any quests in it. It’s very frontloaded.

    As for the whole repetitivity issue, I found that (as with Card Fighters Clash, HOMM, Advance Wars, JRPGs, etc.) unleashing particularly powerful/effective/cathartic attacks (such as Polar Bears vs. Mages, Knights vs. Dragons, Giants vs. everybody and the Reaper’s Black Hole of Fuckest Uppest) never got old.

  16. Matthew says:

    @ Novaprae – ‘I think it’s a bit silly to criticize a game for being too long‘ – quantity is not always quality, though.

  17. Novaprae says:

    @ Matthew – I agree that the later levels don’t have the same amount of detail put into them as the starting levels, particularly in the number of optional quests available (the first continent gives you more side quests then the others combined).

    I was more responding to the complaint that there is too much combat when combat is the main point of the game. I’d argue that the combat is actually better later in the game; not only are the battles more challenging, but you also have a lot more options yourself in terms of unit and spell variety, instead of “throw your melee units at their melee units”.

    Take Left 4 Dead for example, one of the main complaints about it is that it is too short. When (not if) Valve adds more campaigns no one is going to say “I’m sick of killing zombies over and over”, because that’s what Left 4 Dead is about.

  18. Rhygadon says:

    About 2/3 of the way through the game (having come back after a month’s break at 1/2 through), I’m definitely having some of the same rinse-and-repeat feeling. I think one factor that goes a long way to explaining this is that, during any given play segment, you’re likely to fight almost all of your battles with the same army. You have only one hero, and switching armies (unless you’re near a few big castles) is too tedious. The two “reserve armies” help, but still, there’s only so much variety you can get when every fight involves the same hero and mostly the same troops. (Plus of course, the relative homogeneity of enemy types in any one area.)
    To some extend, I blame the Spirits of Rage as well — they’re great fun, but the leveling mechanism encourages you to play out every little fight to make sure all your boys get their hits in. I hope the new pet mechanic in the expansion (replacing Rage) makes it more viable to skip or autocomplete all the little battles with armies below your level …

  19. Orange says:

    My thoughts match up with Alec’s, although I gave up in the Elven lands, so a long way short of the ending. Looks like there’s little point in me going back.

    I remember a Russian gamer saying the best thing about KB was a random map mod rather than the original game. I can understand that now.

  20. flo says:

    o.k., on what difficulty did you play?
    I really enjoyed this game, and although ofc I had to reinforce, as I made sure to complete almost all side quests, and pick up everything, I could never even begin to deplete my amount of gold, it just kept growing and growing. I don’t want to comment on everything you said, but I for one was really glad about the armor shops in the dragons labyrinth … this saved me quite a lot of running.

  21. Severian says:

    I think I said it before and I’ll say it again: I loved this game. The tactical battles didn’t get stale for me (well, maybe a tad in the midst of Haas’ Labyrinth), the difficult was scaled perfectly, and the item/skill/spell maximization calculations were disturbingly addictive. I played it through on the “Hard” difficulty setting, and felt that this was actually necessary to make gold-management meaningful. However, along with a couple of the other commenters above, I was pretty obsessive about completing side-quests (it took me over 100 game-days to finish the game) so I leveled up consistently and rarely ran into a brick wall. It DID happen a couple times, and I thrived on the challenge on figuring out better strategies in combat, as Alec describes.

    Could it have been shorter? Maybe. Could the ending have been more fulfilling? Possibly. But that’s like asking whether methamphetamine *could* ware off a bit sooner, or not have such a nasty after-effect. Addiction is what it is, and you gotta accept the good with the bad. This game was gamer’s crack, in the best possible way. More pleaze.

  22. Al3xand3r says:

    I don’t think the finishing areas were that drawn out. You should have had a few dragons yourself, they made things much easier like someone else said already, and there are plenty of opportunities to recruit them. Just not bone dragons, they die too easy, those wimps. I don’t even remember any large dragon maze area like you mention so it can’t have been that annoying or drawn out, I just recall some caves with wandering dragon parties in them, several of which could be avoided (but of course I didn’t).

    Also, the game is more fun if you do make changes to your party rather than get attached to a few types you like. Of course, the troops you can buy from the starting kingdom are always useful as you get access to better types as you progress.

    And I agree in that it’s a lot like a single-player optimised MMO, but only their good parts imo.

    Discworld didn’t invent the whole turtle deal, it’s the belief of many older religions. So, I don’t think it was a discworld gag, and it was quite funny to see the words of what you thought was just a funny side-quest guy’s random crazy words be actually real. The last fight was quite underwhelming though.

    It had many other funny moments too, like the giant whale swallowing you, or the interaction with the orc shaman throughout various different areas.

    I found the dwarf mines a little tedious actually, but that was more because I wanted to do all the quests in there and it seemed hard to orientate myself and get back to whoever it was that gave me the quests or whatever.

    All in all it was very enjoyable all the way through and I can’t wait to see what the expansion brings to the table. Hopefully a more informative mini map which will show you where the quest giver was/is after you have done his task.

  23. Al3xand3r says:

    Also, I think all areas were almost equally well crafted. Perhaps more barren in terms of side quests for some, but hey, it makes sense when they’re basically enemy lairs, as entertaining as the demon quests were.

  24. Al3xand3r says:

    This is my noob review of the game, which I only wrote after I completed it, after playing nonstop for days (proven by my screenshots which show some of the later areas :P)

    http://www.gamecyte.com/review-kings-bounty-the-legend

  25. Benjamin_Barker says:

    Summoning (including the phantom spell), missile attacks, and increasing initiative as much as possible got me through it with an army needing little replenishment in the last half of the game. Whenever there’s a way to hit and not get hit, use it. So also: the elven units like fairies and sprites (or whatever the other floating ladies were) that don’t get counterattacked. I was always casting phantom on my fairies.

    I personally hope Katauri Interactive keep erring on the side of making their games too long. I did feel some of the ennui, but that feeling of “all you want… and more” is far better than the alternative, especially these days when good tactical games are so rare.

  26. Eebahgum says:

    Well I preordered my copy from Game ages ago. Supposed to have been released yesterday, still hasn’t even been dispatched?

  27. Frank says:

    Well, if you’re in it for the tactics, the game is incredibly well “balanced” in the sense that there’s no dominant strategy, it never becomes too easy and new enemy arrangements are always on offer. I actually liked the main story on its own merits. Some side quests may have been goofy, but they were almost all tied into the main quest, which is cool I say.

  28. Namos says:

    I find it interesting that none of the comments seem to address the issue of troop morale. I guess it isn’t that balanced, if so many players don’t care a whit for it.

  29. Taillefer says:

    Well, I took morale into consideration.
    I found it best to adapt my armies to the surroundings, so there was no backtracking to other lands to reinforce troops, and having mostly one race gets you the morale bonuses.

    I found myself relying on magic more and more and started regretting not getting the skills to improve it earlier. My main spell combo for a long time was hypnotising the enemy troops, then using sacrifice on them to reinforce my own numbers. It was also lots of fun to create phantoms of big dryad stacks, which in turn create big stacks of plants, which in turn create more plants from corpses, then those plants do the same….and so on, and so on. Urgh, plant death!

  30. qrter says:

    I pretty much stopped playing around the piratey bits – and at that moment I already was very weary of the game.

    It’s a fantastic game but too repetitive.

    I was more responding to the complaint that there is too much combat when combat is the main point of the game.

    So what you’re saying is that the game is supposed to put players off by having too much combat..?

    Just because something is a combat game doesn’t mean it can’t have enough combat, there’s always a balance.

  31. Von Graff says:

    Whether or not there is too much combat is subjective; you might have gotten weary less then halfway into the game but I didn’t. I played happily though the entire game and if I didn’t feel like playing at a particular moment I played something else.

    If there is such a balance between “too short” and “too long” I’d rather have my games err on the side of too long.

  32. Jean-François says:

    Hi, I just finish the game last night and i must tell you..It a good game but the last fight was to easy,,let me explain,,,all i did all the way to the end is (1-bost my intellect 2-get armageddon and resurect et voila)
    de last fight, first round armageddon armageddon and it was over,, i was level 28 with 40 intellect total