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12 Games of Christmas: King's Bounty

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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Who am I?

Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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