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Premature Evaluation: For The King

Let's talk about hex (based games)

Every Monday we order Brendan to examine the early access entrails for signs of coming chaos. This week, the guts tell of a magical and old-fashioned RPG called For The King [official site] with strange rougelike properties...

Death comes easily to the intrepid hex explorer. If you’re lucky, you’ll just get a quick bandit axe in the forehead. But if you’re like me, only the most scurrilous death will do. In a poison bog surrounded by old swamp hags, for example. Or deep underground at the hands of deranged cultists and their bat minions. These are just some of the ways you can (will) die in For The King, a shiny and modern-looking RPG that nevertheless retains a good and ancient heart. And by that I mean it has absolutely no qualms about murdering you.

It’s old-fashioned for a number of reasons. The battles are turn-based 3v3 jab-fests and it’s all centered on travels across a hex-based map. You pick three party members at the start, whose classes you can choose and appearance you can stylise to a very limited degree. The blacksmith has a smashy hammer and can stun enemies, for instance. The hunter has a bow and a bonus against flying perps like bats, as well as being better at sneaking on the world map (more on this later).

I began my first and ill-fated misadventure with one of these hunters, to whom I granted a white beard and the name Old Lars. He was accompanied by a Minstrel called Sally McWrecker, who damaged her enemies by playing pleasant music at them, and a Scholar named Mr Paulson, who attacked things by reading from a book I can only presume was so boring it physically hurt anyone who listened.

There’s a mandatory plotline involving the King’s recent assassination and the Queen’s attempts to discover the truth. Off you go to wherever she sends you along this questline, where you discover that the game is really a race against a force called Chaos. This increases with every passing day, adding skulls to a little Chaos meter above the map. They also seemed to pop up when party members died, though it’s hard to say if that was the cause or just coincidence. The exact pattern and reasons for the advance of human headbones isn’t very well explained. Nevertheless, the skulls can be set back by completing the Queen’s questlines, making it feel like an XCOM-style race against encroaching bad things. Higher levels of Chaos cause weird things to come and hinder your progress. After a few skulls were added to the map a "hangman" began to haunt my heroes, who became assaulted by surprise ghosts wherever they walked.

To complicate things, there is also a day and night cycle, with more dangerous and numerous enemies popping up when the sun goes down. You move around the map turn by turn, each party member moving independently. If one of your little reprobates gets into a disagreement with a giant bee or dancing imp, the others will only join if they are in range of the fight – generally speaking, this means within two or three hexes. But the same applies to nearby foes. They’ll come to the bee’s aid if they live within the blood-red range of hexes of their own pal. As far as I experienced it though, you can’t fight more than three baddies at a time. You’ll know which enemies are coming to help your arch-nemesis, the bee, by their appearance on the map – blacked out and inactive means they aren’t coming to the fight. Highlighted and coloured means they are coming to bust your head.

But when the daytime rolls around, the skeletons and ghosts and witches evaporate (mostly) and you get more room to manoeuvre. It’s possible to sneak by enemies completely, or “ambush” them, which means their pals won’t come calling even if they are in range. But this relies on the roll of unseen dice. These dice are more or less the gooey centre of the entire game. Choices and percentages litter both the world map and the battle screen. Your chance to hit anything is determined by luck, which can be stacked in your favour in various ways (equipment, stat boosts, herbs, hats) and your chance to sneak past a beastman or ambush an ogre is likewise affected by this.

However, to keep your characters from being too far out of your own control, there’s a “focus” system. You can right click on any choice or attack to add a point of focus and increase the chance of succeeding. Each character has their own pool of these focus points and you can recharge them by sleeping in inns, setting up a camp, eating special herbs, or levelling up at a super-convenient time. There’s still a sense of risk and reward here, because although adding focus to an attempt to shoot a cultist with an arrow will increase the chance of landing a good and strong hit, it doesn’t guarantee anything unless you sink all your focus points into that task - a decision best kept for when success is absolutely necessary.

The whole game hinges on this mechanic and quickly becomes a quest about using your focus points wisely, saving them for a critical moment or making it rain like a rich gangster when you know there’s a town just a few hexes away for replenishment. Then, of course, you reach the town and discover that you don’t have enough money to let everyone sleep in the inn.

This is the other side of the RPG coming into play. There are a lot of places to visit – caves to explore, camps to raid, catacombs to graverob, towns to go shopping in – and a lot of enemies to fight. But there is precious little time and precious little money. You are often scraping the bottom of your purse to afford one good thing – a new staff for your scholar, a single suit of armour for your blacksmith, a teleport scroll so that your hunter can catch up with the others on the map before night falls and he gets cut off by a gang of mardy skeletons. I’m always pleased when a game has the courage to put you in a rich world as a poor person. Decisions on what to buy or where to go feel important and lasting because of this. Buying a ship might get you to the next quest location in record time, but it's so expensive it will leave you all stoney broke for the next day or two.

As for the time constraints, I’ll give you an example. In my first game, I took on an extra quest in our hometown. All we needed to do, it said, was deliver a leather pouch with some unknown contents to a nearby town in the outskirts of the local swamp. Easy. But no road is empty in For The King. Or rather, there are no roads. Just a wilderness full of irksome bats and huge stone hulks. We finally did reach the town but because of the time it had taken us night had already fallen, which made all the backtracking to take on our original (more important) quest all the more difficult. By the time we reached the first chaos generator in the final dungeon of the first quest, we were at 3 out of 5 Chaos kulls, which was, I felt, cutting it pretty close.

That sense of scrounging and under-epuipped-ness is pleasing to any thoroughbred adventurer/hapless victim. Here, things are made even more difficult by the party system, or the lack thereof. You move each hero individually, they all have their own purse of money and their own inventory bags. Only when they’re near each other can they swap gold or items. The game also randomises (to a degree) how much each hero can travel during their turn, some able to move farther than others, leading to surprise fights in which your people are split up and have to fend for themselves.

Even the battle mechanics prioritise individual actions over the actions of a sensible party. One day on our adventures, Sally McWrecker and Mr Paulson found themselves facing down some bats without the help of their archer pal, because he was lagging behind a few hexes. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, except the bats had a huge golem friend who came to join the fight. He had 38 health and his punches could deal huge damage to my scruffy pair of low-level vagabonds. Seeing that the fight was not going in our favour, I clicked on the “flee” option during Sally’s turn, which if successful would send us one hex back and end the turn but leave us in safety. At least, that is what I gleaned from the hovering tooltip.

What really happened was this: Sally McWrecker rolled a successful “flee” action and slunk away from the fight with a pathetic wave, leaving Mr Paulson, by far the weakest and most vulnerable of the trio, totally alone, whereupon he was succinctly punched to death by a living rock.

Luckily, you can revive a character just by visiting the hex their corpse is on (the enemies take a walk after a lost fight) and picking them up. Whereas a true ‘game over’ will come down upon your heads if your entire party dies in the battle screen. In the open map this is less likely, but in the trap-filled, multi-fight, mulit-layered dungeons it is much more likely, since you don’t get the reward or complete the relevant quest unless you buck up and see it through to the end.

Here you have to fight wave after wave of enemies, but each one offers good loot and often drops herbs that can be used to heal or regain lost focus points between the dungeon's rooms. But these dungeons are still not easy, as Old Lars will tell you after he got entangled by a cursed witch and was forced to watch his friends die before he too was helplessly stabbed to pieces by an unfettered bone warrior.

In short, it isn’t a pleasant walk through Pallet town. The limitations on your party – the scrubby equipment they find or can afford, their walking speed, their lack of healing items or gold coin – all serve to make it a solid romp full of those tiny decisions and random occurrences that can alter the course of your game for better or worse.

There is one big problem I feel, in that the main quest is the same at every restart. The map is newly generated each time, yes, but the quest from the Queen always stays the same. After a while I just wanted to explore the world at my own pace for once. There are many towns you won’t even think of visiting, because they aren’t on the Queen’s pre-ordained list of stopovers, or even placed along the way.

This main quest itself is also blurby fantasy pish, without an ounce of humour or character. This is something that surprised me, considering the visual style of the game is so cute and cartoony, perfectly suited to a sillier story and characters who don’t take their existence as undead skeleton warriors too seriously. Unfortunately, the humour and cheer has to be found between your own rash or botched decisions and the bad luck of your three poverty-stricken losers, or in the daft over-the-top ragdoll deaths of your victims. That humour is there, certainly. The sight of Sally skulking away like a coward during that one fight was enough to make me laugh anyway. But I still feel like the creators are missing an easy window to keep things short-winded and free of dull fantasy mumbo-jumbo. One of the first things you see after starting a new game is a wall of lore-filled text about the Kingdom and the Queen and the Chaos and YAWN YAWN YAWN.

Putting those concerns aside, however, For The King retains a good sense of pacing and toughness. Even the easy mode can slip you up and bash you on the noggin with a gang of wretched sea hags for which you are sorely under-prepared. It feels at times like an old-fashioned turn-based party JRPG that has learned to fight like a roguelike, embracing randomness and strange loot. During one dungeon crawl, Sally McWrecker was only equipped with a shield. One of her options in the fight was to pull out a random weapon from her backpack. She did this and whipped out a glass sword I had received from doing that time-consuming delivery job. I’d forgotten about this weapon. It cut massive chunks of health off the enemies. I was very happy. If I had only read the item’s description more thoroughly, I would not have been so surprised when the sword shattered to pieces after one final blow against an unworthy skeleton, who himself shattered to pieces, probably laughing. Sally was again reduced to punching her enemies in the belly with her bare hands.

It’s silly moments like that which harbour the magic of For The King. As ever, early access means things may change, and I certainly hope that there comes some mode in which the Queen’s orders and main quests can be thoroughly ignored. But for now, if you’re seeking some badly-planned misadventure, and a scurrilous death, you could do a lot worse.

For The King is on Steam early access for £10.99/$14.99. These impressions are based on build 1665094

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