Throughout my early playthrough of 1C Entertainment's upcoming tactical RPG King's Bounty 2, I couldn't help but think of CD Projekt Red's Witcher 3. Sure, King's Bounty 2 is an RPG that's shaped by turn-based tangos on hexagonal grids rather than the familiar, third-person adventure mould we know and love, but everything from its world and atmosphere to its exploration and dialogue feel very much inspired by Geralt's high fantasy japes. That, and I'm pretty sure the voice actor behind Geralt's smooth dialogue, Doug Cockle, has also lent his vocal tones to a bloke in King's Bounty 2, compounding the comparison even further.
Of course, stacking up any RPG against CD Projekt Red's juggernaut probably isn't going to turn out too favourably for the stackee, so perhaps the comparison is a little harsh, especially when the bulk of King's Bounty 2 - its turn-based, tactical battles - is clearly doing something very different to Geralt's witchering quests. Nevertheless, the RPG element of King's Bounty 2 feels a bit lacking by comparison. When Geralt talks to a cursed tree with that lovely voice of his, you just know it's about to spiral into a complex, emotional side-quest with repercussions that'll ripple throughout the story. In King's Bounty 2, on the other hand, you'd either speak to the tree or snap all of its branches in two. Those are your only options.
I think it depends on what you value most when approaching a game that straddles two genres like this. At the start of King's Bounty 2, you get to explore the world as one of three starting characters. I opted for the warrior: a typical-looking knight fella with brown stubble and a weathered jawline. Unlike the game's combat, adventuring is done from a third-person perspective, and it's actually rather pleasant. The medieval-inspired world is suitably, well, medieval. Early on, there are snow-covered pine trees and log huts and rocky ruins off the beaten track. Later, a walled city with cobbled paths strewn with hay and barrels of beer outside taverns. While not stunning, they're nice spaces you can see on foot, or trot between on your faithful steed.
A compass at the top of the screen will guide you towards the all-important vendors and quest markers. Alas, it's this questing element of King's Bounty 2 that currently feels the weakest. At one point, for example, three beefy golems blocked my path, and the options available to me were either fighting them, or finding another way to pass them by peacefully. I tried to speak to a mage up the road who might be able to help me out, but it simply wouldn't let me. Turns out I had no choice because I'd chosen the "power ideal". There was no option to persuade them, or play tricks on them, or anything like that.
I found this odd for an RPG that gave me options in the first place. Like Mass Effect, the decisions you make are marked down as Anarchy, Order, Power, or Finesse by an external processor that hums away in the background. Depending on what you choose the most, that's how the game categorises your character. Since I'd gone down the Power route at this point, any other options I might have pursued simply weren't available to me. As time passes, you'll become committed to one of these ideals, and actually refuse actions that go against them. In its strictness, it revealed that 'choice' was more of an illusion than I thought.
There are also moments that just feel plain silly. At another point, I spoke to this sketchy bloke who nattered about a witch, then just ran off. After chasing him (that is, jogging a few meters into a portal), my character proudly exclaimed, "Now I've got you, marauder! Did you truly think you would be able to escape me?" but the whole thing felt very daft and anti-climatic. Then I needed to figure out how to get to this nasty witch, because the sketchy guy couldn't for the life of him figure it out. In the end, it was just a case of slotting some crystals into holders; a classic. The crystals were right next to the holders, though, which gave off big MMO energy in its simplicity.
Fortunately, the fights sprinkled throughout each of King's Bounty 2's quests are a lot more enjoyable. Before most battles (although not all), you'll stand in front of a glowing yellow barrier in third-person mode as the enemies saunter up to meet you. Step through and it'll transition you to hex-grid fight-land, where you'll need to pick your army units for the job.
Units can be bought from vendors in town, and more can be unlocked by completing side quests, allowing your army to grow as you progress through the story and gain influence. Mine consisted of a handful of swordsmen, archers, healers, and dogs. Eventually, I also got hold of some ghouls and undead archers, but they didn't mesh well with my original human army so gradually fell by the wayside. You'll need to take into account how each unit will get along with one another, because if they don't have the same ideals, there's an increased chance you'll miss a turn.
Unit composition is important in King's Bounty 2 because fights are tough, sometimes surprisingly so. Before each fight breaks out, you'll have one free turn to get your army in a nice formation, but even early on you'll be punished for fudging your units' positioning, or prioritising the wrong targets.
Thankfully the nuts and bolts of King's Bounty 2's turn-based battling is easier to grasp, even for newcomers to the turn-based tactical genre. Aside from being smart about where you place your army around the hex-grid (such as whacking your healers to the back, or charging the biggest threat first), enemies have various different types of weaknesses to master as well. For example, archers aren't effective against the undead, but healing magic is, and a lot of the toughest fights come down to picking the most effective units for the battle and ensuring they're in the best position to use their active abilities. Each unit has skills that cost Ability Points, but they'll be much better than a basic attack. Dogs can make enemies bleed each turn, and spearmen can land guaranteed critical strikes.
I should also give a quick shout-out to spells, as they're essential to success. I particularly enjoyed one called Ray of Light which laser beams an enemy unit with an orbital strike. They don't come cheap, as they'll require scrolls and mana crystals you find out in the world or as quest rewards, but they're satisfying and impactful to use.
That said, there are still a few UI issues I hope will be ironed out before its full release on August 21st. For instance, I never really knew if I'd selected a skill properly, as it didn't ping me with a glowing box saying, "Yes, you have selected me, a skill". Even the most basic things were difficult to parse at a glance, too, such as seeing who'd dealt damage to who, and by how much.
Still, beneath those issues there's a glimmer of something good here. While most of its character customisation options are textbook RPG stuff, like the Power branch of its Talent tree offering stat bonuses to mostly melee units, armour and giving you swingy-hitty stat boosts, I'm intrigued by some of the other routes on offer here. The Order branch of the Talent tree, for instance, seems to be based around reducing your Morale penalty, which would mean my humans and ghouls might actually get along further down the line.
Trouble is, my mind keeps wandering back to The Witcher 3. While there's plenty to admire in the battling part of King's Bounty 2, its third-person questing and exploration has, so far at least, left me feeling a bit cold. There's still time for 1C Publishing to prove me wrong, of course, and if you're here for the battles over the quests and roleplaying then this could be right up your street. As an RPG liker, though, I worry that King's Bounty 2 isn't quite doing enough to make it stand out from the crowd here. We'll find out for sure come August 21st.