Let me tell you about my dragon.
If I were to name one change Armored Princess has made to its predecessor's structure, it's the pet dragon. Other than that it's pretty much the same game, but with new locations and beasties (not that this is a bad thing). Under the hood, there have been a fair few small refinements, but the dragon is that ethos of polish and tweaking made corporeal. Well, pixeloreal. In both King's Bounty and Armored Princess, there are three essential things you're doing in any given fight.
First up, you're biffing an enemy army with your own army - each unit type of which has its own special abilities. This is the meat of the game, turn-based strategic combat between beyond-asymmetrical forces.
On top of that, you're casting a few spells to soften the enemy up, buff your guys, add new friendly troops to the field or to just generally rain down death and destruction. Combining spells with unit powers is increasingly key to success. For instance, greasy mist increases damage taken from fire attacks, and human archers can shoot flame arrows once per battle. It's very much a game that rewards experimentation in that regard.
Then, on top of that, you've got the Chest of Rage (King's Bounty) or the Dragon (Armored Princess). These are, essentially, a collection of uber-spells, only they're not linked to how much mana you've got left, which spells you've learned or have one-shot scrolls for, whether you've found enough runes to level up your Order, Chaos or Distortion magic... You get the picture. Magic is a pretty complicated business from afar, though I promise it all makes perfect sense a few hours in. The Chest of Rage only made things more complicated - splitting these uber-powers into four separate skill trees, each of which levels up individually depending on how much you used them. All a bit much, really - though the effects of the four godlike creatures performing these acts of destruction for you were mightily impressive. In AP, you just get a cute dragon - all the Rage (a recharging resource used solely for these special attacks) mechanics distilled into one set of abilities, as carried out by said dragon. It's a lot more straightforward, but it doesn't decrease the depth of the combat in any way - it just takes out some of unnecessary between-fights fuss by consolidating the Rage resource/abilities into one place.
Maybe it's a bit too cute, too. It's a baby dragon, all giant feet and eyes, it falls asleep after its cast one of its powers, it picks apples from a nearby tree that seems to travel everywhere with it while it watches you fight, and it keeps cuddling up to a mysterious snail. I would love it if said snail turned out to be the game's ultimate big bad. It's up to something, I'm sure of it. Its inital powers involve a bicycle kick to the face of an unsuspecting enemy and digging up treasure chests like a puppydog retrieving an old bone. It's cute. Cute-cutey-wutey-cute. I've called it Lord Ragington IV in the hope of making it seem a bit less cute, but somehow that's only made things worse. Well, not worse. Just... cute.
In other words, I'm not entirely sure what this silly, frilly thing is doing in a very nerdy game about beating up fantasy monsters and worrying about statistics. Is it KB trying to crack a new audience? Once again, I do have a niggling feeling that AP might crack the success-nut that somewhat eluded KB. Perhaps having a cute pet dragon - available in a choice of colours; I was tempted by pink, but ultimately chose classic red - will help there. I was describing the game to my special lady friend this morning, who gave me the most withering of withering looks when I solemnly stated it was 'King's Bounty: Armored Princess.' Apparently me pretending to be a princess does me no favours in the first place, let alone one who's followed dutifully around by something that would have been axed from a Disney cartoon for being too saccharine. But who can claim to understand the ways of Katauri Interactive: KB demonstrated they are quite clearly gloriously mad, after all.
But it's growing in potency as it levels up (it earns its own experience points based on how much you use it, but so far it's never far from my own level), so its cuteness belies it deadliness. It might look like a supporting character from Care Bears, but it can summon balls of lightning, it can physically wall off a few foes and, best of all, it can regenerate mana for me. No doubt about it, it's a big part of the game's strategy, absolutely necessary for long-term success. Again, that feeling of disjointedness. This cute, girlish thing, attached to complex and detailed turn-based strategy mechanics. I might not have married any zombies in Armored Princess, but that doesn't mean it's not as a weird as a weasel in a boiler suit.
On the other hand, some of its animations (something AP generally excels at, in fact) are absolutely adorable. The way it hides behind its tree and peers out nervously when its lightning ball first zaps someone is just... aw. Mummy, I want one.
Dammit! They got me after all...