Goodness me, Kingsway [official site] is clever. It's clever in so, so many ways. It's clever in its absolutely spectacular presentation, but it's far too clever to let that just be a gimmick - its peculiar appearance as a mid-90s Windows desktop could so easily have been a cute idea that hid an ordinary roguelite RPG, but instead it so very brilliantly influences how you play, and indeed the foibles of such an interface become crucial to how you experience it. It's also really bloody tough. Here's wot I think:
Remember Windows 95? It felt so extraordinary at the time, a leap forward from Windows 3.1 that Microsoft have (despite some ghastly attempts) never come close to since. It looks so cutely antiquated now, despite being essentially the same layout as a post-guff Windows 10. Kingsway takes advantage of both halves of that, both looking like something nostalgic, while being immediately familiar, displaying itself in an ever-growing number of movable windows across its desktop. The pixelly map's in one, your loot bag another (loot represented as icons, naturally), your health and magic in a third. The quest log is represented as your email window, there's a log looking like a console, music options in what looks like a very early Winamp skin, and your character sheet as - well, they didn't think of anything clever there - it's a window with a character sheet.
Oh, and shops have super-crude little mid-90s online shopping basket icons, purchased items dragged and dropped from the cart window to your inventory! Yes, okay, sometimes it's just the gimmick. But I love it so.
The home computer vibe doesn't end there. My absolutely favourite gimmick is how movement is represented with a progress bar, interrupted in true top-down RPG fashion by monster attacks. And here it gets more complex - monster attack windows require you press the Windowsy buttons for Attack, Block, or using other skills you've gained, but the window flipping moves around the screen. You have to follow it to click accurately, which adds in an extra layer of difficulty and complexity, not least when you're fighting more than one enemy at a time.
I say "an extra layer" because, and this is representative of how Kingsway is so much more than its gimmick, it doesn't depend on this for its combat's complexity. Enemies attack based on how quickly their progress bar fills, you the same, and much of the nature of a fight is working out if your attack time is significantly faster than theirs, such that you can sneak in two hits before they biff you, and quickly click the Block toggle button. That it's a toggle is also a big factor, because when it's on you can't just click attack again - you have to toggle it back off again, which takes time (not least because the button doesn't stay still), making blocking a risky manoeuvre to use against a speedy foe.
See! There's lots and lots going on here, and that's before you even factor in all your gained abilities earned when levelling, magic items, potions, smoke bombs, and on and on. Potions are especially tricksy. Unlike many RPGs of this type you can use them any time you like, not in place of an attack turn. But they're stored in your inventory window, double-clicked on like the icon they are, and then clicking the "Use" button in their opening window. Doing that, while trying to keep track of the moving attack window, and perhaps even having one obscure the other, is how Kingsway so utterly cleverly keeps mid-battle healing in check. I told you it was smart.
At the start you pick a character class (from Adventurer, Warrior, Mage, Rogue and Beastkin), which determines your starting stats. You can also change appearance, to surprising detail considering there's really no point. Then you begin with your faux desktop and a bunch of windows to open. And here, annoying, is the game's one enormous flaw. For some tiresome reason the game isn't interested in remembering where you put your windows on the last run, meaning for every new start (and there will be a lot of those) you have to spend a boring minute or so opening them all and putting them where you want them. Sure, a minute, but if you're familiar with roguelites, you'll know that the one thing you want after a loss is just to be playing again. Having to not just pick a new character, sort through any carry-over bonuses you may have gained or unlocked (you earn gems as you play, spent in an out-of-game store that lets you add items to the list from which you can choose a single item when starting a new adventure - perhaps a shield, a weapon, extra gold, etc, or even completely silly cosmetic extras), but also spend a boring lump of time, every time, opening and arranging the whole game feels like such a colossal misstep. Just have it remember where they were last time, for goodness sake.
Those deaths! Gosh, sometimes it feels wildly unfair but probably isn't, other times it's all-too apparent that it was your own daft fault. Working out just how far you can safely travel is a big part of getting to know the game. Learning the balance between muddling around the earlier areas to gather experience, but wanting to progress to further reaches for the bonuses gifted by your guild on completion of quests, is a huge part of the attraction. At first I thought it was hopeless, that I'd never get anywhere. Now I've settled with a class I enjoy, and a system that (at least at first) seems to work, and have started making some headway into- oh who am I kidding, into the earliest sections of what's obviously a big game. You're supposed to try to light three beacons to reach the game's end quest, and I've never even successfully lit the first.
But goodness gracious, I'm having a great time not doing very well. It's madly compelling in the way all good roguelites are, while feeling distinct enough to earn its specific attention. That I find myself wanting a narrative-led unpermadeathed version of the game is always a great sign, I think - it tends to mean there's substance here, and I'm motivated to keep retrying to get at it all. It also means this one-man team has succeeded at making more than a fun roguelite: they've also made a strong, fun top-down old-school RPG game underneath it.
There's enough to it, is mostly what I mean.
I've barely even touched the dungeons, since they're so damned brutal. But I'm aware that when I just get a bit better up top I'll be able to head back to an earlier one and score some excellent loot if I can keep my wits and clicks about me. Oh my goodness, I'm having the best run after writing this, and just cleared a dungeon, took out the boss, and filled my pockets with as much loot as I could carry. Cor that feels good. And more than that, that I'm finding enough to do, enough going on, while ignoring vast swathes of what's on offer, is also enormously positive. Oh, and those 90s tunes - I'm not normally one to care, but these are completely fab.
So, as whenever I review one of these sorts of games, there will be those infuriating few who cannot contain their own bluster as they need to inform the planet that they find it FAR too easy, and complete it every time they play even when they're asleep with their arms in industrial mincers. Great, lovely, well DONE - you ARE very special and amazing. Gosh, if we could only be like you. Which is also to say, I've not gone deep into the game, despite having given it a whole pile of my hours, because it's the sort of thing that'll take me ages to chip away at until I wonder how I ever used to be so bad at it. Which is the sign of this mishmash genre at its finest, for me. I hope for you too.
Oh, what's that? Why is it presented as an operating system desktop? I have absolutely no idea.