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Wot I Think: Crowntakers

U surp, I surp, we all surp together

A brief description of Crowntakers reads like an exercise in box-ticking. "Roguelike turn-based strategy meets RPG", says the Steam page, "alternative endings...resources...companions...mighty equipment...hexagonal battlefields." Behind all of that is a game that strips down almost every aspect of its design to present something half-way between a solo boardgame and a coffee break take on Heroes of Might and Magic. It's a clever game, though not without its frustrations. Here's wot I think.

Crowntakers is a broth. It is, on the whole, a delicious, hearty, warming broth, with the occasional unpleasantly stale crouton thrown into the mix. But on the whole this is good eating, made up of the boiled remnants of a carcass that has been picked over and carefully reduced.

The carcass in question is the bloated form of King's Bounty or one of the more finely crafted Heroes of Might and Magic games. Like those lightly strategic entities of node-plundering exploration, recruitment and turn-based combat, Crowntakers is a game in which a hero wanders from point to point on a map, increasing in strength and gathering a band of companions.

Rather than sprawling campaigns, multi-tiered city construction and armies containing hundreds of mythological beasties, Crowntakers has a straightforward story of usurpation and vengeance. You'll often be fighting with a single unit and it's rare to have more characters in play than you can count on one hand.

Outside of combat, which I'll discuss later, control is as basic as can be. On the small randomised maps, movement is turn-based, the hero and his entourage pausing whenever they reach a junction or point of interest. Pick a direction, or delve into whatever cave or building is by the roadside, and you'll either move onward or trigger a brief encounter, described in text. There are sometimes options in those encounters but they're not particularly challenging - will you search a house or wake its sleeping inhabitants, or choose to dig deeper into a creepy cave rather than bolting for the exit?

On repeated playthroughs, you'll have a better idea of the pros and cons of each encounter, but there's enough randomisation to keep things fresh. And that's a good thing because Crowntakers is explicitly built around repetition. You won't succeed on your first try - you can't - but every level of experience that your hero gains, as well as those for every companion unlocked, carries over to the next attempt.

Eventually, if you're patient and dedicated, you'll unlock a difficulty level that scraps this quasi-generational system and allows you to go for a homerun starting from base, with every mercenary set back to level 1. I can't even begin to imagine how I'd go about beating the game on that setting. It's an extremely difficult task even on the initial 'Easy' setting (and how I wish that setting was called 'Normal' rather than easy, with the unlockable setting being labelled 'Hardcore' or 'Soul-Sapping' - 'Easy' isn't 'Easy' and having to unlock 'Normal' seems immediately patronising and restrictive. SEMANTICS).

The naming of the difficulty levels aside, Crowntakers is a smart and focused game. The first time you play, and perhaps even the second, third, fourth and fifth time, you might think it's a bit of a fruit machine because your inputs seem to create fairly arbitrary results, most of which result in your own demise. I should add that I don't have very much experience of fruit machines and am unnerved by flashing lights in my peripheral vision while out sampling the local laughter liquid.

Once you've levelled up a few times and unlocked a couple of extra mercenary options, the tactical nature of the combat becomes clearer. Maps are tight and placement is random so improvisation is required. The goal is to kill everything but the process is about positioning and use of special abilities to herd and crush enemies. Attacks of opportunity are key to success and they require your units to work together, preferably bundled together in a corner so that they can all take a pop at opponents as they approach.

Victory is usually satisfying and hard-earned but defeats are often unfair. If an archer is placed next to an enemy when the encounter begins, moving to ranged distance gives the enemy a free attack and that can be enough to kill your unit before the battle has even begun. Some balancing is required to remove those kind of frustrations and the developers have stated that they're working to retain the difficulty but remove some of the no-win situations.

In a nutshell - and remember, this is broth in a nutshell - Crowntakers is a game that just about fits into an extended coffee break but accrues complexity on repeated playthroughs. That might make it sound like King's Bounty for a casual afternoon or for those without an attention span as long as a prog rock syntherlude, but the tight focus works in its favour. It's a smart game, with a clarity that I admire.

Those balance issues are a problem though. It's worth persevering to taste victory but there are unkind obstacles along the way. Each attempt is short enough that defeat has rarely driven me away for long - I've shed more tears over the loss of a good build on The Binding of Isaac in recent days - but the randomisation does feel like a greater influence than your own actions. Whenever that facet of the game becomes obvious, Crowntakers makes me rather cross, but when the dice gods choose not to thwart my every effort, I'm back to smiling again.

It's an unusual game, not because of its content, which is all fairly typical, but due to the precision within which excess has been surgically removed. A shame that the cuts from that surgery are sometimes a little too messy because there's a clever core here and it deserves an audience. Light on content but with enough sharp ideas to keep me coming back for several days, Crowntakers is pint-sized and happily enjoyed in moderation.

Like broth.

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