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Wot I Think - King's Bounty: Crossworlds

Oops. This was intended to be an initial impressions post rather than a Wot I Think, as I didn't have the time to give Crossworlds enough of a shake for a verdict. Or so I thought, in my guilelessness. This is a King's Bounty game, though. It's a strategy-roleplaying mash-up that plum doesn't care whether you have time or not. Show it even a hint of your soul and it'll eat it, with a beaming smile but without any remorse whatsoever.

So here I am, far too many hours later: exhausted, behind on a frightening number of chores, fascinating webgames and half-hearted calls to family members, but merrily game-sated and with my pointy finger of judgement all ready to go. I've missed you, Kingy-kins.

Context Party Time first. Crossworlds is nominally the third in 1C/Katauri's reborn King's Bounty series, but really it's the second expansion pack in standalone clothing. I don't really begrudge 1C that, as I'd like them to make money and thus put the requisite resources into a proper sequel (or the upcoming online version), but it's important to not go into either Crossworlds or forerunner Armoured Princess expecting something wildly new.

Superficially, Crossworlds is the most cynical yet – having Armoured Princess' campaign at its core with a bunch of bonus content bolted on. Specifically, a bunch of new quests, units, spells and whatnot for the main story, plus two new mini-games encouraging heightened tactical thinking. Of course, King's Bounty's mini-game is another game's full campaign: there is a lot of content here. There's even the vanilla version of AP included, in case you missed out on that.

I'm not terribly interested in the embiggening gumpf for the Armoured Princess campaign; I always felt that lore-heavy expandalone abandoned the madcap satire of King's Bounty: The Legend in the first place, and simply more weight to something already so fatted isn't much of a draw. I want punchy anecdote-fuelling strangeness, not simply more sprawl.

But there's more orcs, more tactic combinations, more items and more item-battling. If King's Bounty's purpose is primarily as a timesink that scratches the dual itches of strategy and roleplaying, then this is very much the proof of that hour-pudding. For a lazy weekend I'm glad it's there, but it feels like something I've already done to death.

For me, what makes Crossworlds gleam and pirouette so desirably is in the mini-campaigns, where it experiments with just how far it can push what's proven to be a limited formula. This isn't StarCraft 2; the game cannot delve off into strange tangents, because it is only really about arranging two armies against each other on hexes.

One of the new mini-campaigns triumphs because it focuses purely on boss fights: the all too rarely-seen biggest hitters of the last two games, screen-high monstrosities equipped with frankly unfair powers such as off-map mega-tentacles, infinite spider-spawns and the ability to fatally bury half the map in rock. Such fights are spaced far apart in the main games, and often encountered when you're worn down by endless smaller fights and fielding a pathetic, ad-hoc motley crew of whatever units you can afford/find.

Here though, it's a string of a half-dozen mega-battles, with each one rewarding you comically generously with gold, experience points and loot. It's not a cakewalk, however, depending on both the difficulty setting and which school of combat you pursue. Rather, it's a chance to really explore the game's possible strategies, to buy and combine all the complentary units that are often too sporadically-provided to really make the best of, to accrue item sets and enjoy their bonuses: essentially, to try out all the finer detail that you know the game is capable of, but lack the time, energy and savegames to otherwise bring to bear.

While you can carve through the lot and become king of fights within a couple of hours, that's not really the point. You'll do that by joining the first guild on offer, the Undead Veterans, and duly hiring only ghosties and ghoulies and zombies and vampiries and necromanceries until you've brute-forced everything to death. That's just to start you off. What you're really supposed to do is, as you accrue gold and levels, join the other guilds - the dwarves, the orcs, the demons, even the paltry humans. Each race has distinct strategies and combination powers, demanding greater attention but greater rewards - both visual and in terms of artful destructive merriment. It's an opportunity to really go deep in KB's mechanics, rather than to blunder through being given sequentially beefier stuff.

Moreover, it's what a time-starved urchin such as I has been craving since The Legend. More of a formula I loved, but without having to commit to 20+ of wibbly, unevenly translated dialogue and far too much tedious lore. The main campaign has that, and frankly the pages of text bore me senseless now it's decided to be a capital-F Franchise rather than dick around further with the zombie-bedding, unkempt playfulness of the first game. The arena mode is something I'll go back to repeatedly, determined to better myself, to try new stuff, to investigate the orc buffing tricks, to try and afford the complete Vampire gear set... It's a sort of King's Bounty: Greatest Hits mode, but most importantly it's encouraging you to do better, rather than to simply slog through.

The other, longer mini-game acts a coda to Armoured Princess, documenting a slightly spurious set of battles following the blithering climax of the last game. Rather than being more of the same, these are about the game being an absolute penis to you. Honestly: a massive, spiny cock of unfairness. Which is exactly why it's great.

Tiles that teleport units back to the start. Buildings that endlessly spawn new enemies. A corridor full of deadly laser traps you have to traverse before laying the holy smackdown on the lizardfolk beyond. It's comically unfair, but somehow balanced just so it's still possible - and enough so that you'll keep going. It's breaking the rules to keep you interested; wearing sexy clothes but throwing pins at your face whenever you get near.

It's exactly why I fell in love with King's Bounty: The Legend in the first place. It's taking a fairly staid formula - Heroes of Might and Magic's turn-based battles - and pouring weird chemicals into its brain, creating something comfortably familiar but even more comfortingly unhinged.

I wish Crossworlds did more, especially given the melodramatic title. It's showing us the same core stuff, the same core places and the same core fights, and I really need it to move on after three years. But this is as far as it could sensibly push what it is capable of, and it goes much further than Armoured Princess, the staid and unambitious middle-child of this vital series, ever did.

As such, it's the title I'm going to nod to whenever anyone asks me which KB game to pick up. It mightn't have the anecdotal power of the first, but that surprise delight was also hamstrung by a dreary, grindy second half. Crossworlds is a game you can tackle in peppy chunks, enjoying a series of fresh experiences rather than one over-long one. This is the status quo-perverting wonder that made King's Bounty sing, now extended to its strategy rather than just its setting. It might cling to safety in the broadest sense, but it's impossibly clever and cartoonish where it matters.

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