The fourth game in Katauri Interactive's reboot of olden strategy/RPG hybrid King's Bounty is out now. Warriors Of The North requires no knowledge of the earlier games, involving a new storyline and a new hero, and a whole lot of Norse mythology-inspired beasts and magic. More of the cheerful same or a new take on what's become somewhat routine? Here's what I think.
I should probably be angry. If I'm moved to shake my fist at the uncaring heavens about identikit military shooters year after year, I should certainly be similarly resentful that the initially super-fresh King's Bounty series is now on its fourth near-indistinguishable game.
And yet. And yet. Like Armoured Princess and Crossworlds before it, Warriors of the North seems somehow so happy to exist. I'm not in the business of kicking puppies even if one did wee all over my carpet. There are any number of longboats Warriors of the North should and could have pushed out, but instead it settles for adding Nordic units and fine-tuning existing mechanics and not a whole lot more.
It looks the same, it feels the same, it plays the same, and as such I pretty can only say the same things about it as before. Although it does have a HEROIC FANTASY soundtrack so subtletly-free and overblown that I came to love it even though it's indefensible. But somehow, its robust turn-based-strategy/real-time roleplaying/overland exploring systems, comparable to an infinitely cheerier and more streamlined Heroes of Might & Magic, and its semi-incoherent, consistently enthusiastic absurdist babble makes me warm to it despite myself. D'aww, how could I ever be angry at that face?
A future in which I played a new and not particularly changed King's Bounty game ever year is not a bad future. Then again I do quite enjoy the Great British Bake-Off and entirely expect to watch it again next year, which probably says a frightening amount about just how easily I take to cosy, unambitious, inoffensive things. I'm a creature who craves calm and comfort, and by God King's Bounty games give me that. They're my annual pair of new slippers for Christmas.
But I would love to see them strive as well as maintain that cuddly, compulsive formula.
I'd like, for instance, the new half dozen-odd Viking units to be real game-changers rather than slightly more melodramatic variants of existing units.
I'd like the hero powers, now primarily based around Valykries rather than spectral summons or Armoured Princess' cutesy dragon, to become agonising and deadly tactical choices rather than so-so spells, and I'd like to have them used against me rather than purely by me.
I'd like the island-hopping that the series now prefers to slowly trudging from zone to zone to offer a true choice of route rather than a fixed order.
I'd like the game's world to be alive, rather than having fixed enemies in fixed places and becoming empty wastelands once you've cleared them out.
I'd love multiplayer.
I'd love a fleshed-out economy which entailed generating specific reinforcements from specific captured/defended territories, rather than just buying from fixed unit stocks as you encounter them.
I'd also like a bigger telly and a second cat, but actually my existing telly's fine and my cat's adorable, so maybe I should just stop moaning. I've had a happy 20 hours with Warriors of the North and if I really was so damned upset that it was just the same as always, that figure wouldn't have had a zero at the end of it.
Tellingly though, that figure starts with a 2 rather than a 4, and that's because, as with its three predecessors, WOTN is over-long and can't maintain its early energy. An initially playful start, with quests including getting vikings drunk then curing their hangovers, gradually gives way to relentless fetch quests across multiple large zones, with a poor mapping/questlog system making it a headache to work out exactly who was were once you've obtained/killed the relevant item/enemies.
I'd be far happier with 20 hours of steadily escalating battles than with 40 of bimbling around fighting the same old zombies and skellingtons again and again. The dialogue remains peppy throughout, in its somewhat translation-mangled way, but the game has only so many tricks up its sleeves - we've married zombies, we've pulled dragons' teeth, we've fought inside our own belts, and because of half of that stuff happens only in text it now feels like an old man telling increasingly tired jokes at the dinner table, not a series of beautifully absurd events.
And yet. Twenty hours of my time isn't easily given away these days, so I must have done it for a reason. That reason is a finely-crafted upgrade system, the slow and frequently-rewarded pursuit of new skills, better skills and larger armies. Same as it ever was, but there's a sense of real effect as you construct your own skill tree or add a new type of unit to your army (for instance the beefy viking Jarls or the huge, ugly Jotun ice-giants) - not the piddly, fractional boosts of a Diablolike.
It's fine! It should be a £10 expansion pack rather than a £25 expandalone, and as such I can't in good conscience recommend Warriors of the North over picking up King's Bounty: The Legend or Crossworlds for far less. It is more finely-balanced, it is free of the slightly grating cutsiness of Armoured Princess and being a big, tough, hairy viking on a flying pony (a quickly-obtained alternate means of navigating around the large overland maps) is a constant delight. So, for this year, I guess I'm okay with another pair of slippers and another series of the Great British Bake-Off. Next year I want Doc Martens and a chilli competition, though.
King's Bounty: Warriors Of The North is out now.