King's Bounty: Dark Side Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:1C Company
Developer:1C: SoftClub
Release Date:2014-08-20
  • Role-Playing,Strategy
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

King's Bounty: Dark Side is the third sequel for King's Bounty: The Legend, which was released in 2008.  Like all of the other sequels, the engine for Dark Side remains basically the same.  Rage skills have changed, companions work differently, and there are a handful of new items and units, but everything else is all but identical, and so if you're familiar with the franchise, then playing Dark Side is likely to give you a strong case of déjà vu -- which might be good or bad depending on how much you liked the original game.  I think the King's Bounty games have a winning formula, but after spending something like 500 hours with the franchise, I'm to the point where I'd rather see something new rather than a rearrangement of what's come before.

The good news is that at least thematically, Dark Side is different than its predecessors.  You play a "dark" character -- either an orc (warrior), demoness (paladin), or vampire (mage) -- and unlike some other recent games (like Blackguards) that have purported to have you playing some sort of bad guy, in Dark Side you're not just misunderstood; you're straight up evil.  You want to wipe out the "light" using any means necessary, and you don't shy away from kidnapping, torture, and deceit.  This was a nice change of pace for me.  I rarely play bad guys in games, and I hadn't used a lot of orcs, demons or undead in the King's Bounty games previously.

If you're not familiar with King's Bounty, let me give you a short summary.  You control a hero with an army.  Your army consists of five stacks of creatures, where the size of the stack depends on your leadership statistic and the power of the creature.  You explore maps in real time and without any competition, and then when you encounter an enemy army, the game shifts to a turn-based mode so you can duke it out.  During each round of combat, the stacks receive a single turn where they can move and attack, and your hero can cast a spell (which costs mana) and use a rage skill (which costs rage).  Battles earn you experience and levels, which reward you with leadership points and runes to spend on your skills.  Along with the battles, you also meet NPCs during your travels, and they give you quests, so you often have a reason for the battles other than just grinding up your hero.  If you like small scale battles, then the King's Bounty games are great, because there are just so many ways you can put together an army and build your character, that you can tailor the game to your playing style regardless of what it is.

Early on in Dark Side, you're evicted from your home by the forces of light, and that sets in motion your need for revenge.  Nicely, the beginning of the campaign changes depending on the race you're playing.  Each race starts out on its own map and has different units available, but eventually the storylines merge and the three heroes meet each other, at which point your hero takes over and the campaign plays out about the same, albeit with a large dose of randomness about how powerful enemy armies are and what spells and equipment you find.  Normally I'd say that differences like this give a campaign lots of replay value, but it took me over 150 hours to complete Dark Side, and so you'd really have to like the game to want to play it through multiple times.

For me, the best thing about Dark Side is its difficulty.  When I played Warriors of the North (the previous sequel) as a paladin, it was so easy that it was dull.  But in Dark Side the battles are much tougher -- playing as a vampire mage, almost every enemy army was rated as "deadly" or "invincible" -- and the game is so chincy with spells and crystals (which are needed for learning and upgrading spells) that I had an extremely limited spellbook throughout.  Early in the game I was stuck with Poison Skull (which poisons enemies) and Flaming Arrow (which sets enemies on fire) as my only two useful spells, and it was all but impossible to finish battles with no losses.  Later, you find more shops and things open up a little, and you're also allowed to recruit any dark creatures you want, but even so the battles never get so easy as to be boring.  In fact, Dark Side has achievements for finishing battles without using spells or rage skills, but I wasn't able to earn either one because for an overwhelming number of battles I needed all the firepower I could bring to bear.

Of course, Dark Side also has some problems.  None of the King's Bounty games have been pillars of spelling, grammar, or punctuation, and sometimes this makes it difficult to tell if the developers are trying to be funny or if something else is going on.  For example, the campaign references locations named Loserania and Bear Butte, and you learn that vampires come from Portland (which is strange because I thought they came from Corvallis).  Are these jokes or just a case of indifferent translation?  The game also has a few crash bugs associated with its new units and spells (especially the Last Stand spell), there are a few quests that can't be completed, there are many empty buildings sprinkled throughout the world making some of the maps feel unfinished, and the quest journal isn't nearly helpful enough, often not telling you who you need to talk to or where you need to go, which is a problem because there are a ton of quests (at one point I counted and found I had 42 open at once), and it's difficult to remember the details about them without assistance.

But overall, I enjoyed my time with King's Bounty: Dark Side.  It was fun playing an evil character and kidnapping princesses instead of rescuing them, and because Dark Side includes all of the units from all of the King's Bounty games, it has a tremendous amount of variety, and it does a nice job of presenting you with lots of challenging battles without making them too repetitive.  That being said, all of the King's Bounty games are something of a grind.  You have to enjoy fighting battles just for the sake of fighting battles.  But if you don't mind that, then Dark Side is a good value at its $25 price tag, even with its well-worn engine.