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In case you haven't read or heard, this newer King's Bounty is based on the old late 80's computer game which pre-dated and spawned the amazing Heroes of Might & Magic series. But unlike the HOMM series which featured strategically building up several heroes and castles, King's Bounty is more of a traditional RPG using just a single hero and tactical turn-based combat. The strategy comes in when you factor in how to develop your rather deeply customizable hero and unique play style over many levels in order to complete the game. That said, there are several similarities between the two games (HOMM and KB) such that fans of the former will feel right at home. There are also several innovations that borrow from the current RPGs of today.
To put it simply, in King's Bounty you move your chosen hero and army comprised of up to 5 different troop types around several continents worth of fantastic 3D landscapes of every type of terrain imaginable, both on horse and ship. Sprinkled throughout every map are many types of hidden or guarded treasures, NPCs, unique buildings, and wandering armies of various difficulty. If you get close enough they'll give chase and if touched will trigger a battle - but you can usually run away (hint: or around them) easily enough.
There's a basic story woven into the game's main quest, and you'll run into innumerable NPCs dishing out all sorts of side quests at any one time. The dialogue is often infused with humorous -- albeit cheesy -- dialogue, though I get the feeling the writers were actually after this effect. You'll find quests for both the current map in addition to those that take you into other areas entirely. Quests are all kept track of in your quest journal, and though the current step is easily laid out in plain English, sometimes you might forget where the originator of the quest was and will have to remember before you turn it in. Fortunately the NPCs and buildings will have a unique icon on top of them if there is something for you to turn in, which makes it a little easier, but logged location information would have been nice to have as you accumulate quite the list.
You'll want to focus on the main quest at the earliest opportunity, as it revolves around your chosen hero gaining ranks as the official (Treasure Searcher) for the King. This is essentially an excuse to propel you to the different continents of the game as you unravel the overall mystery. As you complete the main quest, other areas open up and you'll gain access to what are known as summoned spirits - elemental-like creatures that you can summon as you gain what's known as "rage" automatically when your troops engage in combat. Each of the elementals (not accessible all at once) gain levels and experience just as you do, which open up new abilities for them... allowing you to eventually make choices in how to spend your rage to aid you in combat. Though these elementals are optional as you still have spells and individual unit abilities, they can certainly make battles a little less costly and therefore should be used as frequently as possible to continue to maximize their strength. It would have been nice for them to automatically gain experience without being used, as I found just bringing them out even if I knew I was going to win a bit tedious. This could have been done by selecting to "focus" on one or more of them (simply toggle a highlight on the hero screen). Then as you battled the one (or more) you focused on would automatically get a percentage of the rage you generated converted to experience for that spirit only. If you focused on more than one, the experience would be split multiple ways.
But let's briefly step back to the beginning. The first choice you make when you select "New Game" is actually the most important: that of which class you want to play throughout your 60-100 hour adventure. The Knight, Paladin, and Mage have been balanced to play remarkably differently thanks to a few unique skills and inherent differences in the way each class earns level-up rewards. At opposite ends, the Knight's combat prowess makes his army and summoned spirits more lethal, while the Mage focuses more on magically destroying opponents outright, and is the best at either artificially enhancing his (less powerful) army, or weakening his opponents'. The paladin strikes a nice mix of the two with unique abilities of his own.
Most of the game's enjoyment and focus is on three things: thoroughly exploring to collect treasures and creatures and new quests, building up your hero to be the most powerful treasure hunter this side of Cap'n Jack Sparrow, and of course the combat (the way to prove your ever increasing power). If combat on the battlefield wasn't so entertaining to watch and full of virtually unlimited options to defeat your opponent, the game would get stale quickly. Thankfully, that isn't a problem as it is done in such an addictive yet thoughtful manner that you'll find yourself always wandering a map looking for just one more army that you deem easy enough (or challenging enough) for you to defeat. This in turn inches you that much closer to another level or unexplored area with new unknowns. Also, I must note here, once defeated, enemy armies thankfully do not respawn!
Speaking of levels, as in most combat-centered RPGs, one of the central hooks to keep playing is to see just how powerful your character can get while customizing them to your play-style. Each class in King's Bounty has access to three different skill trees, similar to what you might find in Diablo II, World of Warcraft, or several other games that now use one. As your character explores the terrain or gains a level (to a maximum of level 30), he'll receive a mixture of 3 types of runes: might, mind, and magic. Runes are the currency with which to purchase all of your unique skills from a tree -- for example, more experience, immunity to ill-effects by two creatures that don't like each other, or the ability to move troops around the grid before combat. Each of the three skill trees requires the same-named rune type more often than any other, though skills from all trees will typically use some mixture of all three types of runes. In addition most every skill can be upgraded up to 3 levels (again, paid for with runes) to provide additional effectiveness.
The Might skill tree has options to pre-place troops, make some of them stronger, and is focused mostly on melee skills. The Mind tree is focused on general combat, army, and experience enhancements. Finally, the Magic tree provides access to the different spell categories (order / distortion / chaos), and anything related to learning or enhancing spells and effects. As each class gets a sprinkling of runes on level up, but significantly more of one type than any other, the Warrior will generally find it easiest to focus on the Might tree, the Paladin on the Mind tree, and the Mage on the Magic tree. It's a great system that allows any class to pick a few skills from each of the trees or specialize in unique ways. Posts in the official forums have also confirmed that several different paths through the trees are equally viable to the end of the game.
Part of the main strategy and enjoyment of the game is in gathering the right troops to complement your play style. Sometimes you take what's given, but as the game progresses you'll have virtually unlimited choices to make. There are so many spells and unique creature abilities that during one game you can and will likely change up the definition of your army to suit the situation and what was actually available in your game. You see, all (well, most) army stacks you encounter or which are available in buildings, as well as spells and treasure -- are randomly generated. In one game you might find the Resurrection spell sooner and your new strategy could then be to improve your healing skill, while a new tactic could be to save your spell points in combat to replenish fallen troops near the end. Likewise, in one game you might have access to Evil Beholders but in another you may only find normal Beholders, which can change your strategy. In an unexpectedly pleasant twist, you can also find a wife to marry and then have up to 4 children, which take up some of your wife's new item slots but offer unique bonuses. Yes, divorce is also possible, but your wife gets some of the money and takes the kids.
To get new troops into your army you must usually purchase them from buildings. Recruiting troops costs both "leadership" points and gold. Each single creature (which range from level 1 to level 5 in power) costs a particular amount of leadership and gold to recruit -- the more powerful the creature, the more leadership points and gold it costs. Your leadership naturally increases by picking up leadership banners strewn throughout the land, completing some quests and gaining ranks as the treasure searcher, or simply by going up levels and choosing to upgrade leadership as opposed to say, one of your other three main stats (attack, defense, and intellect). As far as gold goes, you'll be accumulating it through completing quests, after every battle, selling items you find or accrue, or simply by finding piles or chests of it while exploring.
Naturally after battles, some or many of your troops will get depleted, and so you'll have to revisit some of the buildings to restock your army with fresh troops. This becomes a critical component of gameplay, and sometimes the trusty troop that just got wiped out came from a land far away, and so you'll have to either trek all the way back to its purchase location, or simply choose to use a troop type that's more readily available. If your army is ever defeated, though demoralizing it's not much of a problem as the King reimburses you with some extra gold to purchase a new stack of troops, and then you're back on your way.
Other than a few minor issues with gameplay which I'll touch on, it must be said that they really hit a bullseye with not one but three quick save slots (by pressing F5) and very fast load times. As for gameplay, the addictiveness that comes from slowly building up your character and the options available with spells and skills, exploring each new beautiful area, and seeing what types of creatures you'll fight against or are available at the various shops and buildings, provides an immensely satisfying experience I am rarely drawn into this heavily... perhaps once every few years at maximum. I expect to be keeping this on my computer for a long while and I've even heard word of an expansion on the way.
Now for the mildly negative, which should not in any way dissuade you. The most major (and fixable) of the minor issues is that players are virtually forced to explore every niche of the beginning four areas for battles and quests in order to progress to the next continent. Even when you complete nearly every quest offered and defeat every enemy in these areas, you're still just at the point where you are powerful enough to enter and defeat creatures in the next area (Freedom Isles) without heavy losses. There needs to be more balance here with experience and leadership more generously given, at least at the beginning. I for one happily explored every nook and cranny, but foresee more casual players possibly being deterred. For such a huge game, the early portion should be the easiest (with sufficient challenges and rewards for willing individuals) and should not require quite as much exploration or questing to move on.
One other issue I've touched on was the quest journal and desiring a slightly more descriptive or ordered quest list. Finally, it would have been nice to have seen female alternatives for each class. Though in this game gender is aesthetic only and has no real influence on gameplay, in a role-playing game, getting into character is important and more choices here would have perhaps led to a more personalized and stronger feeling toward the character rather than one well done portrait. The game could have easily modified its story (and even added husbands) to accompany this.
Gameplay suggestions for improvement (via patch / expansion / sequel):
1. For each class, two male and also female choices to broaden the appeal, for each of the five major races in the game: Humans/Elves/Dwarves/Undead/Demon. (Right now there is only human.)
2. Each of these races might receive a special "racial ability" that gives them one or more small unique advantages.
3. Quest Journal update to include locations (not necessarily a marker on map, but at least a continent/area description of where the quest giver was or where you need to go), and possibly categorized by quest location
4. Reduce the requirement to explore nearly every inch of a prior area to move onto the next. Some necessary exploration is great, but characters should feel powerful enough to defeat initial battles in a new area when doing approximately 2/3 to 3/4 of the prior area as opposed to 9/10ths. I am not talking about hardcore tactical specialists here either who know every in and out of the game and how to exploit Impossible armies with a stack of peasants, but your average to above average player.
As you can see from the graphics, they're stunning and even better when you see them moving. Absolutely breathtaking attention to detail in the 2D menus and interface, and the attention in 3D is just as painstaking. Walls which come alive when you pass by, flotsam sinking as your ship passes over them, vibrant use of color and minor effects everywhere and in character design. This goes for animations as well. The summoned elementals have sufficiently flashy graphics without getting out of hand or too long like in the Final Fantasy series, little 3D effects everywhere you can think of and changing terrain and landscapes make every new location feel fresh. The water is beautiful, everything that can move actually does move, and there is little I can actually fault or nitpick. But being a review, I will only say that swaying trees and more weather effects (apart from the awesome night and day) would have been a 9th inning grand slam. As it stands, I'll leave graphics at an early game slaughter. They just nailed it.
Everything in the huge multi-continent world (with several areas each) is hand placed. No area is random. Travel by dirigible, locomotive, zeppelin, horse, boat. This is what I want when I go exploring through a new world. Sandy beaches that have no roaming monster but form part of the landscape and perhaps have a secret treasure to dig for if you only but take the time to disembark. Islands with bridges and scenery you have no access to for no other reason than to be part of your view in this expansive world. Steam appropriately coming up from the vents and oscillations of the gigantic gears within an underground realm. Mini snow avalanches cascading down laden trees with squirrels dodging in and out. Owls peeking occasionally through high hollow holes in tall trees. Shimmer effects, ambient hover animations for every "clickable" item such as banners, gold chalises, chests, and urns. They did not need to do that. Waving flags (of course), smooth creature walking / roaming animations. I could go on. Rarely do developers put this much effort into the art and graphics. Not even Blizzard has done more in this area for any of their games. Perhaps equal to, but not beyond. They deserve to be praised. Sure, some may complain slightly that they're not using the highest resolution textures, but if that's the case, it's not noticeable or important (to me) and I'd rather have fully rotatable 3D terrain looking this good and running so well at high settings with my now-becoming obsolete GeForce 7900gt and middle aged Athlon system, than any alternative.
Every battle is in a different highly detailed hex-grid venue (like the HOMM series) and character design owes a little to Games Workshop minis as well as past HOMM titles, but extra details show, such as the lanterns atop the Dwarven Miner's heads. Animations all look fluid and are appropriately speedy. There's an option for speeding up battle and I surely thought I would use it (as I did in HOMM), but throughout my first play through I never felt tired of the animations or felt they were too slow.
Because of the high score, I've been trying to find a reason why it should not get a 10. The fact is, it's rare that some part of a game is so polished it actually stands out the entire way through. No, when zoomed all the way in I will admit the hero model is simply average. Perhaps the textures aren't as high a resolution when at that level of zoom either. Neither are World of Warcraft's or plethora of other games with an overall great artistic style. But that's not the way the game was meant to be played and I'm surprised (actually pleasantly) that it even allows for that. Most games of this basic type have traditionally had a fairly high up view to begin with because of the nature of getting a tactical overview of the enemies and land. Zoom just little out in King's Bounty and it's amazing. You'll see over heavily wooded hills and cliffs to distant lands, creatures you don't yet have access to will be walking their paths, and all the details pop right out. In summary, prepare to be visually spoiled.
Sound & Music
Music is full of beautiful, haunting, inspiring orchestral melodies, just like the old HOMM games though perhaps not quite as catchy. There are several mp3's downloadable on the official King's Bounty site if you're so inclined, but in each area, the music contributes greatly to the atmosphere. Almost on this basis alone this category should be ranked highly, but it wouldn't if sounds weren't extremely well done too. There are atmospheric sounds as you travel and the horses appropriately make metallic, wooden, or earthy sounds as they trot over the various landscapes. During battle, sound is used perfectly for all the spells, abilities, and attacks, so there are no surprises. I can't quite put sound in the same category as graphics as other than the nice touch of my horse trotting over different terrain and apart from the music, I didn't feel too much above and beyond what would be expected. For example, the NPCs that wander around the land may have grunted or had some sort of short vocal SFX when giving chase. Or during battle some of the units could have had more of a character sound-wise (like the dwarves perhaps saying some short gobbledygook phrase in a Scottish accent, or pirates saying "Aargh" as they charge).
Again because the entire game is extremely polished and though the sounds and music were always spot on, I can only mention what little more there is that could be improved upon. Therefore I felt there could have been more sound emphasis on level-ups and victory summaries. Similar to WoW's "zding!" on level up, some sound and visual emphasis would make the very act of leveling more poignant than it already is. Here you get to choose a new main stat, a bevy of new runes to purchase skills with, and have reached a new milestone. It should be an event delivered with appropriate fanfare rather than just small text in a dialogue window. The dialogue graphics are just fine, but it could have used something more.
Likewise, probably due to budget and though it isn't really missed, it could have added something to have an overall narrator do voiceovers and cut scenes at some of the milestones, especially when first traveling to a new continent for the first time during the journey. With lots of quest dialogue and NPCs not really the focus, I don't really miss VO for them, but a narrator could have been cool. Just ways to improve an already stellar game... but if any of this had to come at the expense of losing anything else, then I'd drop the request in a heartbeat.
Overall thoughts for music & sound? Great orchestral music, and above average sound.
King's Bounty is huge. One time through the adventure will easily consume 60 - 100 hours of your time, and that's just once. While perhaps not matching some of the all time greats (such as Baldur's Gate II) in time consumption, it is still a major accomplishment in single player games. The diversity with its landscapes and creatures never gets stale.
As for replayability? The game has been out in Europe and Russia for several months already, and the localized North American release has been updated with the thoughtful changes that have so greatly balanced the classes to an individual play experience well worth replaying - at least 1 or 2 additional times. As each class plays fundamentally differently and the game's creature and spell system is nearly completely randomized, it virtually guarantees a different experience replaying at least once as another class. With we'll say at minimum 40+ hours for an experienced gamer to go through it a second time, there's potential for significant amount of replayability for this type of game. Still, it is single-player only and the quests are always the same, making the overall experience a 2nd and 3rd time somewhat less about that aspect and more about combat and building your character and his army, which is the main element anyway. There is also a high score board for personal or bragging rights; though a nice and ultimately desired touch, I can only see those with the much more free time than I have using this to any extent.
Though King's Bounty doesn't necessarily lend itself to typical multiplayer turn-based gameplay like hot-seat and e-mail games -- turn-based only applies to combat here -- there are some possibilities for extending the game in a unique and fun way. Something like a "Hero Arena" could allow two players to choose a class, distribute a set number of attribute points, hand-pick their army from the same limited selection of random monsters using a balanced pre-set number of leadership points to purchase them, then select a limited number of spells and a few extra skills to upgrade in the tree of their choosing, and then go at it. Best two of three rounds wins the match using the same army, and perhaps to the victor goes some sort of prestige points with the possibility of making it a ladder-based system. Just a suggestion!
I found the manual to be sufficient to teach me a few things I would normally be oblivious to about leadership and rage, but also minimal with respect to how to actually go through a combat. That part of the game was more of a hands on approach during the useful tutorial but will be old hat anyway to fans of the HOMM series and in any case is not difficult to figure out. I'll actually be waiting for the fan-made Russian manual to be translated into full English to get the most out of future play throughs.
Very good games (especially without high marketing budgets) deserve to be praised, so please consider my meager (ahem) review an attempt at a trumpeted call through the winding streets of your village about a game that deserves more recognition. Now, if you're still reading and haven't already bought it, go out immediately and show your support to the developers for this great piece of software. Thanks especially to Katauri Interactive, but also to 1C Publishing and Atari. This is one title where sequels and expansions are very welcome.