King Arthur II ReviewWalter Garrett Mitchell
You know that friend, the one with a sort of awkward brilliance? A certain excess of intellect and good intention that rarely translates into charm or wit, that is too often stifled by stiffness? You do admire them and want them to succeed: after all, they know what they're trying to do, they're ambitious and capable, and yet - you really hate to say it - they just fall flat.
I just can't help but say the same of Paradox Interactive's King Arthur II. And I do hate to say it, because the game has potential, and a lot of it - it just gets put out by developmental sort of social awkwardness.
Set in a whimsical parallel universe of Arthurian Britain, the game is determined to set a grand, pseudo-historical tone and couple that with equally impressive, Total War-style clashes between the fantastic forces of medieval legend. More than that, it seeks to structure the specifics of battle around a complex system of buffs, bonuses and specialized abilities, most of which are earned through the upkeep of one's territories, the careful management of their resources and the translation of those resources into military force - standard strategy fare, more or less.
But more than driving your men to victory, you are asked to demonstrate personality through choice. Hence King Arthur's straightforward subtitle, The Role-Playing Wargame. Problems can be solved any number of ways - by force or with bribery, for example - and you are given the option (by way of divergent dialogue trees) of furthering your goals according to tactical priority - military preeminence or high standing with your allies, say. Moreover, your heroes (and units) level up throughout, allowing for specialization, personalization and plain old gratification.
The game's complex ambitions are inspiring, even outstanding when that genre mix-and-match properly combines in momentary harmony. Unfortunately, those ripe experiences are too sparsely scattered across the awkward, haphazard landscape of to-and-fro diplomacy quests, linear narrative progression (made only more aggravating by the choose-your-own-adventure illusion of choice), a dense interface, convoluted and ultimately ineffective stat-crunching, as well as a healthy handful of technical snags. For all its pioneering spirit, King Arthur II just never really comes together.
The battlefield is where you'll spend maybe half of your time - it should be a fun place to be. Mammoth-scale and playing out in real-time (with a helpful pause feature), battles are fun, generally speaking, but they're not the multifaceted, tactic-testing fun one would expect from a strategy game that presents so many variables to tweak. Most times, you'll send the bulk of your forces down the middle, maybe send some cavalry around to flank, toss some spells and make sure your archers aren't left in a vulnerable position. But invariably and after just a minute or two, every unit is engaged in combat: avoiding melee can be dangerous, as enemy spells and arrows provide ample incentive to get out of the open, and stealth tactics are quickly seen through by AI. So now everyone's tangled up in hand to hand and you're waiting somewhere in the stratosphere for various values to drop to zero.
You don't have to do that, of course - you're free to mix things up partway through (and you'll have to, a little) but units are loathe to disengage an enemy they're already clobbering, so shifting strategy can be slow going. Neither is there too much incentive to play defensively, or more specifically, to save any more than one man per unit: for a handful of coins each unit can be revived to full force when you return to the overworld map, across which you'll stomp from battle to battle, each of your turns lasting one season and allowing for upgrades, diplomacy and recuperation between skirmishes.
Occasional lulls in the carnage allow you to descend from your heavenly perch and watch things play out up close. This can be either extremely rewarding or miserably stupid: standing with your archers as they aim and release, rising with their arrows and seeing them pluck winged horrors from the sky, actually seeing missiles hit bodies? Very, very cool. Plopping down into a massive melee fray indistinguishable from an overcrowded Zoo Tycoon game? Sort of disappointing.
But King Arthur II's most interesting and troublesome elements are naturally those of the RPG. So, the role you play: The Once and Future King Arthur lies inexplicably incapacitated, and you find yourself in the clanking boots of his son, William Pendragon. (In the case of the generously lengthy prologue, you are the vengeful Roman noble Septimus Sulla, who returns in the main campaign.) In classic RPG form, it is up to you and you alone to unite all the squabbling clans under one banner, to tame to otherworldly dangers that dapple England, restore peace to land and so on.
To begin, you select one of three of classes for your hero: the melee-centric Champion, the stat-boosting Warlord or the hex-slinging Mage. Heroes being the only units capable of spell casting, it seemed silly to select anything but Mage. I hear that I'm not alone in thinking so, and it seems that this semi-obvious choice usually leads to semi-obvious results: a high-level Mage, late in the game, is neigh unstoppable. (A note on difficulty: whereas the first King Arthur was roundly criticized for its unforgiving challenge, King Arthur II finds a frustrating middle ground - the standard difficulty feels too easy, the next notch up too tough. Argh.)
Aside from leveling and customizing your hero according to taste, RPG-ish elements of choice generally play out in the game's text adventures. Uniting the kingdom involves more than squashing barbarians and razing castles: some missions require diplomacy, stealth, and political know-how. These quests or sections of quests that do not take place on the battlefield are told in a series of narrated, illustrated windows. The narrator (who throws his voice around to impersonate all sorts of characters, with mixed results) sets the scene, pausing to allow the player to choose a course of action, whether it be Outburst vs. Acquiescence in a political debate or Attack vs. Sneak Around in a scouting mission.
Like so many other elements of King Arthur, I have mixed feelings about this strange, flashcard approach to narrative: on the one hand, it serves as an efficient shorthand for telling personal stories ill-suited to the game's core system of large-scale battles. The stories and their politics are satisfyingly complex, so if you're willing to buy in they can lend real depth to the gameplay.
It can be hard to swallow, though, as the text adventure's presentation often feels hackneyed and overdone (the narration is, well, overenthusiastic) and exactly because it masquerades as an opportunity for choice and freedom it's even more frustrating when your decisions seem to have no quantifiable impact - differences in completion rewards are negligible, the two way moral scale (Tyrant vs. Rightful) seems to mean little to nothing, and your narrative choices never actually alter the course of the infuriatingly linear story.
King Arthur's linearity can be downright suffocating. As others have by now pointed out, the illusion of unfettered movement is shattered by armies of Impossible strength that bar entrance to as-yet unexplored regions of the map. Should you venture too far from the prescribed path, these vanguards of linear consistency stand ready to reduce your hapless hordes to a fine powder: that is, until some appointed time in the narrative when their difficulty rating mysteriously plummets and your own men uncover some reservoir of inner strength of which they were previously ignorant. It's almost insulting - why spend so much time arranging this complex system of leveling, bonuses, training and specialization if the game will simply decide for you when you're ready to move on?
So if it isn't just its awkward presentation, maybe that's why Paradox's storytelling experiment was doomed to fizzle. Strategy games offer the singular opportunity to rewrite history with every playthrough - prearranged narrative tends to limit that inventive spirit. More than that, and in a way distinct from the personal/moral narratives of the character-driven RPG, strategy games are about writing the story of a nation, a civilization, a beast too complex and dynamic to be reduced to a single face, a single story arc. Entwining the fate of a nation with one figure, however malleable, necessarily narrows the possibilities of the strategy game to align with the unbending line of digit-climbing that has traditionally defined the RPG.
Maybe if the battles felt more diverse, more accepting of various strategies, maybe if the game's various upgrades felt more like tactical decisions than prerequisite stat bumps to allow for sanctioned movement forward, or maybe if a multiplayer mode was introduced to allow for deeper exploration of the game's complex systems - maybe then King Arthur II's linear story wouldn't be so irritating. As it stands, King Arthur II offers little more than the illusion of participation while indulging in an overwrought narrative too severe to circumvent and too nebulous to sink one's teeth into.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.