The Kingdom Under Fire series has largely stood alone in gaming history. Combining third person hack and slash in the manner of Dynasty Warriors with a unit based RTS, the original four games in the series were released in the 2000s to great critical acclaim. Developer Blueside released the mediocre Kingdom Under Fire 2 last year after an 11 year development cycle, and are now hoping to grab some nostalgia money by releasing a PC port of the second game in the series, 2004’s Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders.
The bulk of the game sees you controlling your units in tactical mode, manoeuvring them around the map in real time to gain an advantage over the enemy battalions, rock-paper-scissors style. Once you meet the enemy up close you switch over to third person mode, taking part in the combat personally as your character. It’s a hybrid mechanic that doesn’t really exist anywhere else, and is by far the best thing about the game. The unique combination of the third person and RTS gameplay means this has an immediacy that RTS games don’t have, and a sense of scale that few RPGs can match.
The game is highly complex, with many more elements than can possibly be described in a review. It can also be quite punishing later on if you haven’t planned properly or don’t use your troops to their full potential. Luckily the game does ease you in relatively gently, with the first campaign (helpfully labelled as easy) providing a challenging but not unfair learning curve. Games like Dynasty Warriors have built entire series on the enjoyment of scything through hordes of minions, and once Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders starts introducing dragons and catapults into the mix, the epic scale really ups the enjoyment. You can completely understand why the game was so well-received on its original release, and why so many have looked forward to this rerelease.
Sadly this is where a lot of the positives end. This is an old game, and whilst we have been spoiled recently with remakes and remasters, this isn’t one. Even by port standards this is one of the laziest rereleases I have ever experienced. Blueside have not even added achievements for Steam. Graphically the only change is to add widescreen and HD support, although the UI does not seem to scale properly, resulting in some stretched assets. Character models, textures, etc. are unchanged, meaning by today’s standards they look pretty awful, and the game is capped at 30 FPS. Playing the game on a big HD screen instead of a CRT doesn’t help. The colour scheme, gritty and muted browns and greys, makes details difficult to pick out in the middle of a melee. The sound also dates the game, with a heavy metal soundtrack and over-the-top voice acting that was common in the 2000s.
The controls are also an issue. My natural inclination for this sort of game would be to play with keyboard and mouse, but no concessions are given to those choosing to play that way. The control scheme was designed for a controller, so it’s not exactly user-friendly to PC players, particularly in the tactical mode. A popup menu with keyboard mappings is the only addition, but this doesn’t pause the game, meaning if you need to look up one of the unintuitive keys in the middle of a battle you’re likely to be vulnerable. The developer does recommend playing with a controller, although this seems to me an effort to cover up for not properly redesigning the controls for PC. After a few missions I gave up on the mouse and keyboard and switched over to controller. This made things a bit easier, but I don’t feel I should have to be forced into a particular method.
Even with a controller, the game can be pretty awkward to navigate, particularly the camera. In tactical mode you’ll often find it zooming in when you want to see the whole battlefield, or changing direction at random, all of which is not helped by the very low field of view. It can be really difficult to get your troops to go where you want them to, and more often than not you’ll rely on the minimap rather than the tactical view. Similarly in third person mode it’s quite difficult to line up your special attacks with a particular enemy; more than once I missed everyone completely. The difficulty I mentioned earlier can quickly become frustrating when you’re fighting against the game as much as the enemy.
The action and linear storyline also become quite repetitive. Despite attempts to add variety with things like stealth missions, as soon as the game steps away from the epic scale it loses a lot of what makes it special. Every individual clash during a battle feels virtually the same, all boiling down to taking out the enemy commander as soon as possible. Story wise there are no surprises to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with fantasy tropes. On the other hand, the free reign you’re given to customise your characters and units allows you to mix things up a bit, and the in-depth unit customisation allows you to turn your warriors into paladins, cavalry, or anything else available.
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