King Arthur II review (PC)

Do you remember those “Choose your own adventure” books? You know, do this and turn to page 54, or do that and go to page 213. Well, Neocore Games do – and by mixing that in with RPG character building elements and Total War-esque strategy, they’ve created a very interesting and very different game.

King Arthur II is optimistically subtitled: The Role-Playing Wargame. You play the son of the title character as he tries to put his father’s kingdom back together, and find a cure for his father’s debilitating injury. To do this, you take your character and his army around mythic Britain completing quests, managing your realm, engaging in diplomacy and, of course, fighting battles.

The roleplaying elements are relatively simple. You get to choose a class at the beginning – a standard Total War Warlord, a magic slinging Sage or an “I hit things” Champion – and unlock abilities in a skill tree that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played a Blizzard game in the last decade or so.

You can equip your characters with weapons and artefacts you discover, as well as marrying them off and granting them parts of your kingdom to govern – though that is just a way of affecting their stats.

King Arthur II: The Role-playing Wargame

The real time battles are all Total War, with rolling hills, formations and tiny little men hitting each other with swords. There is one big difference – magic. Your knights and generals cast spells that can have fairly dramatic effects, at least after you wear down your opponents defences.

There are mythic units like giants, faeries, werewolves and all sorts of flying nasties. Finally, there are special command points dotted around the various maps that grant the side controlling them special abilities. This gives the early part of every battle a little more cut and thrust, and gives your cavalry something to do other than waiting around for you to call them.

Also, contrary to my experience with Shogun and the rest, you won’t be shy about ramming your generals into the fight, as they can be dramatic tide turners.

The grand strategy map shows a wonderfully detailed and fantastic Britain, through which you trudge from quest to quest. The game turns are based on the seasons, and you work your way through spring, summer and autumn. During these turns you’re mostly just moving, attacking, being attacked and occasionally doing some diplomacy. Then in winter, you bunker down and prepare for the next year. Winter is the turn you can upgrade buildings, queue up research and level-up your heroes and troops.

This divide creates an elegant flow to play. You don’t have to focus too much on the fiddly bits of your kingdom for the majority of turns, so you can just move your armies (you get up to three) to the next point of interest. Then, in winter, you take a break and can switch focus to upgrading – spending the gold your kingdom has accumulated. Then – bing – back to the game.

King Arthur II: The Role-playing Wargame

Of course, when the game doesn’t involve armies clashing or upgrading buildings, it involves paragraphs of text being read by the narrator. Lots of paragraphs. Lots of: “It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.”

Just about every quest or piece of diplomacy involves a small story with different choices open to you to shape your ruler and realm. Apart from taking you down different parts of the story (and getting different rewards), these choices also serve to guide your alignment. Alignment follows, on one axis, the typical good versus evil of recent RPGs. But King Arthur II also adds a second axis, which is Christian versus Old Faith. Your alignment unlocks different special units like avenging angels or Seelie archers, depending on your actions.

The story itself is interesting and pretty dark, overall. This is a realm at war, being overrun by the demonic Fomorians, who can infect and corrupt anyone, anywhere. So there’s lots of distrust, black deals and nervous well-I-hope-this-turns-out-well choices.

Unfortunately, all the narrative is read out to you by this one guy. He’s got a good voice – putting on accents and going all squeaky when talking as a lady. But I found it became a bit samey, so I’d try and read ahead and just go through faster – not waiting for his measured delivery.

And while we’re talking drawbacks, let’s talk about the one that lets King Arthur II down the most: it’s ‘strategy’.

While it may look like a Total War game, and mostly plays like one, it’s not one. You really don’t have control in the strategy portion of the game. You don’t choose where you’re going to attack next because the defending forces will be massively out of your league until the story decides it’s time for you to invade. That means you’re following a story, not making one. I’m told the previous game had something of the same problem, but offered new campaigns with full freedom – but they’re not here, or announced, yet.

King Arthur II: The Role-playing Wargame

For what it’s worth, graphically, King Arthur 2 is a pretty game. The grand strategy map is beautiful, while the individual real time battle maps are otherworldly and fantastic – with great little touches from the magic, like a unit of infantry being scattered into the air after a lightning strike.

Overall though, it’s an odd game. A mish-mash of different genres shouldn’t work. We’ve all seen too many games that suffer from the “let’s just do everything” syndrome, and end up watering down what’s good about those genres beyond the point where it’s enjoyable.

King Arthur 2 doesn’t suffer from this problem. The story layer complements the more traditional game elements and will give gamers a good, layered and deep, if overly directed, fantasy experience.

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King Arthur II review (PC)

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