Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders went through (well, across one corner of) development hell on its route to the shelves. Three changes of publisher meant that the game that finally hit stores was missing a few key features that Phantagram felt would really push it into the realms of excellence. Heroes aims to refine the original’s still brilliant concept to earn the Kingdom Under Fire series the place in gaming history its predecessor failed to secure. But has it managed it this time?
Between missions, the game takes you to different towns on a downsized map, and shows you where all the battle hot spots on the continent are. This lets you develop a real sense of the geography of the war, and prevents the plot from becoming a sideshow in the proceedings – which is convenient, as it’s genuinely engaging, and reaches some significant (if rather sentimental) conclusions.
The seven heroes serve an additional plot function by providing a window into the private proceedings of the world – where normally we might expect a dramatic cut-scene, here much is learned from the dialogue between characters, often during missions. This personal aspect generates an empathy that translates straight into the gameplay, giving you motive and desire to win – it’s clear from the start that Phantagram wants you to actually care.
You can now upgrade your troops by giving their commander new skills, which ultimately can completely redefine the jobs and abilities of whole armies by spending the experience points earned in battle.
Since the plot is a prologue for Crusaders, everything works brilliantly for newcomers – there’s no need for prior knowledge to understand what’s going on, but for old hands, action wise, a pretty much identical formula remains. You direct your different sets of troops (archers, cavalry, siege weapons and the like) by either selecting them and pointing them in the direction you want to go, or by setting waypoints on the mini-map. Missions are varied and can involve anything from sieges to rescue gambits, but ultimately, it tends to amount to destroying everything on the map. And with 3,000 plus
A few new elements change things though – the combo system is far more accessible than it used to be, so you can get right in the bloody thick of it and do some real damage with your hero from early on. This has a knock-on effect - the morale and aggressiveness of your troops is directly affected by your own behavior, success and failure; a lost fight or a cowardly escape could spell disaster for more than just your hero.
But it’s with a more than heavy heart that we accept that this sequel doesn’t do enough to erase the memory of its predecessor’s mistakes. Take the camera. It zooms in on your selected troop when too many enemies arrive to prevent the on-screen enemy count from going past (a staggering) 300, and hence removes any slowdown. However, this all but cripples your ability to direct from the third-person view, leaving the mini-map as your only option.
The flaw here lies with your hero – you can see a problem, and too often, the only feasible solution you can think of is to run over right into the middle of it all and bash things over the head with your oversized blunt weapon (no, the other one). It’s a raw action-induced solution, but not a tactical one.