Look at that title. So unobtrusive. Put it next to the hyperbolically monikered brutes it’ll be sharing shelf space with – Madworld, Overkill, Chop Til You Drop – and it may as well be called ‘Don’t Worry About Me’ or ‘Sorry. I’m Just Really Sorry’. But that’s the little king’s secret: smile, look harmless and crush with extreme prejudice. Underestimating this diminutive dictator will be your biggest mistake this year.
There’s a feeling you get from some games – mostly very special games – of being in safe hands. It often stems from a strange side detail; if the periphery is sound, the heart must be worthy too. In Little King’s Story it happens ten seconds in, just after the remote strap safety warning. Developers’ names are scribbled on a chalk board as Ravel’s Bolero begins to play. A classy art style, for sure, but it’s the music that tells you to pay attention. The militaristic rat-a-tat-tat underpins soaring majesty – a mix that grows bigger and bigger and is a perfect synopsis of the game to come.
The Little King’s story is one of expansion. From quaint hamlet to a sprawling metropolis. From empty grassland to homes overflowing with virtual lives. From a dusty shack to a castle American tourists would wet themselves over. From an entourage of one knight, a stroppy librarian and a cow to a heaving populace of farmers, chefs, merchants and miners. It’s the stuff of countless real-time strategies, only played from ground level. No hiding in invisible sky observatories for this god – you’ve got to taste the fruits of your labour, be they bitter or sweet.
While many games are interested in the heights of power, few paint as witty a picture of humble beginnings. Your town begins hopeless, full of unemployed bozos who while away the day sleeping on the pavement. Think Trowbridge before a nuclear blast killed all the greenery. Good for nothing but menial digging, the wastrels prove a useful excavation force, uprooting turnips to be converted into moolah. And so begins town planning, cleverly limited by dwindling funds to disguise the fact that you’re tirelessly working through a two-hour tutorial.
Homes pop up overnight. There’s a chilled tone throughout Little King’s Story that rejects the SimCity clutter of build-times; time isn’t of the essence, so it matters not that buildings miraculously sprout in the ground. Likewise, you have no control over where the town grows – it’s geographically linear – so the only decision you have to make is what you want to build. A smidgen of strategy is introduced here: building your subjects new homes will boost the population, but then you won’t have the cash to build them places of employment – places that will undoubtedly feed the coffers, thus enabling more building.
As we said, town management is largely out of your hands, but it’s remarkable how easily you can muck it up. The world map opens up with new professionals – you can’t get beyond the initial area without woodcutters, for example – so choosing to build houses can set back exploration. This in turn prevents you from finding the riches of new areas, leaving you to try to raise the money through day after day of harvesting grass. As a punishment for poor decision making, this is suitably demeaning, not to mention far preferable to a traditional ‘game over’ screen.
So you’ve got the means to employ your subjects; here comes the second dose of strategy. You’re limited to a certain number of followers at any one time, so you have to make them count. The others will tootle around town in delightfully clockwork AI routines while you set out on adventures. Only those adventures won’t get far if you, say, take four farmers to fight a poison-spewing snail beast. You’ll need soldiers instead, but then how will you dig up gold? Best take one farmer. But he won’t whip you up the necessary bridge, so it’s carpenters you need…
Decisions pile up at a rapid rate. All you’re doing is approaching people and tapping B to shanghai them into your army, but that choice largely decides between victory and defeat. You could play it safe and ferry only the required workers back and forth as and when they’re needed, but as the game progresses and distances involved grow, you’ll not only need to slicken up your act, you’ll want to. Storming around with a posse of 30 miners is funny in a mad King George III kind of way, but there’s real satisfaction in knowing you assembled a perfect team. It makes you feel, well, kingly.
It paints quite a nice picture of expansion, too. You won’t know what that dream team is until you’ve ventured into foreign lands and had your arse handed to you by a dragon/fallen log/giant egg, so you’ll have to scout it out first. Dipping your toes in the water and deducing what manpower is needed to suck it dry is such cunning fun that it’s no wonder the olden days were as invasion-heavy as they were. Hell, why did we ever stop invading?
Pulling off a really good invasion, however, is a different matter entirely. Even with the infrastructure and the right men, you can’t just turn up and expect to be handed the land deeds on a silver platter. No, it’s bloodshed or home time for you. Commanding your troops redefines the phrase ‘deceptively simple’. Technically speaking, you press A to send a citizen to perform his chosen action (fight, dig, build) and press B to retreat. First of all, don’t be ashamed of the retreat button – it’s your friend and it’ll save your life.
Funnily enough, enemies don’t like having 20 soldiers pounding on their skulls and will retaliate. The secret is to pay attention to attack patterns and heed enemy intel to make sure your men attack when beasts are at their least harmful. When the dragon has his back to you? Stab that fool. When smoke is billowing from his nostrils? Flee. It sounds obvious but, as with anything in Little King’s Story, Marvelous find ways of increasing the scope of the challenge.
What about multiple enemies, unreachable foes and environmental hazards? Overcoming them from a theoretical standpoint is half the battle, but enacting the plan is something else entirely. Learn to use the D-pad. With it you can change battle formations and decide which order your men will attack in. It’s no more (actually quite a lot less) than any strategy game would ask of you; Little King’s Story just has the guts to dump you, a frail child, in the heart of it all. Good luck keeping a clear head.
Succeed and it’s a glory few strategy games offer. Sorry to sound like the Little Red Hen, but we earned the cash, we built the armoury, we trained the troops and we outsmarted the beast. And we actually did it all – not by proxy though drop-down menus. Admittedly, it does ask a lot of you – particularly your D-pad control. Keeping it together, especially when things go wrong, is tough. It’s all too easy to cycle through the troops in a panic and begin sending farmers to their untimely deaths while soldiers look befuddled at what they’re meant to do with the radish before them.
You’ll learn to deal with the controls, but you’ll never get over those deaths. The game isn’t big on punishing you for failure – dead soldiers wash up the next day on the beach as young children – but man alive, will you punish yourself. Returning to town knowing that you’ve next to depopulated the place (if only for an evening) is terrible. It reminds us of the guilt of killing Pikmin, only this time the Pikmin have human faces. And the game never lets you forget, those lapses in ability being immortalized as dips on the population line graph, the jagged line a sad memorial to the dead.
There’s so much life in Little King’s Story, we can’t help but weep. Farmers farm, miners mine and the unemployed schlep around. These are no more than AI character routines – the number of each profession has no actual effect on your town – but the illusion is clever. They rise in the morning, celebrate your victories and mourn the passing of comrades. A handful of brilliant side characters (see ‘Are You Local?’) spice things up further; the regular barney between the priest and the man of science is a wonderfully sly observation.
While the game nails small characters, the star attractions are surely your rival kings and the other guardians who roam the land. Guardians are rollicking sub-boss fights (played out to the William Tell Overture) that put your command of troops to the ultimate test. Rival kings, on the other hand, are some of the best bosses we’ve ever encountered. From the drunken king of parties to a mountain-based climb-off, these are dazzling comic setpieces that rewrite the rulebook with a gleeful abandon. If the game wants one to be a game of pinball, it’ll be a game of pinball.
Whether observing these strange characters or listening to the laugh-out-loud-funny turns of phrase (disgusted letters from citizens about your many wives, for example), this is one of the funniest games on Wii. But that’s just one tiny part of a game with a whole lotta love poured in. It has meaty gameplay that you can tear away in belly-filling chunks. It has a musical score that makes your journey across Alpoko into a literal trip through the works of Beethoven, Strauss and Rossini. It has charm and challenge in equal measure.
But most of all, when everyone else is mucking around in blood and guts, Little King’s Story has the tenacity to be an actual game you can play and play and play. The first true essential of 2009, this little king towers above the competition.
Apr 24, 2009