Pick a side and lead your forces to glory as a legendary hero in a tactical fantasy wargame with a focus on action and character progression.
Genre: Action, Strategy, RPG
Publisher: Blueside, BSV Holdings
Release date: 28 February, 2020
I missed Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders the first time around completely and I’d somehow never even heard of it when I came across news of its Steam release. At first glance, I got a Dynasty Warriors vibe from it though after getting my hands on it I’ve discovered that it’s much heavier on the strategy and somewhat lighter on the hack-and-slash. To be honest, it’s quite a bit different than anything that I’ve played before and feels like a combination of Dynasty Warriors and a simplified Total War game that somehow works.
Swords, Mortars, and Naked Elves
Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders tells the story of a war that has broken out in a familiar, but unique, fantasy world. Humans, orcs, elves, and a handful of other staples of the genre show their faces here in a way that pays their respects to their inspirations while showing us something new. There are heavily armed and armored knights, beefy ogres, terrifying dragons in the sky, and mortars on the ground. You’ll choose one of four factions and play their hero as you battle through their involvement in the events to come. Don’t expect any real narrative choice though; your heroes and units are yours to build and customize as you please but the entire experience consists of moving from one battle on the map to the next with brief intermissions where you can spend experience and gold to upgrade your forces and engage in some setting-building conversation. Scenarios are predetermined and the story itself is as linear as can be.
The audio and visuals are decent enough, though as with most games released in the early 2000s, they’re certainly outdated when compared to today’s standards. Some aspects are fantastic, like the inclusion of an archer in the unit running up and down your line lighting arrows with a torch when you order a volley of fire arrows. Others aren’t as impressive, such as how some characters seem to be chewing like a cow while they speak. The overall graphics and art style do well enough to immerse you in the atmosphere though they’re certainly a long shot from what you probably prefer in an action game at this point.
The metal soundtrack surprised me, initially by its existence, and then by how well it fits in with and creates intensity with the game every step of the way. I used to consider myself a purist of sorts and preferred music that might exist in the setting itself, but I can say that I’ve been converted more and more by the excellent use of modern music that has been adapted into titles where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it at first.
Floods and Fires
Combat is the primary, almost single-minded focus of Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, and as your army grows, your ability to manage it just as well. The first few scenarios feel a bit Dynasty Warriors as you control one unit, so the required tactical thinking is minimal, but each new unit broadens your control over the battlefield. You’ll never be overwhelmed by the number of units that you’re tasked with commanding and swapping between them to issue orders quickly becomes second nature.
The wide variety of units on a single class tree immediately interested me. It starts simple enough with basic units, but as these units gain experience they’ll be able to evolve into more powerful, faction-specific types. These upgrades come with a sleek new look, some stat buffs, the potential for new equipment options, and maybe even some new abilities.
Although buying new equipment for your heroes is exciting and can help you tailor your efficiency that much more, the special abilities of your units take front and center and there’s plenty of variety. For example, archers can set their arrows on fire to rain flame down on their enemies, doing catastrophic damage under the right circumstances. Alternatively, sappers can detect and disarm enemy traps, set their own, and even interact with the environment to turn the tide of battle in your favor.
Outside of these, there are a few additional tactics that you can employ to overcome your foes. The sun itself stands out as the most unique as it can be a friend or foe at any given time. You’ll always want to prioritize positioning your units so that it is at their back and use it against your enemy whenever possible; a blinded soldier is one that can’t fight to their fullest. I found this particularly innovative as most games entirely ignore this element of tactical combat that has played a huge role throughout history.
There are a couple of issues that I have that you’re sure to face if you spend any real time with this title, some of which are unforgivable, others which are simply the standard for the era that it was released in. The more frustrating of the two is that battles can be quite long, well over half an hour depending on the situation. This wouldn’t normally be a problem other than that there are no autosaves and they tend to be more or less the same each time you play thanks to the linear nature of the game. The second problem ties directly into this first as there are times when unit reactions to your orders simply don’t make much sense. You might give an order for a unit to move to a specific location and they’ll walk forward forty yards before starting to turn in the direction that they need to be going in. This may very well get them and the rest of your forces annihilated in some missions where stealth is key, putting you in a position where Issue #1 becomes a serious problem. That said, the latter issue tends to be relatively rare and although it interfered with my enjoyment of the game a few times, I had a good experience overall.
Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders is a strategy RPG that I would’ve loved if I’d played it on its release. I can’t say that I have that same level of enthusiasm for it in 2020 when there are so many fantastic titles available, though there’s still plenty of fun to be had here if the concept interests you. As long as you can embrace its corny dialogue, accept its flaws when it comes to the combat not being all that realistic, and embrace its outdated visuals and audio, there’s a solid game here that still manages to feel unique and innovative to this day.