REVIEW: Kingdom Two Crowns Dead Lands

May
31

REVIEW: Kingdom Two Crowns Dead Lands

A strange crossover, Miriam is now much weaker, but the monarch is now more powerful, if blessed with less good horses.

Released: Steam, Xbox One,
PS4, Switch
Type: Single-player
Genre: RTS, management, roguelite
Developer: Stumpy🐙Squid,
Fury Studios, Coatsink
Publisher: Raw Fury
Release date: 11 Dec, 2018
Expansion: 28 April, 2020

Intro

Kingdom as a series is best described as being something like a tower defense game where you (or at least, your character) are the tower. You have a crown, a bag for coins, and the ability to get people to do stuff if you pay them. The Greed are slime monsters that want your stuff: They want your coins, they want your peasant’s tools and weapons, and they want your crown.

Up until this latest expansion, the monarch was generally defenseless but for the ability to hire soldiers or possibly ride a dangerous mount. Dead Lands, however, crosses over with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (and they also offer a bundle for buying both games at once), which is probably one of the more unusual crossovers I’ve seen. In terms of tone, the two games certainly share similarities, but in terms of actual gameplay (and what kind of gamer would therefore be interested), I have to wonder how large the overlap in the Venn Diagram between playerbases might be.

The Dead Lands expansion is a totally free expansion that automatically unlocks (along with the almost totally cosmetic Shogun expansion that turns things Japanese) so long as you purchase the base game of Kingdom Two Crowns. If you already owned Kingdom Two Crowns, this is a free update, so you might as well give it a spin.

The description of Dead Lands states that it is “darker” and “more gothic” than the original Kingdom, however… umm… the original slogan was “nothing lasts”, basically is about how everyone is inevitably going to die and features almost ceaseless death. The only thing that really seems to change are the backgrounds of the island, the fact that the “good guy” is a vampire riding a zombie horse, and how the wild rabbits are for some reason replaced with chickens. Most of the graphics are even the same. You’re actively more capable of defending your allies now, so if anything, it’s less scary.

Kingdom

Kingdom is a franchise that I both love and hate. It is a game that manages to be a perfect example of atmospheric game design even while using such basic pixel graphics. It has extremely simple controls yet deep gameplay that relies upon understanding how the AI units under your command will react to fairly simple commands. It is the epitome of that concept that elegant game design is maximizing strategic depth while minimizing complexity.

It also happens to have a distinct lack of tutorial past the first minute of the game and fails to tell you incredibly crucial and basic things about how to play, such as that vagrant camps disappear if they don’t have trees around them and that you can therefore never cut those trees down, or that valuable rabbit dens only grow in plains outside your walls, discouraging expansion. You’ll have to restart a few times or read the wiki to learn that lesson. It is a roguelite game that can oftentimes come down to just restarting until you get a good starting random layout, as some layouts (especially ones with few or no vagrant camps until after the portals) are nearly impossible to play.

Basic gameplay revolves around coins. Coins are gained from your subjects hunting or farming (and farms are essentially gold mines), and coins are spent to build structures, upgrade structures, turn vagrants into villagers, create tools to turn villagers into engineers, farmers, archers, or knights, and coins are even your hit points if the Greed hit you. You do not have an accurate count of your coins if you have more than just a few, they’re only displayed as a bag in the corner, and if you have too many for your bag (which really is too small), they start to tumble out and fall into the sea.

The original Kingdom (which is no longer available for sale) is a game where difficulty ramped up both as time goes on and also as you destroyed portals, with the “revenge waves” that come after destroying a portal being by far the hardest part of the game, and causing all subsequent nightly attacks to become vastly more difficult.

(From Dead Lands) Few things are quite as much a pucker moment as running towards a wall on a blood moon only to find it’s already fallen, your remaining squire is fleeing, and floaters are drooling over your farmers…

Survival and success, then, is a matter of finding a balance between maintaining a full sack of coins, making a steady stream of vagrants become villagers, and making sure those villagers are then assigned proper tasks.

As a good example of the sort of gameplay Kingdom encourages, it’s often better to not expand a wall at all rather than only expand out to a flimsy low-tier wall, because if a wall breaks, your stupid, stupid, suicidal peasants won’t treat the horde of Greed as the threat it is, and walk, not run, to the next wall. Ordering an upgrade to a wall means the whole wall comes down until the upgrade is complete, and if you also have some trees marked for removal, the engineers may decide to cut those down instead of building the utterly vital defenses you all need to survive the night.

Facing a night with a flimsy tier-1 wall because the upgrades weren’t worked upon.

New Lands and Two Crowns

The big new thing that New Lands introduced was that the game now has islands where you must find and repair a ship to travel to new islands of escalating threats. The game also splits up its upgrades so that you cannot build anything but the lowest tier buildings until you find the stone quarry on the second island, and the top-tier buildings require the iron mine on the fourth island.

Sailing away from the first island.

Besides the basic quarry and mines, New Lands also introduced gems as a special extra currency to take up space in your coin sack you really need for more coins and also to unlock things like statues or mounts you don’t want, but mostly to just annoy you by making them take up coin space. (Just go ahead and give gems for the mounts you don’t want just so you get coin space back.)

Speaking of mounts, there are now a vast array of them, including the likes of griffons, stags, fire-breathing lizards, and unicorns which are either have a perk like more endurance or speed than the basic horse, or else offer some other perk like attracting deer for your archers to hunt, breathing fire, or pooping coins.

Dead Lands

The big thing that the crossover brings to the table are the four rulers that come from Bloodstained. There are Miriam, the main character of Bloodstained, whose power is an ice whip that freezes enemies and can be spammed to decidedly shore up any weaker walls and allow you to just wait the night out until the greedlings run and the breeder burns in the sun. Gebel is a vampire that can turn into a bat that can fly at high speed, making him extremely useful during the winter or if you have a slow mount and large kingdom. There are also two other guys that don’t matter because they’re garbage compared to Miriam or Gebel.

The game also introduces three new mounts, however all but possibly the beetle are basically useless because they are slow and their specials are not nearly good enough to make up for being slow. Worse, the igavania mount tragically replaces the vastly superior griffon mount. You’ll almost certainly be using the stag or lizard mounts from the base Two Crowns throughout your playthrough.

Me coming back to the first island only to be shocked at how unusably slow the igivania mount is.

Controls

Controls are sadly not rebindable, which is not excusable even in a game with such simple controls as this.

Controls mainly consist of either WASD or the arrow keys, with left and right being movement, down being coin/gem dropping, up being ruler special, left shift being mount special, and escape pausing the game. The game uses the mouse in menus but nowhere else.

Options menu

You also have an option to change your coat of arms, which is somewhat amusing, but especially with the alternate options in Dead Lands, I find there are few appropriate choices you can pick.

There are three colors, a background pattern, and a blazon in your coat of arms.

In other modes of Kingdom, you can customize your own ruler, which is otherwise randomized by pressing down at the start of the game, but because Dead Lands has you playing as Miriam as your original ruler no matter what, there are no customization options for her. (Which is odd, since you could customize her in her own game…)

No Manual

Even – or perhaps especially – as a player of the original Kingdom, there were a lot of new aspects to the game that really surprised me, and frustrated me greatly as I started playing. In my first game, I didn’t hurry particularly much, and got to the third island by about the 46th day. This was disastrous, however, as seasons were introduced in New Lands, and I had just started building up my new island with two days until winter. I found myself with nearly no archers, no money, and no way to make more money as all the wildlife disappeared during the winter. (I also had few archers because I did not realize that you could bring other people with you on the ship to the new islands, as the bell did not seem to do anything the first time I rang it.) Presuming it was like the original Kingdom where you just restart after having your crown taken, I just went ahead and reset, because I was clearly in a hopeless situation, and there was no point waiting until the inevitable happened. (I also reset a couple times just because I had an obviously terrible start on the second island where I could not find a vagrant camp before the portals.)

Winter means snow covers the ground, preventing huntable animals from spawning, farms from growing crops, and grass your mount grazes upon from growing.

All of this proves I was a Two Crowns newbie, as these are basic elements of the game in these new versions… too bad there’s literally nothing in the game that teaches you anything about them.

The game has basically the exact same tutorial that Kingdom did, except now it has an explicit ghost giving the tutorial. The only thing the ghost teaches you past the first minute of gameplay, however, is to constantly reappear and order you to give more money to the banker even when the freakin’ coffers are full so shut up and stop telling me that “a wise monarch stacks their coffers”!

Let me do any new players a favor. This is the fan-made wiki. Do not even try to play this game until you have read it. There, I just saved you about four restarts and 15 hours of frustration caused by the game failing to explain even its most basic elements.

And this is as someone who has played the base game, and already knows the really esoteric quirks for about 75% of the gameplay, such as that you never, ever chop down the last tree in front of a vagrant camp, even if you have to go past a portal and chop down all the trees on the way back. (That took me four or five restarts on the first game…)

I can somewhat understand the attempt to make a game that you have to “explore” to learn and overcome adversity, but there’s a difference between having hidden secrets in the gameplay and just flat-out not telling players how to play the game. It took me until my third playthrough to even figure out that “W” was the key to use my ruler’s special ability. There’s nothing in the game that teaches you even basic controls, and that’s simply a shameful failure to properly give your game a proper tutorial.

This lack of giving players a basic clue of how to play is by far the worst part of the game, and I worry that many players probably quit after one or two failures because they simply did not understand what they were doing wrong due entirely to the game utter failure to give proper feedback to the player. It really is a beautiful game once you get over the learning cliff, but oh how infuriating the utter lack of attempt to communicate basic gameplay concepts to the player can be…

Challenge Scaling

The waves of enemies scale based partially upon how long you have spent on the current island (so as not to slam you with an impossible wave on the first night on a new island), but mostly with the global amount of nights you have survived. You start off with a couple greedlings that die in one hit, then find yourself holding off waves of thirty greedlings, some of which have masks that make them withstand four hits, on blood moons or during revenge waves after you defeat a portal.

An early game threat – one greedling.

After a full year has gone by, you’re desperately holding out against floaters that eat the defenders in your towers while breeders slam break down walls by throwing your own catapult boulders back at you while vomiting more greedlings.

Mid-game threats – floaters going over the walls to eat your people, dozens of greedlings in a wave, and breeders on the edge vomiting more greedlings…

Eventually, they even send crown takers, beasts that vault over walls, run past guards, and will not stop until they take your crown and end your reign.

Essentially, little matters in this game more than speed. Until you’ve visited the fourth island, and have the iron mine to build the best defenses, there’s basically nothing you really want to do on any given island besides grab gems, activate some of the island perks, and then get off as soon as possible, without even fighting any of the greedling portals that aren’t in your way.

Co-op

As I was playing this without anyone else, I didn’t get to explore the co-op mode, but from what I read, the game doesn’t seem to ramp up the number of Greed attackers or resources the players can exploit to account for having two players. This almost on its own makes co-op a significantly easier and more relaxed way to play the game, as playing single-player almost entirely consists of trying to have the fastest horse and running back and forth from one end of the kingdom to the other to get all the vagrants before night falls. Just having someone to manage the other half of the kingdom for you instantly makes some of the slower but more powerful mounts much more attractive.

Additionally, in the event that the other player’s crown is taken, you can reforge it for 8 coins, which is a slap on the wrist for an established kingdom, so one player in co-op can feel free to take risks that a single player would not dare, even going so far as potentially using themselves as a decoy.

Graphics

The graphics are pixel art, but what really makes the game stand out are its lighting effects, the weather effects, and how they create atmosphere.

A foggy afternoon – at times, you can hardly see the ground.


You know you’re in for trouble on a day that is darker than the nights…


Looks like we’re in for nasty weather. There’s a bad moon on the rise.

It may seem silly to complement pixel art on its atmosphere for some, but this is exactly the kind of game that proves a “good-looking game” is based upon art direction, not raw graphical processor power.

Sound

I recall many of the sound effects and maybe also some of the music from the original Kingdom game, and I don’t believe there is any new music just for Dead Lands. That said, it’s still very welcome, as the soundtrack is absolutely perfect for the kind of game this is. The sound as the moon rises and the clouds turn red and a haunting, tense tone announces the blood moon even before the sound of the portals opening as the Breeders are disgorged to lay waste to all before them is exactly what this game needs to set the tone.

Two Crowns also comes in a bundle with its soundtrack. I’m not sure I would buy the soundtrack to listen to all on its own, good as it is, however, as it exists purely and specifically for the mood it sets. This soundtrack needs to be in this game (unless you have friends who also play this game, and you want to get a rise out of them).

Bugs

For the most part, Kingdom Two Crowns runs smoothly, as you probably would expect of what is basically the same game that’s been released three times and is now on an expansion pack two years after its latest release.

That said, I had some problems with my ruler dropping things for absolutely no reason. I don’t mean that I had too many coins and dropped a couple, that’s normal. I don’t mean I was hit by a greedling I didn’t see, because it was daytime. I mean I dropped gems while galloping across the kingdom for absolutely no reason. Considering as gems are impossible to replace and can bar access to important game mechanics, it is pretty terrible to have gems just fly out of your pouch for no reason. It happened with coins as well, but I am constantly overfull on coins, so unless it happened before I had farms up, I wouldn’t be too shocked, but losing gems for no reason is game-breaking.

Verdict

Unless you have a friend to play co-op with, I’m not sure how much longevity you can get out of a game like Kingdom. Certainly, after playing the original game, I wishlisted New Lands and Two Crowns, but never got around to them until being handed a review copy. (But then again, there’s a lot I never get around to…) The only thing to do after a winning game is play a new randomized map.

That said, Kingdom is a game you should play at least once. It is perhaps the most pure example of that concept that elegance in game design is the maximum amount of depth for the least amount of complexity. It is not hard to understand Kingdom, but it will definitely challenge you.

Leave a comment

Recent Posts

Archived Reviews