I really want to love King Arthur II – The Role-Playing Wargame. On paper, this should be the gaming equivalent of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, combining two great things together into something that much better. I relish the feeling of directing my cavalry to charge into a unit’s unprotected flank while my heavy infantry clash against their forward ranks. I also enjoy making a lasting choice of what to do with these plagued villagers, which will affect my progress and reputation. However, while specific elements of King Arthur II are solid and interesting, as a complete package it is held back from its true genre-blending potential by some technical issues and some poor design choices.
If you’ve ever played any games in the Total War series, then you have a pretty good basis for understanding King Arthur II. Like those games, King Arthur is primarily split between the strategic level of moving your armies on the overworld map and directing the individual units during battle. On top of this, King Arthur II adds RPG elements and narrative, soyou’ll have a much closer connection to your hero and greater control of your army’s development. You also won’t simply be fighting for only the sake of defense or conquest. It might, for instance, be because Merlin’s apprentice is locked a dungeon and you need his help to track down his master.
The story elements are really interesting at times. King Arthur II takes the approach of grounding the fantasy in a bit of reality; Hadrian’s Wall is something that exists in this world. It just so happens to be this massive, magical, crystal structure. The game also adds grim elements to the grandeur that’s typically associated with the lore. In the main campaign you’re taking the role of William Pendragon, son of the Once and Future King Arthur. The Holy Grail has been shattered, Arthur is plagued with a wound that never heals, and the Knights of the Round Table have all left either in treason, gone into exile or are simply missing. Now you have to somehow put the kingdom back together and find a cure for your father as demons from another world are breaking through to our plane.
The individual quests and stories associated fill in much of the choice in King Arthur II. After discovering a plot by a noble’s son to stage a coup against his father, you’re given the option of various ways to let that play out. Do you support his actions? Do you help the father and arrange a double cross where you ambush the son? Do you simply wash your hands of the whole proceeding? These choices will all affect your reputation and future dealings with this family and have long-reaching implications in the diplomacy gameplay in addition to immediate rewards. Other questing choices may drive your morality, which unlocks specific bonuses on a grid of Righteous vs. Tyrant and Christian vs. Old Faith, or present you with choices that require you to weigh the scales and balances. Do you sacrifice one of the magic items you’ve just discovered to escape the dungeon or drain some of your magical power in the next battle to keep them all? There are even some missions that draw on old school text adventure elements as you attempt to solve riddles or figure out the correct path through a maze.
It’s a shame that these are all presented in such boring and drab manner. While the choose-your-own-adventure style will draw on some great nostalgic feelings, all of the questing is done in a tiny window that takes up only a fraction of the screen while a narrator orally recites the text. The default font is entirely too small and you’ll often need to strain to see if that + or – means you’re gaining or losing resources or standings, and the voice over can best be described as inconsistent. The narrator voices like an audio book or dungeon master by attempting to don appropriate voices for the characters. For the most part this is fine, but it dips into uncomfortable territory when anything outside an even-toned male role is required. What are also strange are the sudden changes sometimes, at first the narrator and art style present the powerful enchantress Morgan le Fay as more of a middle aged woman and then suddenly she sends you a message which attaches with a different art style and an actually female voice actress which depicts a much younger woman.
The battles themselves are presented much more successfully. You can zoom all the way down to ground level and see your detailed little soldiers battle it out or pull back to take in the whole battle at once. Magic brings a fun twist to the battles and offers interesting and powerful tactics that you might not see in more mundane simulations of war. Such as having your really powerful champion class hero decked out with magical artifact armor and weapons granting him the stats and abilities equal to near entire units hold the line with brute force or raining down lightning bolts on those cavalry charging your archers, allowing you to free up units that might normally be needed to defend them. There are also locations on the battle map that unlock additional spells or perks for that fight if you can maintain control of them. The enemy AI is decent enough to pose some challenges, though you’ll find it’s sometimes a little too predisposed to certain tactics.
There are some problems with these battle sequences though. While morale is practically a core system for this genre, in King Arthur II every army with fight to the last man. Not only does it make every battle end in a tiresome clean up, but you never get those great moments of decisive victory as you route the enemy. The game emphasizes that different units perform better in the various terrains, but with no way to survey the battlefield beforehand you’re always better off taking the same mixed force to every fight. The game is also brought down by a few technical issues. While the developers are dutifully patching, I still suffered two lock ups and a number of smaller bugs with various instances of programming code being in text or little white boxes where graphics were missing.
Ultimately King Arthur II‘s biggest issue is trying to bring together the two genres of war game and RPG. In some places this is done brilliantly, as units level up you’re afforded great control of dictating what kind of fighting forces you can become by buffing specific stats and selecting certain skills. This also brings a serious sense of weight to your decisions as losing a veteran unit becomes a serious investment to replace. Other features suffer though, like you’ll only unlock additional armies at specific story portions of the game. So much of the early game is spent deciding to complete those quests to the South while armies sack your lands in the North, you may even have reserve troops garrisoning the castles up there, but you can only ever fight with your designated armies. The crafted RPG narrative is very much getting in the way of its other wargame tenets.
Bottom line: There are some features to love in King Arthur II. The story is interesting and there are a handful of solid, entertaining gameplay mechanics, but be prepared to fight through a few of the game’s weaker elements.
Recommendation: If you’re a big fan of Arthurian legends or have already played the field of other wargames, King Arthur II might still be worth checking out.[rating=3]
This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Game: King Arthur II
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Neocore Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive