Review written by Lamios.
The King’s Bounty series is the very definition of niche, and it most surely isn’t for everyone. While the combat is generally enjoyable and moderately challenging, the particular flavour or humour is often grating and just as often inconsistent in tone. Furthermore, if Blizzard games are known to be polished if nothing else, King’s Bounty is about as polished as your standard elementary school English essay – and, occasionally, it has that level of grammar too. Nevertheless, there is a game to be enjoyed in King’s Bounty: Dark Side. It’s just that it’s hidden under so many little annoyances that you need to be in a very particular mindset in order to experience it.
2008’s King’s Bounty: The Legend was a very enjoyable game. It brought together a board game feeling with exploration RPG mechanics, and the end result was something that was quite addicting. For those not familiar with King’s Bounty, it could be described as a much lighter version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You choose between three starting heroes (in Dark Side’s case, a vampire, a demoness and an orc) and slowly build up an army of minions. You then command them in tile-based battles, using action points to move or attack. Each of your minions has a particular set of skills: some are faster, some are slower, some have a lot more hitpoints than others and some still have unique skills, like blowing themselves up when they’re surrounded. This sort of variety in combat gives flavor to the game, even though much of it is trial and error: you can’t tell what units the enemy army will use until you’re locked into combat with them, and you can’t tell exactly the terrain configuration in which the battle will take place, so you can’t really prepare in advance. It’s also very difficult to tell what units will do in advance, which means most of the time you’ll be quicksaving and loading into the same fight to try different army configurations and different ways to tackle battles. While this can sound cool, it gets really old really quickly to rarely be able to tackle any fight head on – you’re gonna end up going into fights as if your first try was a wasted effort, and that feels unrewarding.
Another one of the issues with combat is how easy to get units are; while it makes things more arcade-y and relatively exciting for the first couple of hours, eventually you’ll realize that you have no attachment whatsoever to your units. Why should you care about what happens to your Skeletal Archer if, when he dies, you can just buy (not hire, buy) another one for a trivial amount of gold? You never run out of units, and it makes them more than expendable: it makes them weightless.
Of course, you can mostly avoid combat altogether; the exploration happens in closed maps, and you only see one enemy model walking around for each enemy army that is close to you. As long as you don’t bump into them, you’ll never get locked into combat.
But what’s left to do if the combat really isn’t your thing? Well, you could walk around talking to NPCs and eventually taking on sidequests, but ultimately those will lead you back to combat in order to complete them, and the environments don’t really have that much there to explore. Ultimately the big focus of the game seems to be the combat, so if you don’t like that, you’re gonna have a bad time with it.
What about those of you that, like me, have played King’s Bounty before and liked it enough to give Dark Side a try?
I’m afraid this is where I must be the bearer of bad news. Dark Side shakes things up thematically, sure, but the “you play as a bad guy” gimmick feels like a skin more than a meaningful update. The orc plays exactly like the warrior from previous games, the demoness is a paladin, and the vampire is a mage. If you played any of those classes in previous games, you won’t find much of an update here. It also leaves a sour taste in my mouth that developer Katauri both refused to update their (very dated) graphics engine for this new iteration of the game and released it at full price; and under Steam’s Early Access banner to boot, which is somewhat ridiculous for an established franchise such as King’s Bounty. And to make matters worse, the single new feature in King’s Bounty: War in the North – the fact that your player character, the leader of your army, could occasionally take direct action and participate in the game – has been entirely removed. Dark Side isn’t just a reiteration of something that has been repeated to exhaustion: it’s a step back.
When the first King’s Bounty game came out in 2008, they were simply enjoyable games; but a combination of playing the same game over and other games coming up and improving on what King’s Bounty had done have made it go from “fun and niche experience” to “seriously dated”. It’s frankly unforgivable that there’s still no semblance of voice acting, no tutorial, absolutely no cutscenes, and that the game still can’t run at a resolution that looks better than the original Doom. Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but not by much.
And that’s not to go into the aforementioned lack of polish. For a game that relies completely on written text to convey any sort of narrative, there’s either an issue with the translation or the writing itself. And not a complex issue, pertaining plot holes or characterization; it’s an issue of some sentences simply not making any sense, of misplaced punctuation, and of words used in the wrong ways. King’s Bounty’s writing has always been hit or miss – sort of like a Sunday afternoon Adam Sandler movie – but mostly something that you could simply enjoy without overthinking too much, and occasionally have a sensible chuckle at one joke or another. Here, it seems like the already shaky quality of dialogue has taken a nosedive; and whether it is because the fourth time playing the same exact game is my personal limit or because it’s becoming blatantly obvious that Katauri don’t care about making things better or improving upon their current iteration of the game, I cannot, at the moment, recommend King’s Bounty: Dark Side. Frankly, you’re better off playing King’s Bounty: Legend if you’re really craving some fantasy slapstick strategy action. Or better yet, if you just want to play a good strategy, tile-based game, give XCOM a try. If what you really want is to play as the bad guy and the gameplay is not as important to you as that, Obsidian’s Tyranny might be a good choice; or, for lighter fun, Overlord is always a safe bet.
It doesn’t improve upon and actually worsens the experience of previous King’s Bounty games, all the while boasting a full price tag. If you want to play it, play the earlier iterations in the series.
Transparency disclaimer – We graciously received a review code of King’s Bounty: Dark Side from the developers.