I’m not going to go so far as to say that I dislike roguelikes. In fact I can immediately name a couple I’ve had a good time with, along with a few darlings of the industry, things like FTL and Binding of Issac. However, for all that, I also think roguelikes in general are not aimed for me. After dying a few times I tend to get easily disheartened with playing through the same levels for the dozenth time in a row, with unvarying levels of progress and so I give up. In particular this tends to happen after an unusually successful run of the game, and so when this too inevitably ends in failure I simply give up on trying to get further.
Thus, for me, roguelikes absolutely must be interesting enough mechanically to grab me in the first place (so please not a bullet hell game) and then the real test is how long they keep my attention after that. I say “mechanically” because in my experience by their very nature, roguelikes cannot have much of complex or gripping narrative (which is usually what I look for the most in my games). For reference I played ~7 hours of FTL and recognise it as a great game while at the time of writing I am more than 20 hours into For the King by Iron Oak Games and still not bored.
FtK is an RPG of sorts in which you and up to two other players take control of a party of three adventurers who must go on a quest to save the kingdom. The game map is rather like a board-game; composed of hexagonal tiles which each of your three heroes can transverse independently. On the map you will also see numerous enemies spawning randomly who you can fight for experience and loot in an old-school, turn-based combat system. Beyond standard combat there are towns to buy supplies and dungeons which will have a set number of encounters, as well as random encounters in the world map.
Everything is then determined by the rolling of “dice”. Where you will roll to succeed or fail a certain number of times based on the character’s skill at whatever it is they are doing. This extends from movement (where fast characters will get more movement points more often) to combat where you need to equip weapons that your character is particularly talented at using.
I think there’s a few things at work here which make FtK work so well and the first is that every attempt doesn’t feel like they’re extremely similar. Far too many roguelikes promise that each attempt will be totally different, whereas what they really mean is that the rooms are the same but the couch and the fridge have swapped places. Oooo…
Meanwhile in FtK the couch and the fridge and the bed are all important points to visit each time in the overworld map, but the overworld map changes rather dramatically each time you play it. For me that introduces enough variety that while it’s obviously the same adventure we’re on each time, the actual adventuring has not yet completely began to bore me.
The real positives of the game are in its variation which actually increases every time you play. There are such a wealth of random encounters from mini-bosses to events and bandit camps, also you have a real variety of weapons and bonuses one can take advantage of to build your characters. Even better is the mechanic by which the number of each of these things increase every time you play.
Every time you complete objectives in a game you obtain Lore Books, and these can be used to buy new items and encounters and events in the main menu. This means there is a pretty consistent drive to get as far as you can in each playthrough as well as a desire to play again so you can access the new content.
It’s also encouraging that there are several campaigns as well to play, beyond just the “main story” there are other stories to work through, other objectives to complete and enemies to destroy. So all in all there is an absolute raft of content to play through and keep you entertained.
The other thing to be aware of with FtK is that it is one of those games which pride itself on its difficulty. And this is where my biggest gripe with the game starts to rear its head.
As a start, any game which says “this is super difficult and you shouldn’t expect to beat it easily” is something I automatically am leery of. I feel like often what this means isn’t that the game takes a great deal of skill and practice to beat, but rather that the game will regularly dick you over for no other reason than to create artificial difficulty. Not so much Dark Souls as just being a bit obtuse for the sake of being able to say “git gud”.
While I don’t feel that this is entirely the case with FtK unfortunately I will say that I feel like every single time I’ve lost a game it is almost entirely due to RNG and nothing to do with carelessness or a lack of skill.
The thing about it for me is that it seems very much like the game has such an all-or-nothing form of RNG in that there are only ever two states your playthrough will be in. You are either doing very well and are comfortable with your position and progress. Or you’re about to lose, as in literally on the very edge with losing being more or less inevitable. There is no in-between. There aren’t any times where your position feels tenuous but you think you’ll be able to work your way back to being on top of things. Nor is there ever a point where things are going well but it feels like a wrong move could have you knocked down a few rungs. Instead it feels like as soon as one thing goes wrong then that’s a cue for everything else to go wrong and you inevitably lose.
This meant that regularly I would be playing with Tim and we would have a genuinely strong party, we would be stomping fights, clearing dungeons comfortably and just in general be in a very good place. Then all of a sudden you get into one fight and your characters miss several hits in a row and you lose one life and your party gets very badly damaged. Then from there it seems like there’s no chance of recovery and the previous two hours of careful progress are wiped out in just a couple of encounters. Particularly dickish are encounters which destroy your hero’s gear, and you might as well restart after them because you’ll no longer be able to fight whatsoever…
In a circular way, much of this issue of “all-or-nothing” stems from and extends to combat as well. Every single weapon provides combat abilities and each ability will have several rolls for a successful hit. If every roll is successful then you get a “perfect” strike and often some kind of bonus such as piercing damage or a debuff for the enemy or similar. For every missed roll though the damage dealt takes a serious hit, the bonus vanishes and there is an increased chance for the enemy to dodge or block it completely.
For example, some of the heavier weapons have the option of dealing a strike that has five rolls (along with another one or two other moves). With 5 “hits” you can practically guaranteed to take off a big chunk of enemy health. If four of the rolls are hits then your damage dealt is pretty reduced but can still be reasonable. But, as soon as it drops to three or fewer then you might as well just be tickling the enemy, assuming it hits at all!
This is the sort of thing which just adds to the frustration of the game in that there is no middle ground for how EVERYTHING goes. A roll is either perfect or it is pointless. So if you, as luck dictates you must, get a few bad rolls in a row then all of a sudden a great run can become a complete disaster right on the edge of failure. Then due to the nature of the game touting itself as difficult, it is exceptionally difficult to pull oneself out of this state of “right on the edge of failure” meaning that a wipe is almost inevitable.
So therefore this tends to mean that you fail more often than you succeed. In fact, in around 20 hours of play time with Tim we were repeatedly defeated at more or less the exact same point in the game, which is somewhere in the middle of the campaign.
This was despite numerous party compositions and varying luck with item drops to the extent that once we got to the middle point with a party that was completely lacklustre and once with a party that was geared to the fucking teeth, and both died equally ignobly.
Of course the alternative to this constant failure is, naturally, to reduce the difficulty from normal to easy and accept the hit to your pride. Then you also then have to deal with the standard issue with these “difficult” roguelikes where the gap between easy and normal feels like turning the difficulty down to baby mode (it does say it’s “easy” I guess…).
All of this more or less comes down to the fact that the RNG seems to be too harsh and that there just isn’t enough opportunity to recover from difficult situations. Naturally all of these criticisms also could be met with the response “git gud” and so we’re at something of a Mexican standoff. I just genuinely believe that the game is just a fraction too tilted towards the necessity of getting perfect rolls constantly, which makes it more luck-based than skill-based. And as we all know, having to rely on luck is a big old no-no in the market of games where the whole goal is to play repeatedly and get further each time due to improved skill.
It’s possible that the unlockable content might be what really makes the difference and that you are supposed to die many times in order to unlock all of this stuff which will make subsequent runs easier. If so though, the rate at which you unlock things is just really bloody slow. It ensures a nice steady trickle of new content which, y’know, MIGHT appear in the next run before you die.
Overall, I think that the core gameplay loop is solid and the sheer quantity of content might be more than enough to keep you happy for a pretty hefty chunk of time, making it well-worth the money. Downside though I just feel like at some point the act of playing to unlock more content might become more rote than a pleasure and that’s only helped along by the fact that it’s so bloody hard to get further by your own merit.
|· Oodles and oodles and oodles of content mean that it takes a pretty significantly long time before you will start feeling bored and repeating encounters
· Plenty of variety in gear and characters to allow crafting a personalised team of adventurers to suit you
· Neat aesthetic and clear objectives and progress make playing it very satisfying
|· While seemingly balanced, the game seems to rely more on luck than skill
· The cock-up cascade here is real and if thing start going wrong it feels impossible to get back on track
· Inevitably patterns start appearing that make playthroughs start to drag