It’s mid-day.  I struck out to the west on my steed before first light, making sure he was well fed before the journey.  I’ve passed the first portal.  Maybe I should turn back, I might be too far out from my stronghold, but I need to reach the western camp.I must recruit more wanderers to bolster my forces, or I’ll never survive the coming assault.

I arrive at the camp just as the sun begins to set.  Quickly, I toss payment to the lost souls milling around the tents, bidding them to follow me as I turn my horse and bolt in the other direction.  At this point, I know I’ve misjudged my time.  I know night will fall before my new followers reach safe harbor, but I can only hope the attack won’t come from our direction this evening.  I reach the portal.  Damn!  The bloody thing is active!  Trolls come pouring from the glowing mouth of the stone edifice, cutting off my escape.  It’s all right, I tell myself, it’s just the greedy little minions… I have a hefty coin purse.  I’ll just deter them.  I spin around and charge in the other direction, dropping gold pieces as I speed away.  It’s no use.  I run out of money and the trolls keep coming.  They overtake me, my crown is knocked from my head, and the little bastards carry it off.  There can be no king without a crown, and there can be no kingdom without a king.

Kingdom was released last year, and from what I know of it, its players are likely very familiar with the scenario described above.  Though much of Kingdom:  New Lands may be familiar, it is as much as an expansion as it is a new version of the game.  The basics remain nearly identical – as in the original game, the player starts in a 2D land during the daylight, with nothing but the crown on their head and, literally, the horse they rode in on.  The assets and layout of the land is randomly generated with each playthrough.  It is only possible to ride to the left or the right, and the player is initially guided by a specter, undoubtedly one of the failed monarchs that came before them, who guides the new ruler to their camp site.  Along the way, stray coins are picked up from amongst the grass.  This pittance serves as the player’s initial investment in their kingdom.  After a few sparse instructions on how to get started, its up to the player to discover how to play most of the game.

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You too can amass a force as great as mine.  You just have to figure out how first.

As ruler of this upstart dominion, there is truly only one action the player can do to affect things directly, and that is to pay coins to context sensitive objects and NPCs.  These coins serve to recruit and issue orders to subjects and to build, and upgrade, tools and structures.  Within this simple approach, the king must build up a base which is capable of three things:  generating the income needed to sustain continued expansion, withstanding the nightly onslaught of troll creatures which spawn from nearby portals nearly every night, and pressing the occasional offensive to take down the otherworldly gates and bring a measure of peace to the realm.

While the publisher, Raw Fury Games, describes Kingdom as a “2D side-scrolling strategy/resource management hybrid,” that description sells the game a bit short.  There are also choice servings from the tower defense and roguelike genres on display.  Also, it has been remarked, and I will echo, that the deceptively simplistic approach of Kingdom masks strategic gameplay of a remarkable depth.  There are myriad options of what to invest, when, and how much.  Effective multitasking pays dividends, for it’s often advantageous or necessary to initiate a task and then ride off in another direction to accomplish something else while the first order is pending.  Since troops automatically distribute themselves symmetrically to either side of the base to deal with the incoming troll waves and man any defensive towers along the way, players must make tough decisions about where to place the towers and of what type in order to maximize defensive potential.  All these strategic nuggets are preserved in New Lands, and in many ways enriched.

Beyond the familiar setup and strategic framework, New Lands is a massive extrapolation from the base game.  The original Kingdom featured a single play area, and an end game condition was reached after the last of four portals had been destroyed.  In New Lands, the first environment is only the beginning.  Returning Kingdom players are in for a surprise in what they find on the beginning island.  There, it is not possible to permanently stem the troll tide.  The immediate goal is instead to reconstruct a nearby shipwreck, and send it down to the docks to be launched in order to cross over to one of the other four islands, with each island increasing in difficulty. This one change catalyzes dozens of new elements which fundamentally change New Lands’ gameplay, and expands its scope significantly.

One of the first fundamental changes stems from the need to build the ship.  The task requires an exorbitant amount of time and money, and therefore places a greater degree of focus on expansion, rather than just a solid, buttoned-up defense against the trolls.  It’s necessary to grow one’s kingdom large enough to get the ship within the walls while it’s being constructed, lest the workers and wood be carried off at night by greedy trolls.

Another change, the addition of multiple islands, allows New Lands to work with a more gradual progression model.  While the original Kingdom put nearly all its cards on the table in the first play session, players of New Lands will have to pass through each island multiple times in order to uncover all the helpful resources which the game has to offer.  Many of these resources are new to the game and include things like faster mounts, new NPCs which can improve the base, and new shrines which buff more aspects of the workers and troops.  Each island has a set number of slots for these unlockable features to discover, and players will need to land upon and disembark from some islands as many as four times before they gather everything at their disposal.  While this may sound like busy work, it’s actually a very natural system, especially for newcomers to Kingdom who don’t have all the basics down.  For them, just when the game seems impossible, a new unlock on the next play-through will enable them to progress further.

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Striking out for greener pastures on a cold winter morn.

To that point, New Lands, like its predecessor, can be very tough, especially before the bulk of helpful resources have been unlocked.  For new players, the toughness can be part of the fun, as it partially stems from the mystery of the game.  Like many newer games, New Lands forgoes a traditional tutorial, giving a grand total of five basic tips before leaving the player to their own devices.  After that, it’s up to the king to discover who everyone is, what everything is, and how everything works.  This air of mystery was a major draw for me.  For veteran players, I believe there’s enough new stuff to keep them guessing.

While the toughness is often part of the fun and mystery, sometimes it’s a bit too obtuse.  Since it’s not entirely too challenging to establish a healthy economy and strong defenses once a player hits their stride, New Lands often ramps up the difficulty by placing vagrant camps further away from the kingdom base.  Vagrant camps are spawn points of wandering NPCs which are the sole method of recruiting new workers and troops.  While their locations are indeed randomized on each island for each new play-through, there appears to be a minimum distance threshold for some of the later, more difficult islands.  This problem is mitigated to a point by some of the unlockables, but it’s not particularly fun, and it’s sometimes downright frustrating, to have an island be nearly impossible to beat simply because it’s necessary to ride really far out in order to recruit new people.

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The elk is much faster than your standard horse.  Could it be that he also possesses another mysterious attribute?

Other sources of frustration can manifest in failures in the AI.  The bugs are very few and far between, but since the player controls very little directly, and nearly all tasks are automated once ordered, the occasional glitch can be game breaking.  In one game, some of my workers ran off just as the sun was beginning to set.  They ran past the walls into the woods to be eaten by trolls, and I had not given them orders to perform work in that direction.  In another frustrating instance, I upgraded a tower on the edge of my perimeter which was key to my defense, but it got permanently stuck in the building animation midway through.   No matter how many more workers I recruited, none ran over to finish the job, and three archers which should have been utilizing the higher ground milled around uselessly at its base.

Despite these nitpicks, New Lands is a delight to play, both through the depth of its strategy and the discovery of its mystery.  It also happens to be gorgeous.  Besides the beautiful and fluid pixel art, it also sports some of the best water effects and lighting you’ll ever see in a pixel-based 2D game.  Another nice aesthetic touch is the player’s ability to select a king or queen from a large assortment of appearances, including different skin colors.  New Lands also adds some impressive weather effects to the game, some of which come along with seasons which will challenge player’s farms and make food sparse for mounts.  The music is very atmospheric, and works in concert with the art style to create extremely thick and immersive ambiance, which can become downright ominous when appropriate.

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Reflections… fog… that sunset… the soundtrack… the game truly is beautiful to behold.

With the new gradual layout of the game, and it’s gorgeously crafted atmosphere, New Lands will be keeping players coming back for more to see how much further they can make it, and to enjoy the new toys they get to play with as they progress, culminating in epic and satisfying victories over the troll hordes.  All these elements come together to make Kingdom:  New Lands an incredibly addictive and special experience which should not be missed.  Now please excuse me while I go fortify my holdfast for the next Blood Moon.

RATING

Pull Both Triggers:  A Must Play

 

 

 

 

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