My first experience of Kingdom was at EGX Rezzed 2016.
I’d spent a rather happy morning at the independent games expo on the bottom floor, chatted with some great developers, and seen some exciting new releases. I then made my way up towards the Xbox room, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty disappointing. Of the 40 or so screens, 20 were taken up with the already-released Quantum Break, and while I’ve got nothing against the game, I felt like the zealous focus on it showed a shortfall of new titles hitting Xbox. But I didn’t turn back. I decided to investigate what else the room had to offer.
Tucked away in a small corner was a series of panels with games by new or small developers such as Licorice and Raw Fury. Whilst many of the screens had queues of people, one was empty. That, in itself, was enough for the contrary person inside me, and I decided to give it a punt. I picked up the controller and watched as the screen unveiled a landscape of hypnogogic pixellated wonder. I was about to play what I would later find out was a straight port of the original PC version of Kingdom onto Xbox One.
I remember thinking: This game is special. Why is no one playing it? I quickly found out why. After 20 minutes, I still had absolutely no idea what I was doing, how to play, what any of my actions in game were even achieving. There were only two controls aside from directional movement: Press “A” to give a coin. Press either of the triggers to run. That was it. After 30 minutes, I put the controller down and walked away, no wiser than when I’d picked it up.
But the whole rest of the day, Kingdom stayed with me. Its mystery. Its seeming simplicity which had somehow defeated my best attempts to “solve” it. And its beauty.
So, after I spent the rest of the day absorbing everything else EGX had to offer, including an exclusive 40-minute sneak peak of Dark Souls III, I decided I had to return and play Kingdom again. I couldn’t let it lie. Something about the game had entranced me. I wanted to know more. I was sure, unlike the other people who had abandoned it, that it was not a fault of the game that was leading to my confusion, but a fault in my perception.
So I went back into the game. To my surprise, someone else was playing it. I stood and I watched. I watched the pixel-art world, the people and creatures moving in it. The player was getting very frustrated, haplessly running left and right shedding coins like no tomorrow. After five minutes he put the controller down and walked off in a huff. But I was grinning. Because in watching the game, I’d been able to see what I couldn’t playing. I got it, as it were. I picked up the controller a second time, now with a kind of limited strategy in my mind. After 20 minutes a crowd was watching me. Suddenly, there was attention on the game. I had survived 10 days, which apparently no one else at the expo had done. I heard whispers of people, thinking I was some kind of pro-YouTuber or speed-runner. Eventually I stepped back and let someone else have a go. There were many eager volunteers. I walked out of EGX, feeling like I’d had a real experience, the same kind of feeling you get coming out of a music concert.
I would later do a lot of research on Kingdom. I would discover it was its own kind of mini internet sensation, had a cult following and had even won numerous awards. I would also discover that its mystery was legendary. Months later, I would get my hands on a copy of Kingdom: New Lands, a new version of the game built specifically for the Xbox Live marketplace. This new version includes some tweaks to the essential gameplay, new mechanics, and even greater depth.
There’s a problem with reviewing Kingdom: New Lands, and that is that the whole point of Kingdom is figuring out how to play it. The joy of the game is that it doesn’t tell you anything (whilst apparently giving you a tutorial). I have played maybe 20 or so hours now, not including my first encounter, and I am still discovering new elements, new mysteries, new secrets. The best part is that even when you do discover a major mechanic, such as how to build a certain type of defence, there is an infinite variety of ways in which it might be applied. No two people playing the game will use the same strategies, and as the land you inhabit is, to an extent, generated slightly randomly, but with core features remaining, every play will offer a new experience and present new challenges and quirks.
At its core, Kingdom: New Lands is a 2D sidescrolling roguelike where you you play as a King or Queen (random) that has come to rule a wild and mysterious land. The darkening forest is full of ambling beggars in rags, crouched around campfires, waiting to be recruited to your cause, along with other far darker and deeper secrets. As you go on, there is a night and day cycle. At night, your camp will likely be attacked by horrible demonic creatures, who, among other things, love stealing gold and that shiny thing on your head. Incidentally if you lose your crown, it’s game over. Restart. Day 1. The aim of the game is to “conquer” the land, but you’ll have to figure out how to do that on your own. There are multiple ways to do it, and much debate over which way is easiest.
The pixel art is gorgeous – not only does expert lightning and a clever fairytale colour pallet lend the game a kind of iconic sense of fantasy wonder (if only we could get that same feeling from cinema’s fantasy offerings), there are variable weather conditions and subtle details which make the game feel living and real, as though the world exists quite apart from your interaction with it. Each weather mode is as beautifully rendered as the last and many subtly interchange, shifting seamlessly from rain to hail to mist. The details work to anchor mechanics of gameplay; for example, the snorted steam from your steed’s nostrils tells you you have pushed it too hard and soon you won’t be able to gallop anymore. When it gets close to dark, you’ll hear crickets and your monarch will light a torch that trails ominous black smoke. As you make your way through the woods, trying to get back to your encampment, your torch looks very lonely indeed, like the neolithic light of cavemen against a seemingly all-encompassing darkness.
There are more than a few myths and legends echoed in the imagery and premise of Kingdom: Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, Njaal’s Saga. Developers Raw Fury and Licorice have origins in the Netherlands and Iceland respectively, and it seems they have drawn from cultural roots of nordic myth: the theme of holding one’s own home, whether that be a house or an entire country, against night-stalking, sub-human, monstrous invaders. These subhuman invaders in the old stories, of course, almost always mirror human desires and human evils. In keeping, the creatures in Kingdom are affectionately named Greeds – a human vice if ever there was one.
If the visuals and mythological context aren’t enough to enchant you, the music will. The music responds to the cycles of day and night as well as some of the rarer cosmological events. There is a strange mix of electronic, synthesised atmos, along with haunting piano melodies and more folky medieval-style pieces, the latter of which you would come to expect. The former styles catch you off guard, but because of the eeriness of much of the game and the sense of magic, the electronic instruments somehow fit the pre-technological setting.
I hear you asking how a game with only two controls can be fun, regardless of how good the music and visuals are. The answer is simple: well thought-out mechanics. What you choose to spend your coin on can have immense, world-changing consequences later down the line as a kind of butterfly-effect takes place, actions echoing through each subsequent day. In addition, running out of coin, and failing to set up systems which generate more income, will also result in dire consequences. Yet the game never feels like a manager title, or an RPG, with endless inventory and investments to control. Kingdom is so simple: do I put the coin here or here or do I keep it? Sometimes you will have to take risks. You might not know what something does and invest coins in it anyway. This is where observation comes in. Blink, and you’ll miss the important indicators within game (remember the subtle visuals) that tell you what your actions are affecting.
From a base of next to nothing, you’ll begin utilising builders and farmers to create a thriving townscape. Along the way, Kingdom: New Lands invites you to employ a vast array mechanics and tactics to revel in. The further you develop your kingdom, the more joys you’ll discover: uncovering how the Merchant works is a core facet of the game, as is interpreting the seasons and cosmological signs (blood moons and other phenomenon which, if read correctly, can give you clues as to what might be heading your way). Working out how to upgrade your society from mere wood-cutting plains-dwellers to a more sophisticated civilisation is another unique challenge which I only really got the hang of after five or six more tries. Watch out too for changes in the New Lands edition of the game that pose new challenges: such as the passing of the seasons , which drastically alters how the land can be utilised, and new forms of Greed. And this is just the early stages of the game. Once you conquer one land, new lands do indeed await: larger, even more full of secrets, and infinitely more challenging. Magic is not absent from this medieval world, but learning where and when it can be harnessed is not easy to unravel. Suffice to say that there is more of it the further you get into the game.
Kingdom: New Lands is a world where even failure feels rewarding, because you’ll want to do better next time, even if just by one day, and it’s a world where you will lose all sense of time, just as in-game the days fly by and you suddenly find night upon you, your defensive battlements not yet ready for the swarm. It’s the first game in a long time I genuinely lost myself and looked at the clock with horror to discover it was past midnight.
There is a unique captivation to Kingdom: New Lands. Not only is it immensely fun (especially when you mess things up and have to scramble to correct them, and doubly especially when things go right and you get to watch with satisfaction as your miniature universe operates like a clockwork machine), it also feels like it has something important to say. On one level, and perhaps more obviously, about human greed, but on another, about what a story is, about what gameplay used to be like. There has recently been a resurgence of difficult games – because players have decided they want that old-school challenge. Kingdom: New Lands reminds us it’s not just about difficulty, but also about intelligence.
Most new games in the 80s and 90s used to be, well, new. The majority of forthcoming titles were in a genre which was un-established and had never been seen before, its mechanics unknown. Developers stood in more of a creative hinterland, so would take risks, creating massive optional components in games only to never have them discovered (or else become cult phenomenon). There was a process of discovery far more common to older games than there is to our current generation, simply because there was little in the way of benchmarks. I am flabbergasted by the mysteries of Kingdom: New Lands’ landscape, how something 2-dimensional can seem just as, if not more full, than the whole of Skyrim.
Kingdom: New Lands takes us back to that discovery, to that grand feeling of the unknown, and the sense that however much we look into the game’s world, there might be more to find.
The original PC version of Kingdom was unique, and gave us the core game which is, on its own, a work of genius, but New Lands takes it to the next level by adding in this sense of progression and challenge. This way, Kingdom gets to keep all the brilliant, addictive aspects of a roguelike (perma-death, randomisation, ephemerality) whilst still giving the player a sense of wider goals and objectives.
Glowing praise aside, are there problems with Kingdom: New Lands? Well, one I can foresee is that some players will find it just too darn obtuse. For those who want clear guidelines on how to progress, many will find the obfuscation and mystery of Kingdom tiring after a while. For those who want to know how to get platinum gamerscore, or how to beat the game in the quickest way possible, again, Kingdom will stubbornly refuse to comply with those needs. It is also a strangely repetitive game and although I enjoy every second I spend in its strange lands (from the initial scoping out the terrain to the end-game thrill of urgent defence), some might wish for an alternative game mode. There is not even a main menu in Kingdom. You open the game and it takes you exactly where you left off. You close it, and the game vanishes, like a dream, or else a fairy tale being left off in the telling.
And that, really, is what Kingdom is all about: “Again, a king will try to last…” But already, these ghostly opening words as you initiate a new game suggest that you will not last, that like hundreds, perhaps thousands, before you, failure is the only inevitable result. Evanescent. Fleeting. But beautiful.
Like the blossom of a mythical tree.