King Arthur 2: Dead Legions (DLC) Review
The Dead Legions DLC’s store page describes it as “the chronicle of how the greatest adversary of King Arthur came into power.” If one takes that (as I did) to mean an adversary of the character King Arthur, it’s a lie. King Arthur doesn’t play a role in either the base game or DLC, and this supposed adversary doesn’t even get beaten by his son, main character William Pendragon. Instead, Willy P holds off his hordes of undead warriors while Morgana takes him on instead. If one takes “greatest adversary of King Arthur” to mean “the most difficult encounter of the game,” that’s slightly closer to the truth; I certainly found his fight to be the most difficult one up to that point in the game, putting aside the impossible-tier battles that keep you from straying too far off the story’s rails. Even then, though, he’s eventually outclassed by later such encounters. A better description for this game, then, would be: “the surprisingly interesting origin of a middling wannabe quickly swatted out of the way in the main campaign.” I totally understand why that’s not as marketable, but it’s accurate—while Septimus Sulla, who I’ll henceforth refer to as Silly Sully, is mostly just an annoyance thrown into the base game to have a middle-game antagonist, the DLC that covers what made him that way proves to be focused and enjoyable in a way that the base game simply isn’t.
Note that “focused” also means “short”
This is a 5-dollar DLC that seems more like something cut out of the main game than created afterward. It doesn’t seem to add any new music, it shows up as “Prologue” when first starting a game rather than “Dead Legions” or anything identifiable, and it released on the same day the base game did. That’s part of what compelled me to wait for it to hit a deep sale before picking it up. As disgustingly anti-consumer as it makes me feel to say this, though, it’s good enough content to justify picking it up full-priced even if it’s not on sale. Or at least good enough that I can’t help but think that I should have bit the bullet on one of the lesser discounts I saw over the years. However, putting aside how enjoyable it is, it’s also 2 hours long. You can easily play through this DLC in one sitting. That also works in its favor, though, because it allows the story to focus on a single brewing conflict and group of people without introducing a lot of busywork to pad things out.
The DLC starts with Silly Sully being betrayed and left for dead, only to be saved by the supposed spirit of a long-dead Roman emperor who’s bound to an artifact. Returning to his people having been made aware of an impending Pict invasion but unable to know who to trust, he then sets out to conquer the entire area and unite it in order to successfully defend his home. Obviously things become increasingly sinister, causing him to eventually become the maddened throwaway character from the base game. This, along with little details like his ghost wife, is completely unavoidable, though such inevitability is sometimes leveraged in interesting ways.
Take the fact that he’s married as an example. Dead Legions allows you to marry into one of the quarreling Roman families early on, but if you choose not to do so and build up your reputation with another area, you can eventually marry a cruel queen in order to obtain her lands without the need for bloodshed. Or you could marry into another family with an option that becomes available later on, though her heart belongs to another who needs to first be dealt with (and whether that be through violence, dragging his reputation through the mud, or simply overcoming him with a large sum of money is up to you). All of these are options I discovered while playing, and all three of them came with negative traits that impacted my character’s abilities. Part of the story sees whoever your bride is being possessed by your wife who was killed when you were betrayed, so I decided to avoid marriage altogether to see what would happen. Basically, you’re just handed a random person who gets possessed by your dead wife and you’re automatically married to her. The interesting thing about this is that doing things this way causes her to give you several positive benefits without any of the negative traits of the others. It’s a small touch in the grand scheme of things, but rewarding restraint like that added a lot to the experience.
There are some interesting choices, though
Strangely enough, not everything is set in stone. The Lady of the Lost Roads, who was trapped in a gemstone in the base game, can be dealt with in a number of different ways. You can ally yourself with her and then backstab her, deceive her to gain information before conquering her area, or stay on friendly terms and make a deal with her that sees her ceding control of her area voluntarily without a fight. This only goes so far, of course—I managed to successfully assassinate her using the Guild of the Outlaws (who is the only guild you can use in Dead Legions because of the smaller scope, something reflected in many such game mechanics) before the main story quest that involved her, but this didn’t change anything. Despite being dead, she still showed up during the choose-your-own-adventure quest. That’s Dead Legions, basically; you have a number of options that have been laid out for you, but any kind of gameplay too emergent for the devs to have accounted for ahead of time doesn’t work.
There are often a number of options as far as conquest goes, thankfully, which is what the main draw of this game is. The overarching story forces you to conquer everyone, including even neutral areas you can’t use diplomacy on and that never bother you (so you can’t ever play entirely pacifist), and the ways you can take care of your opponents are often amusing. The cruel queen I mentioned earlier? It’s also possible to have her poisoned after allying with her, allowing you to overthrow the area without having to fight or marry her. Even your bickering allies who you’re not sure whether or not to trust can be dealt with in interesting ways; as the story progresses, you find yourself balancing opposing interests so as to avoid making too many enemies, and to this end you can blackmail and bribe to your heart’s content. Always within the confines of what the developers were able to plan for, again, because otherwise you open the door to strange bugs and miscellaneous weirdness, but having a number of different approaches allows you to feel like you’re shaping things the way you want. Maybe you make the right friends and end up elected leader of Rome without bloodshed (and maybe you then turn on one of those who supported you so that you don’t have to give them the city you promised). Maybe you upset everyone and instigate a civil war where you make yourself leader by force. Maybe you demand help and blackmail people into giving you money and support. Maybe you decide that one family is irritating and run their reputation through the mud before uniting everyone and using them for a blood ritual. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, and it satiates that “want to conquer” side of me that the base game didn’t really tap into as much as I’d have liked.
That’s not to say that there are no problems, though
Since this seems to be content cut from the base game, it shares almost all of the flaws the base game suffers from. Units refusing to respond to my orders? Check. I even got a video this time (see below)! Talk about frustrating. You’re also kept on-rails with a series of impossible battles, and the shorter length of the campaign really drives home how contrived this is; an enemy army that was previously “impossible” will suddenly become “weak” or “average” or “strong” after you reach a certain story point, allowing you to steamroll them where before they’d wipe out your entire army without losing a single unit. I wasn’t even playing on the easiest difficulty this time around (I moved up a notch to the normal difficulty for the DLC, which I bring up primarily to brag about how slightly-less-terrible my RTS skills are getting). The difference in strength before and after certain missions is unbelievable, and since the main story is shorter and your army isn’t getting significantly stronger, this becomes much more noticeable.
There are also a number of bugs. I didn’t stumble on anything too bad on my first playthrough, but my second saw the game freeze up, my gold somehow go into the negatives after I bought something I didn’t have money for, and both the spying and assassination options becoming usable despite me not having the money to afford them (and this was after I got my money back into the positives). Then there’s the stuff I already mentioned like being able to assassinate The Lady of the Lost Roads before a story quest, which then has her appear despite having just been assassinated. It’s a bit of a stretch to call that a bug since it seems to be more something the developers didn’t anticipate, but you know what else is a stretch? Calling Silly Sully anyone’s greatest adversary, much less a bedridden old man’s. That gets under my skin.
There are also some new problems that the DLC introduces, such as enemies randomly spawning in the final battle against the Pict hordes. I can understand this to a certain extent—they wanted to make it seem like you’re being attacked by a larger force than would have been fair to throw at you all at once, so having them magically appear at a specific spot is the next best thing. At the same time, it’s breaking an unspoken rule of the game where the forces you see are the forces you fight, and having a final battle suddenly decide to throw a curveball like that at you definitely comes across as a bit cheap and unfair on that first playthrough.
I’m not sure if this is a new problem or an old one I didn’t notice, but I actually tried going up against some of the impossible-tier armies this time, and I was promptly crushed. The only exception to this was when I fought one that wasn’t part of a nation, but a random fight that spawned after a sidequest. Actually, that’s the fight in the video above where my units refuse to actually move, so I somehow managed to finish off an “impossible” army with only a few of my units actually doing anything (and again, on the normal difficulty with a level of RTS incompetence that probably breaks a record somewhere). It’s hard to say whether that’s just a lucky break or if fights that could potentially sequence-break are set up to actually be impossible while the others are more forgiving, but it was a strange inconsistency to suddenly become aware of.
The graphics are hit and miss, and the music is the same
Obviously the base game’s problems with busy graphics apply here. In fairness, the world is smaller and much more manageable as a whole, but it’s still easy to lose track of what’s where before you have a handle on where everything is, and the graphics don’t make that any easier. What I found, however, is that things look much cleaner and easier to keep track of if you set the graphics to their lowest settings. When you compare how that looks with the highest settings, you can definitely see how the more subdued shadows and mountainous areas make it easier to see, even if that comes at the cost of high-quality trees. It’s not a perfect fix (and for some reason, messing with the graphics settings caused my screenshots to be blank and my video recording software to stop working, which is why I tried to avoid messing with them when playing through the base game), but every little bit helps. Speaking of graphics, it dawned on me that I forgot to mention how good the art is in the King Arthur games in general. There’s a lot of interesting screenshot fodder during loading screens and opening/ending videos that I end up using as my desktop background, and neither the base game nor Dead Legions are any different in this regard. That being said, the opening art for Dead Legions is definitely a step down from what you see in the base game and first game, and while that’s only applicable to the opening, it was strange to see. As for the music, it’s the same as the base game’s. Nothing was added, apparently.