King Arthur 2: The Role-Playing Wargame Review
It’s been 3 years and 8 months since I reviewed the abysmal King Arthur: Fallen Champions, and a month longer since I covered the surprisingly enjoyable King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame that Fallen Champions failed at being a sort-of-sequel to. To be honest, I’ve had King Arthur 2 for around the same amount of time (in fact, according to Steam I bought both of them on the same day) but put off playing it for a number of reasons. To start with, I didn’t pick up the Dead Legions prequel DLC until late 2015 and refused to get into the game without it being complete. Though I’ve yet to actually play through said DLC, the base game did a wonderful job of showing me what an incredibly dumb reason that was. By the time I had purchased the DLC, though, my memories of the previous two titles had faded and the mixed reception of the second game made it difficult to click on the little icon. King Arthur 2 must have been sitting on my desktop for 6 months before I finally decided to give it a try, and only then for the sake of being able to delete it from my hard drive in order to free up some space. As tends to be the case with the games I avoid for stupid reasons, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit, and though there are some huge caveats that keep it from living up to its predecessor, King Arthur 2 is still a surprisingly enjoyable game.
Step one to enjoying this game: turning off voice acting
As I mentioned before, my memories of the previous two games are practically nonexistent beyond some vague details and what I picked up from skimming Youtube Let’s Plays as a refresher, but I’m fairly confident that they didn’t have voice acting outside of small soundbites (like when being selected). King Arthur 2, on the other hand, has voice acting for everything, and it’s terrible. A lot of effort obviously went into it, but it’s comically bad at points and despite my best attempts at weathering it, I eventually went into the options, found the slider that controls the voice acting, and turned it off entirely. There’s a lot of writing to be found here, both in quest descriptions and the choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) sections, and there are few things more distracting than someone slowly speaking what you’re reading several times faster, making you lose your concentration. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the CYOA sections saw my character talking to various different people, and the narrator did all of their voices. The point where the guy doing the mystical-narrator voice started doing a mystical-narrator-doing-a-young-village-boy voice was where enough was enough. It just doesn’t work. The voice acting also becomes incredibly grating during the RTS sections, with you constantly being reminded every time the enemy starts casting a spell or wearing away at your shield (more on that later). Interestingly enough, the slider that controls voice acting also controls the music in the ending video. Considering the ending slides are bugged so that the narration doesn’t play either, I ended up being greeted with a completely silent slideshow once I finished the game.
“But wait,” I hear you thinking, “isn’t linking to the end of the game a huge spoiler?” Ordinarily, the answer to that question would be yes, but King Arthur 2’s story really isn’t anything special. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the CYOA sections and some of the creative imagery therein, but the overarching story is fairly bland and predictable. Basically, things start to suck after the end of the first game and Arthur tries to fix it, only to be mortally wounded in the process. Thus begins the quest of his son, William Pendragon, who I’ll henceforth refer to exclusively as Willy P. Naturally, Willy P’s journey is to find a way to cure his father, and it’s filled with busywork that ends up being the game’s highlight rather than a distraction. The end of the game is where the main story takes precedence over side content, and it boils down to a simple “choose your flavor of ending from 3 possible outcomes” where three different factions all have part of the thing you need and are willing to share, but only if you kill the other two.
Needless to say, Willy P’s friends are incredibly petty and the main story isn’t remarkable enough for its details to possibly constitute a spoiler. It’s really just “guy needs to do something, then finds a way to do it.” That’s not the biggest fault of the writing, though; the thing I missed most of all was the mystique of the unknown. In the first game, the Sidhe factions of the Seelie and Unseelie were mysterious and dangerous, and it felt like you were dealing with a group with a history entirely different to that of your own. There’s a little of that on display at points here, but for the most part the Sidhe are relegated to the role of “just another faction.” Worse, dragons are suddenly a part of the world and the game squanders the opportunity to use them to evoke the same feelings, with them just being higher-level enemy units toward the end of the game. That’s not to say that all the writing is uninteresting, of course, and some of the CYOA sections where you learn what actually happened to Arthur and why are genuinely engaging. The overarching story is just filled with random contrivances like the “join me and kill everyone else, Willy P” part that drag things down.
It’s a more streamlined King Arthur, but that’s not automatically a bad thing
Okay, the standard “this is technically an RTS” disclaimer applies here. If you’re new, know that I’m terrible at the genre and played this, as I played the previous games, on the easiest available difficulty. In the first game, I still managed to only barely get through its campaign, one that I’ve since heard is indeed as crushingly difficult as it sometimes felt. King Arthur 2 is a much friendlier and more balanced game (gone are the high-level enemy units spawning at the worst possible times!), so much so that I think I could have actually upped the difficulty and still made it through. Food has also been entirely removed as a mechanic, which simplifies things quite a bit and keeps you from having to worry about starving your army. Personally, I didn’t miss it. With the good comes equal bad, though, and there are a number of changes I simply didn’t like. For example, you don’t have as much control over your armies as in the first game, with you only being given three armies by the end and having to get by with fewer than that for most of the game. This means that if a new objective is across the map, you have to spend a bunch of turns slowly moving there rather than being able to station armies at various points and save yourself the trouble. On the plus side, you can hit the spacebar and skip the slow walking animation for both you and enemy units, speeding up the process quite a bit. I can’t remember if that was in the first game or not, but it’s a helpful feature nonetheless.
The CYOA sections suffer the most because of the streamlining, sadly. Whereas your knights in the first game all had stats that gated off certain actions during CYOA sections (so a knight focused on magic could use said magic to get a more beneficial outcome, for example), that’s been done away with entirely here. The people leading your armies are set characters now, and this allows the CYOA sections to be more closely tied to their characters—for example, a large part of the game is focused Morgana le Fay searching for her master, Merlin, who disappeared after Arthur’s kingdom fell and the various monstrous beasts began to flood in. This shift in focus wasn’t worth losing the RPG elements of the CYOA sections.
And sometimes the CYOA sections are just needlessly confusing. Despite the game making it sound like it’d be a common occurrence, there’s exactly one occasion I came across where it was necessary to open up the “Chronicle” that details lore, characters, and histories in order to use that information. Imagine how frustrating it was when I found out that the riddle I had tried to solve in multiple ways by stretching the meaning of the word “neighbor” to its breaking point ended up being as simple as choosing certain objects in the same order they show up in the Chronicle entry. It’s like someone started writing a riddle, only to give up and put something completely nonsensical in there instead. I suppose it’s merciful that this kind of stupidity is only necessary during that one section.
That’s hardly the end of the irritations, either, because all of the interesting management aspects of the first game like taxation and keeping your people happy have been entirely removed, replaced with a soulless “pick an upgrade for each location that you’ll forget about and that won’t really matter much.” You only have one or two upgrade options per location, and while some are incredibly helpful (like one that lets you teleport around, or interesting spying/assassination options that can make certain fights easier), most are just passive bonuses to certain units in whatever army the hero owning the area is a part of. It seems like the kind of thing that might be more useful on a higher difficulty setting, but that doesn’t change the fact that it fails to live up to the depth and customization present in the first game.
Speaking of things that have since lost depth: combat. While most combat encounters can be resolved using the “auto battle” function (which, unlike the first game, seemed to resolve in a much more favorable way than when I tried to play the RTS sections manually), certain story fights—along with most fights toward the end—disable the auto battle option and force you to play through these sections yourself. That’d be fine if they were enjoyable, but combat doesn’t feel quite as solid here as it did in the first game. Granted, archers aren’t as godlike as they once were, so things feel a bit more balanced in that regard, but you and your enemy have also been given a magical shield that can block enemy spells. This means that your first few spells pretty much always fail unless you use the ones that increase your shield or confer other support-like benefits rather than damaging enemy units. As a result, you’re constantly using offensive spells despite knowing they’ll fail in order to eat away at your opponent’s shield, and it’s only once you’ve broken through that your offensive spells will finally function. I can understand this from a balance perspective, but given how much fun it was to lure groups to a spot and then hit them with a lightning bolt, being unable to do so here makes combat a bit less dynamic and interesting. Even victory locations, which were crucial in the first game because of how effectively they drained enemy morale (leading to a win even without beating every enemy unit), have been messed with so that they only give you spells and passive bonuses. Morale seems to have been removed entirely, so the only way to win now is to crush every last enemy unit. It’s all much less strategic, and I found myself enjoying the game most when I was able to focus on the turn-based stuff on the map screen and resolve combat through auto battles.
Miscellaneous bugs and annoyances
I want to stress again that I enjoyed this game overall, though writing out the many things that bothered me about it makes me wonder how that could possibly be the case. I suppose the easiest answer would be that it taps into that “just one more turn” side of my brain that gets sucked into games like Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and Disciples 2. There’s also a certain unique flavor to the characters in the King Arthur games, like the power-hungry and cocky Morgana le Fay and the aloof take on Merlin she spends so much of the game searching for. Still, King Arthur 2 is undeniably flawed, and it’s worth bringing up as many problems I can remember. For example, the end of the game saw me siding with the evil queen (mostly because Willy P, unlike most of the knights who come to serve him, can’t be married off to anyone otherwise) which meant fighting against Merlin and some other knight guy. Imagine my surprise when I somehow managed to walk around the army Merlin was in and take his city, fulfilling the “defeat Merlin” quest objective despite him being alive right in front of me. This wasn’t possible with the other knight guy and is clearly a bug, though I can’t tell what caused it. Since it got me out of a lengthy RTS fight, though, it’s actually a beneficial bug. A bug that isn’t beneficial would be one that returns from Fallen Champions where you select your army and tell them to attack someone and they don’t. I don’t know what causes this, either, but it’s insanely annoying. There’s also a rarer issue I came across demonstrated in the video above where it was raining (which apparently makes your archers unable to attack) and I had no spells to fix the weather. I had cleared an entire RTS map with the exception of a small group of archers, but they were on a hill that none of my units could get to. As a result, I had to sit around waiting for my magic to come back so that I could slowly hit them with lightning until they died, which took several minutes. It’s very important to equip your heroes with something that regenerates their mana pool.
It’s also not possible to exit the game from inside of a battle, nor after engaging someone on the main map so that you can see their army. Sometimes both the retreat and auto battle options are greyed out, so if you accidentally send the wrong person to fight an army they can’t beat, you have two options: either force quit the game and start it up again (one loading screen) or sit through the battle’s loading screen, exit out of the battle (another loading screen), then load a save (a slightly faster load, but still a wait). When it’s faster to force-close your game and start it up again than to do whatever you were trying to do in-game, something there is obviously poorly designed. Speaking of poor design, some victory locations during battle spawn endless enemy units and have to be conquered just to stem the tide. They do nothing for you but stop enemies from spawning, and that’s the kind of unequal mechanic that makes a strategy game feel cheap. It reminds me of the enemy skills in Fire Emblem Fates that existed solely to deny the player experience for beating them. If something only benefits or is available to one side, the strategy of the thing is cheapened because it becomes less about leveraging mechanics to your benefit than overcoming an artificially-created difficulty. That isn’t fun, nor will it ever be.
Busy visual effects, but good music
I can’t even count the number of times I became totally lost on the map screen because of how busy the effects are. There are black clouds, shadows, and a mind-boggling amount of contrast that make it look incredibly busy and difficult to get a handle on. Add on top of that the seasons changing every turn, making everything suddenly look different, and it becomes remarkably easy to move to the wrong spot because you confused it with a different place, or to completely lose track of where enemy units are when they intrude on your land and start taking over areas. This visual busyness becomes even more of a problem in combat, with it becoming incredibly difficult to tell who’s an enemy and who’s an ally. Half the time I wasn’t sure whether I was casting spells on enemies or my own units. The camera doesn’t help this any, with the battlefields having a certain sense of verticality to them (lots and lots of mountainous area here), but the camera never being able to zoom out enough that you can keep track of everything at once without the mountains getting in the way. King Arthur 2’s music, on the other hand, was a real surprise. There’s the typical bombastic orchestral fluff, of course, but there are also slower, more musical tracks with interesting melodies that play between fights. I enjoyed some of these so much that I found the OGG files in the game folder and copied them over to my music folder so that I could listen to them outside of the game, which is something I rarely ever do.