Anyone wandering by my screen and happening to glance at it would think that the situation is hopeless. My four trusty heroes seem hopelessly outnumbered by the approaching horde of zombies – foul creatures infesting a once idyllic Camelot. Had they watched a few games ago, their assumptions would have proved correct, and they would have witnessed my intrepid band get swiftly and brutally torn to pieces by the horde (figuratively, that is – despite its gothic setting, King Arthur: Knight’s Tale is, in it’s current release, not particularly graphic). Not this time, however, with experience comes wisdom, and along with a much better understanding of the importance of controlling the battlefield, I have been carefully developing my heroes so that their skills complement each other. Instead of letting my foes come to me, my opening move is to rush my two melee fighters – the tank-like Mordred and the damage dealing Sir Kay – towards my foes, with Mordred slightly in the lead. While Mordred, being the player character, is my most important unit (lose him, and it’s game over), he can also soak up a huge amount of punishment, and I’m offering him as a tempting target in order to protect my fairly ‘squishy’ ranged units and damage-dealing-but-not-so-tough champion, leaving them with enough action points to enter an ‘overwatch’ state (allowing them to wallop any foe that comes in range). I then order my ranged units to attack. First off the bat is Lady Dindraine, launching up a flaming arrow and then a regular attack. Not only does this combo outright kill one of the approaching horde, it sets alight those enemies in the immediate vicinity. Sir Yvain, my other ranged unit, follows this up, specifically targeting enemies on fire as he has been upgraded to deal extra damage to foes effected by fire. While I could focus all his attacks onto one foe in order to kill them before they close with my melee fighters, I opt to attack different targets, severely weakening two of them.
What happens next is exactly as I hoped, as the horde closes in on my melee fighters, one gets hit by Sir Mordred’s overwatch ability, bringing it down to half-health, whilst the two weakened Zombies close and attack, inflicting a good amount of damage to Mordred’s armour, but not enough to actually hurt him. Switching back to my turn my first order is for Mordred to finish off the Zombie already hit by the overwatch ability. I could use the remaining action points to finish off another, but there’s a more effective way: my champion has a cleave ability capable of hitting anything in his immediate vicinity (even your own troops, so be careful) which could, in one go, deal with the two foes. Moving him into position, however will expose his back to another Zombie. Attacks to the rear of any friend or foe cause an immense amount of damage, and as my Champion is already battered from a preceding fight, it’s not something that I want to risk. At the best it means he will have to sit out several missions whilst recovering at my castle, at the worst he will get so hurt he won’t survive the mission. However, Mordred has a trick up his sleeve, a nasty spell called ‘Stigma’, which I’ve upgraded to the point that it will temporarily stun opponents, preventing them from doing anything for at least one turn. Using this allows Sir Kay to get into position without risk of reprisals and, while my ranged units inflict damage on the next wave of foes, kill both of the Zombies facing Mordred.
‘Tactically-deep and extremely satisfying’ is the perfect description for Neocore’s latest offering, and rarely have I played turn-based combat which not only allows for planning several moves ahead, but practically demands it. Placement of units is vital, as is controlling the direction they are facing, the abilities they can acquire, and the equipment you choose to supply them with. Whether this increases your heroes’ armour, or grands special buffs like extra action points, these all play an important roll and can be the difference between glorious victory, or ignominious defeat. Throw in a challenging yet fair AI, a wide mix of foes with different abilities (including ones that resurrect after a number of turns unless taken care of), and limited ability to repair damage, and you have a perfect mix that allows forever changing scenarios that force you to pick your next actions with care. Do I place Mordred here or there? Can I use that wall to provide cover? Do I use all my unit’s actions sequentially, or does interspersing them give me better options? Can I afford to take that much damage to protect another unit? These are the sorts of decisions you will find yourself making again and again, and it’s tremendous fun.
If this is all the game consisted of, it would still be quite alright, as even at this stage there is a ton of replay-ability and different tactical options to try. However, the game consists of more than just the tactical battles. Before I get to that, however, a few of you may be scratching your head and thinking, ‘hold up, the game is called King Arthur, but you’re playing Mordred. Isn’t he the guy that killed Arthur?’. Correct, that Arthur and Mordred died by each others hands is the backstory here. Where things get different, is that the game casts players in the role of Mordred after he has been slain. You see, the premise is that the horrors unleashed in the fight against Arthur (or against Mordred, depending on whose side the conflict is viewed from) haven’t just disappeared, but are threatening the rest of the world. Worse yet, Avalon – supposed to be a ghostly paradise modeled on Camelot – has succumbed to these horrors, and Arthur himself has been resurrected and gone missing. It is to solve these problems that the Lady of the Lake resurrects one of the most fearsome warriors ever: Sir Mordred.
Of course, just how players go about saving the world is up to them, as along with the tactical combat, King Arthur: Knight’s Tale features RPG elements as well as a managing the player’s expanding realm. In terms of player choice, the game features a fairly detailed morality system, with players’ choices effecting whether they choose to rule as a benign leader or tyrannical despot, support the Christian faith or harken back to the pagan ways. While details on the overall impact of this system on the rest of the game are scant at present, we do know that it will impact Mordred’s relationship with other heroes – stray too far from their personal alignment, and they will no longer follow.
Which brings us neatly to the management phase. Tactical missions (and which four heroes from your available roster) are chosen via a grand campaign map. Not only do players use this section to level-up their heroes, change their equipment and alter the abilities they can use on the battlefield, the campaign map also features Avalon’s version of Camelot – a castle you can upgrade with different buildings and abilities to help you on your quest. The Hospice, for example, can cure minor injuries sustained in battle, whilst a Cathedral is needed to fix those more serious injuries. Each injury carries a greater penalty than simply reduced health for the next mission. A concussion, for example, can remove the overwatch ability. While it does take a fair bit of damage to inflict such an injury – for example, destroying all armour and then whittling down an HP ‘buffer’ – such injuries quickly reduce the utility and survivability of the hero. Worse yet, recovering from these take time, counted in real-time missions played. This means that to bring Sir Mordred back up to full health after a particularly disastrous campaign, you may have to play four whole missions without one of your strongest heroes.
In effect, this means it is quite possible to mismanage your way to disaster. Once a hero dies, they stay dead, drastically upping the difficulty and the stakes. This is quite deliberate on Neocore’s part, and while there is a ‘standard’ mode which allows you to save between missions and reload should things go pear-shaped, there is also a ‘rogue-lite’ mode which automatically saves your progress and permits no backtracking: whatever mistakes you make you are forced to live with. While this may sound hash, in practice it adds yet another layer of tactical decision making. When do I send a hero to heal? Who should I replace them with? Oh, and as heroes only level-up whilst taking part in missions, this adds yet another reason to carefully manage your hero roster, so you don’t end up with a band of low-level heroes at your disposal. It’s tough, it’s unforgiving, and it’s a lot of fun.
Being an early access game, there are the odd rough edges. During my playtime with this game, this included unfinished dialogue animations, a one-off glitch which gave Sir Kay nearly limitless action points (which allowed me to use him to burn through an entire camp of brigades in one turn), and my personal favourite: a misapplied piece of dialogue. Whenever you come across something you can loot – be it a chest or body – one of your heroes comments on it. This resulted in Sir Kay loudly proclaiming, upon discovering the face-down corpse of an unfortunate peasant, that we should ‘open this chest’ – a suggestion clearly meant for when there was a treasure-chest on screen, but in the current context conjured up all sorts of disturbing imagery. That said, none of the glitches were game breaking, or even impacted the fun, and from the intricate graphics to the impressive gameplay, the early access release shows, in general, a very high level of polish which promises great things to come.
For my part, I was surprised with just how much I enjoyed my time with King Arthur: Knight’s Tale, especially as turn-based games are not usually my preference. All in all, if you love tactical decision making, being challenged, and games where your skill really does determine how well you can do, then King Arthur: Knight’s Tale is highly recommended, and definitely one to watch, if not add to your collection straight away. ■