18 August, 2015

Review - King of Dragon Pass

King of Dragon Pass made me a better-rounded human being; it reiterated the importance of practicing the most often overlooked consumer ability; to research a product before you purchase it. That is of course why reviews like this exist, to allow you to foreshadow your own suffering.

King of Dragon Pass

King of Dragon Pass

King of Dragon Pass I later came to understand is a remake of a role-playing/strategy game hybrid, dating back to 1999, previously remade for mobile, before its current incarnation on the PC. King of Dragon Pass sees you ruling a small, a Nordic medieval clan, displaced from their homeland by the infamous Pharaoh, driven to settle in the equally infamous Dragon Pass.

The role-playing/strategy concoction has a sweet allure, so sweet that it leads me to wonder why we haven't seen more adaptations of exactly this formula. Or if there have been recent examples, why haven't they hit. King of Dragon Pass is in some regards not totally dissimilar to the Civilization games; food, money, and all the resources in between must be carefully managed. You recruit warriors, hunters, farmers, and you might enslave your enemies as Thralls, each aiding in the clan’s continued survival. However, this all takes place in menus, there are no character models and you don’t move units around a polygonal map. I might argue that King of Dragon Pass is a more complex game than modern Civilization, which is a problem, because usability was clearly not a guiding tenant, not in its original development and not during its remaking.

King of Dragon Pass

The role-playing elements also feed into to the game’s more strategic management systems. King of Dragon Pass adopts a choose-your-own-adventure approach; small vignettes usually part of longer chains, will surface after triggering a changing of the seasons (turns basically, but with more meaningful differences). Some of these vignettes maybe tied to the fortunes of your clan’s distant expeditions, others may be legal or the magical matters concerning your settlement’s carls. Magic has huge meaning to the Orlanthi, the broader term for the people of the clans. Each the year you generate magic and assign it to the many faculties of your clan; ensuring a good harvest, healthy people, or prosperous trade for example. It is, when sterilised, just another resource albeit one with the power to win battles or conversely, cost you dearly.

Battles are all represented in text form too; a brief description of the action, occasionally requiring you to give orders, followed by a summary of losses and loot – only if you’re lucky. The whole system is unguided and intangible, on one hand this makes it somewhat realistic and risky, on the other it is confusing and inconsistent, making the experience frequently frustrating. You are able to choose the focus of your forces; perhaps you seek to plunder, take captives, or simply kill as many enemies as possible. You can also select how your warriors fight; focusing on mobility, skirmish tactics, or just a plain old charge. The ramifications of each aren't explained in the game, however I have intuited some basic rules; if your aim is to survive then opt for evasion, if you outnumber the enemy then charge them – make sense to me at least! Though there is no strong evidence to support my theories. In fact I could well be wrong, because somehow I can be outnumbered four to one by raiders and triumph by simply hitting the ‘continue’ button and ignoring all the options completely. Doing so is at least faster than actually evaluating the situation, which is something to be thankful for, because no amount of logic I apply actually seems to improve my odds of success in combat. It made me frequently question why I was fighting in the first place, so I created another tribe and tried to live peacefully, focusing on trade and diplomacy. I came to the conclusion that it didn’t seem to matter what path I chose, all are balanced in such a way that for every successful step you take, the game will force you to take a step back somewhere else. There is nothing free in Dragon Pass, for everything you gain, the game must then take something from you. It’s a philosophy I can respect at a distance, but not one that I want to engage in, a result I suspect of the generation of games it came from. A time when games sought to challenge the player, rather than simply allow themselves to be enjoyed, a time I’m very happy to leave behind.

King of Dragon Pass

A similar sense of vagueness hangs over all of King of Dragon Pass’ mechanics. There is an in game tutorial, but rather than truly teaching you anything, it chooses to tell you which option to select, then remind you, ‘there are no good or bad choices’. Which is a flat lie. I spent several years cordially receiving Minotaur envoys and they still destroyed my clan and coincidentally ended my game. I had walls, ditches, a watchtower, and more, none seemed to have any effect, save draining my clan’s coffers. I had every defence and hundreds of warrior and neither protected my people from the near constant raids of ‘horsespawn’ nomadic riders, trolls, nor Minotaurs. I’m sure the answers are somewhere in the beefy web manual, but I have had quite enough reading after trying to undertake a quest. Quests are rituals, into which you despatch a member of your clan, to retrace the steps of the gods, with the intention of strengthening your people. This all happens in a series of choices, where mistakes can have dire consequences for both the person you sent on the quest and indeed the clan itself. To succeed at these quests one must either guess perfectly each time, or study the tales of the gods; paragraphs and paragraphs of mediocre lore, basically.

King of Dragon PassThere are that many systems, all crucial and often interlinked, that my destruction was assured on my first rodeo, whether by the hoofs Minotaurs or something else equally implacable, like starvation. As clan chief you have the benefit of the opinions and wisdom of your council, seven hand-picked advisors who are legally obliged to never reach a unanimous decision. The council provides some useful tips, such as; how many farmers are needed to plough the fields, and how having more temples would be a good thing. They also suggest the course of action they would take during the multiple choice role-playing sections. Their advice is a far cry from actually telling you how to run your fiefdom though, and despite having names and portraits, the lack any real personality, requiring you to make up the difference yourself. Good luck with that – I had one lady with a scar, she was cool I guess.

That lack of identifiable writing is the true issue I have with King of Dragon Pass, I'm a man who gets a real enjoyment from deciphering user interfaces designed for programmers - or indeed Japan. I like looking at a spreadsheets and watching number increase – never decrease. But bland writing and a forgettable world is hard to forgive in a game that hinges entirely upon reading. It's not that it is poorly written, in terms of the language used, rather it’s unfocused, generic. The game rushes to throw a hundred meaningless names at you, then expects you to not only recall them, but also recall the history of each and then apply that knowledge to the gameplay. It’s not good lore, with its own sense of identity; instead it’s a mixing pot of tones, cultures, and fantastical elements. The result of that bubbling pot, is a rancid broth that I'm sure will hold an appeal for those with fond memories of the game, but it is certainly not for my palette. Games can achieve far more with far less these days.

King of Dragon Pass

The stench of age and the reek of a mobile port are all too pervasive here. Grimy art can be forgiven, its style which is not particularly memorable, can also be understood. That does not make it any more pleasant to look at mind. However, the game does not properly scale to fit a 16x9 monitor, which is a problem. Initially, I thought text was clipping off the screen, but that proved not be the case, the text was simply meant to be scrollable. There is no visual indication of this functionality on any menu, which would of course not have been necessary on mobile, where one assumes every interface can be scrolled.

King of Dragon PassKing of Dragon Pass is a product of its time, and the shoddy port back to the PC certainly hasn’t helped its case. The role-playing/strategy hybrid is a genre I would love to see explored further, and King of Dragon Pass has the kinds of systems and depth I was looking for. However, it is an old game, with old sensibilities, by which I am referring to its dated approach to gameplay balance and its poor interface. It has old writing which lacks any sense of selfhood, becoming entirely forgettable as a result. And old art that try as I might, I have no appreciation for. I have little doubt that as a vehicle for nostalgia, King of Dragon Pass could satisfy a player returning to it, but as a modern videogame it is a failure.

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