an open world strategic RPG that does not convince

In the cultural and artistic field, almost everything has been attempted and created by the human mind. It is now difficult to be surprised by novelty that they are not the refinement of something already proposed by someone else; but the novelty, and video games often teach us, is not everything. It’s a small part of a whole where what really matters is how ideas are put into practice. Talking about King’s Bounty II it could be said that despite himself he is the perfect example of how one should not pursue the less beaten approaches and of how, in an attempt to build something that does not often happen to witness, one can end up doing a confused and devoid of identity.

In the specific case, the attempt was to merge a story-driven role-playing game with a highly individualistic approach (such as The Witcher 3 or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) and a turn-based strategy game with a collective dimension: the hero does not resolve conflicts. directly but let his entourage take care of it. King’s Bounty II is built on irreconcilable assumptions and it is therefore assumed that the result is inevitably compromised. This is the main problem of the game, followed by many others of varying severity.

A story full of contradictions

Basing a story starting from contradictions such as the one mentioned in the introduction is an arduous undertaking that can at best give acceptable results. This, however, only if the writing is so full of virtuosity as to overshadow structural irreconcilabilities. King’s Bounty II doesn’t even try to mask the contradictions, indeed it behaves as if they did not exist: the story is that of a heroine or a hero locked up in a prison because he is suspected of having poisoned the king of a nation called Nostria; after weeks of imprisonment he is recalled by the prince, now in control of the kingdom, and in charge of unravel the mystery behind a magical cataclysm which caused the spread of a disease known as Blight.

From here it is a succession of narrative elements of manner: the dark cult that seeks ascension through an apocalypse; the trusted advisor who is actually a traitor in the pay of cultists; the arrival of mystical characters who confess to the protagonist that he is the chosen one and the fate of the kingdom depends exclusively on his actions. The hero, however, is not a traditional protagonist: He never fights directly yet the game continues to paint his successes as a result of individual efforts.

Furthermore, the handpiece that accompanies it does not really exist, it is represented abstractly in an inventory that contains each unit collected, but it is never visible in the game world (except during combat). The fights are therefore more like minigames than clashes between armies, as if the protagonist were doing a battle using Pokémon or a deck of cards. The story is so tangled up in clichés to suggest that it is intentionally annoying, however what makes it really annoying to follow the story are the constant forgetfulness and indecision about the role of the protagonist.

Is he a leader or not? So why is practically every quest in the game omitting this aspect? Why should such a character be interested in the smallest and most trivial matters, such as recovering a farmer’s lost pig or a lady’s precious ring? King’s Bounty II pretends to be a more traditional RPG starring the stereotype “murder hobo”, despite being a different title in the premises. This naivety of his costs him a lot.

A dysfunctional open world structure

The map where most of the missions take place is a single piece of land that coincides with the realm of Nostria. After the prologue, the adventure starts from the capital Marcella and then moves through the countryside, small villages, castles and a tower of the magicians. In fact, King’s Bounty II is an open world, since with the exception of an initial area separate from the main one, all the territories are connected to each other and there is no loading, except those that mark the access to short dungeons set in alternative dimensions.

The game map, however, does not respond to the typical characteristics of an open world: free exploration, for example, is related only to small portions, initially disconnected from the others by a progression barrier or some architectural obstacle. The open world is therefore divided into micro zones whose release is marked by the progress of the main narrative; only after reaching the final stages is it possible to travel the world in total freedom.

If the game is so linear and articulated, then why create a single game map, one wonders. A unitary structure can certainly be functional to the creation of a more credible world, it can guarantee a greater sense of realism or allow you to see from a distance the points of reference already visited so as to create cohesion. But there is another side of the coin: representing the kingdom on a single map means delineating its real dimensions.

It is no longer possible to falsify the size of a large city (as was the case in Dragon Age: Origins, for example), because that city is entirely open to visitors: the distances between one place and another are simulated and not left to the imagination. In short, the setting can be more realistic, but only if it accords with the narrative assumptions. The result achieved by King’s Bounty II is to make the kingdom of Nostria look like a small village quartered on the banks of a small river and connected by a questionable road network. It’s hard to believe that where you put your feet up is a great nation, and therefore it might have been more appropriate to prefer a structure with separate macro areas to stage a more plausible fiction. Another problem is that there is no day-night cycle, a passable lack in a game with distinct areas, but much less in an open world, more concrete and simulative.

King’s Bounty II’s open world is superfluous and dysfunctional, yet the setting is one of the few things worth spending a few words of praise on. Classic and at the same time pleasant, characterized by credible architecture and geography. The style of clothing and armor, on the other hand, is fluctuating: we go from coherent and pleasant suits to polygonal monsters whose pieces interpenetrate each other.

The hero also has the bad habit of wearing a sword and shield glued to his shoulders, a rather common tendency in role-playing games and apparently harmless except that more voluminous shields compromise the frames of the dialogues, hiding the face of the interlocutor. A moderate annoyance which, however, is not worth giving too much weight. The facial animations of the characters are in fact very approximate; lip is synchronized on Russian dubbing and is uncoordinated when English is selected; the faces, especially the female ones, are all similar to each other. King’s Bounty II does not have an enviable technical profile.

Combat and progression system

The combat is turn-based and takes place on a hexagonal chessboard superimposed on a setting punctuated by natural irregularities or by objects that can serve as shelter for enemy and allied troops. The regulation is traditional: units with the most initiative attack first; the amount of squares they can move depends on the speed attribute and the attack strength is determined by the statistics of the protagonist added to those of the components of his troop. The only direct contribution the protagonist can make to the battle is that of summon spells, even if the character is a brute incapable of magical arts.

Units belong to different categories and each of them has passive and active abilities. At the beginning you can recruit soldiers, animals and some undead, later you unlock more powerful variants and, if the hero has enough money and command points (a stat that increases with the level and can also be affected by the equipment ), can afford legendary monsters and dragons. The more the army is varied, the more the morale is affected: the choice is therefore to have strong units but with low morale (which translates into the possibility of skipping a turn) or units perhaps individually less powerful but similar in ideals, with the chance that they have an extra action at the end of the turn.
Variety and combat system get along well in the first handful of hours, in which, however, there is very limited fighting. Already in the middle of the game all the variants will be known, all the mechanics in-depth: the second half is in short a reiteration of the same situations that characterized the first, with some additional difficulties.

Even maps are recycled over and over in superfluous and not very creative clashes. There are no random fights: each battle is unique and unrepeatable, but the same has generic features that would not be the envy of a procedural generation algorithm. The fights themselves work well, but they have characteristics that make them uncomfortable to read. First of all, the view is shortened and not from a bird’s eye view and it may happen that some enemies – or allies – are hidden by elements of the environment.

It is also not immediate to understand which unit is selected (there is no portrait that shows it unequivocally) and it is easy to make mistakes that can also cost the entire battle. Then there is a clear summary screen missing to see the statuses applied to units and a better way to read the effects of active abilities, without having to press the key to use them. The problems are largely related to the interface which is rather unsuitable to meet the needs of such a game.

There is also a lack of a series of “quality of life” functions whose presence is now taken for granted. There is no fast save and fast loading (which, however, according to a post from the developers, should arrive with a future update); there is no autosave function (except before some battles) and the risk of losing progress due to crashes, which occur quite frequently, it is very high; there are also no options for customizing the interface and eliminating unnecessary elements, such as the key tips to press at the bottom right of the screen.

The progression system mixes characteristics of the moral sphere and statistical improvements to the hero and troops. It is quadripartite: on the one hand there are the talents of the ideals of Order and Anarchy, on the other those of Power and Cunning. The most advanced branches are unlocked only if the protagonist demonstrates unshakable faith in ideals: promoting legality and peaceful resolution of conflicts increases the level of Order and Cunning; acting like a criminal and acting on impulse instead raises the level of Anarchy and Power.

Anarchy and Order are opposed to each other, as are Cunning and Power, and it is starting from these two binomials that the missions make choices available. Choices that will inevitably be influenced by the pragmatic aspect rather than the idealistic one, with the possibility that the resolution of missions will turn into “moral farming”. The merger of the two systems is clearly clumsy, but given everything King’s Bounty II is lacking in, the problem may well take a back seat.