King Arthur: Fallen ChampionsESRB:
Platform: PC Games
Category: Real Time Strategy, RPG
King Arthur: Fallen Champions is a riff on Arthurian legend, a real-time strategy game which has a few innovative features, but is bogged down by some poor design decisions and a difficult curve that would best be described as “decidedly odd”. To understand why, let's look at the visuals and sound, and then examine the first missions of each of the three characters.
In a short summary, this game comes between King Arthur: The Strategy Wargame, and its upcoming sequel, and follows the adventures of Drest, Pictish shaman looking to improve his peoples' lot, Lady Corighann, an unseelie Sidhe (that's evil faeries to you and me), who is just looking to get home, and Sir Lionel, a good Christian Knight of the Round Table, chivalrically looking for his lady love, and revenge on the pagan kidnapper of said lady love.
One of the better things about this game, which says a lot, is that the map section is quite gorgeous, and the charcoal drawing style of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure sections is a welcome reminder of flipping through those old books with about ten bookmarks in hand. Once you get into the actual battles, however, the minimap can be decidedly confusing (especially in Sir Lionel's first mission), and, while the rest of the UI looks okay (not great, just okay), the battle animations consist of both units randomly flailing in the rough vicinity of their enemies, which is a real let-down when you're zoomed close. Overall, it's graphically similar to the early Total War games, and you don't get the full visual loveliness of a pitched battle between massive forces until much later, which, as we will see, tends to discourage people from continuing the game.
The celtic style music perfectly fits the era, and the sounds of clashing swords, or swishing arrows are quite well done, even if they don't tend to match the visuals. However, this game is crippled, sound wise, by having perhaps four voice actors... for the narrator, Lady Corighann, some of the heroes, and some of the units. So you get a lot of similar voices calling out, and this can lead to auditory confusion. Considering that, later in the game, you have to keep an eye on multiple groups of units, this was perhaps not Neocore's wisest decision.
So, at first, the game seems fairly tiny, with about 6 battles for each character, and a final battle that involves all three. But the battlefields are huge. Sometimes they're a little bit sparse. like the first Drest battle, where there's long stretches of sod-all, punctuated by ghosts, and, at the end, a bunch of seelie sidhe (that's “faerie folk that could be seen as nice on a foggy day with beer goggles”, to those who don't know), and sometimes, they're quite busy. Take the first Sir Lionel mission, where you have to battle your way up a hill-road to the castle at the end, protecting your giant so he can help you shatter the walls. There are three characters to choose from, Drest (the Pictish Shaman), Sir Lionel (Knight of the Round Table), and Lady Corighann (An unseelie sidhe... bad faerie...)
So the main part of the game is pretty darn intuitive, especially if you've played games like Total War... but it is hard... and the movement speed often means you'll be hitting special abilities just so you can get somewhere, especially in the more sparse maps. Each character has different units, and, in essence, different playstyles, so it's a different tactical approach for each character. Take that first Drest mission.
In the case of Drest, he's a necromancer, and he uses ghosts as his beginning units. There's just one problem... ghosts are seriously weakened by daylight in this game, and, unless you can get somewhere cloudy, you're screwed, because, at the beginning, it's very much a case of “They have more units than me”, even on Beginner.
The main point of the mission was to destroy the seelie Sidhe stopping me from getting home, at the other end of the map. I can sit out the day in one of the handy “thunder traps”, which shield my ghosts from the sun, and it even gives me a spell that I can only use there... but the problem is, during the day, sidhe will ambush me with, generally, a pair of skirmishing units... slowly grinding my force to dust well before I reach the formidable force at the end. During the dusk and night, I can attack the ghosts around the map, and summon more of my forces from burial mounds, but, again, attrition will make things difficult. So, in that map, it's a very tense game of cat and mouse.
Sir Lionel is the “generic” option for this game, a Knight of the Round Table, searching for his kidnapped lady love, and the Red Knight who stole her. But will he be turned to dark pagan ways, or will he keep the good christian faith of the Round Table... and, just as importantly, will it have an effect on the storyline? I'm not entirely sure, because, as I've said, the game is hard. There are lots of units on the way to the castle, and you really have to use your special abilities tactically to get anywhere without running out of mana. Or units. Or losing that giant that would be really helpful in breaking down castle walls...
Finally, there's Lady Corighann, an unseelie Sidhe trying to make her way home. Her first mission is actually the easiest to complete, although at first it looks quite tough. It's a stealth mission at night, and since the good Lady's magical abilities can seriously screw over single units (slowed to half speed and poisoned till they die or the spell runs out), getting to the warlock you're meant to rescue (he can help you get back home) is relatively easy, if tense. Then, there's a short, hairy run to the hill, because you can't cast spells until you peg it for a certain distance, chased by an entire camp of nutter knights, who you then proceed to obliterate with lightning, poison, and summoned units.
The interesting thing about Fallen Champions is that, before each battle, you go through a short “Choose your own adventure” section, which can, depending on your choices, give you buffs, or different unit loadouts. You have to experiment, though, because, as with CYOA books, it doesn't actually tell you what you get until you pick it. I'm still going through the choices, trying to work out what does what, and some of the end sections are fake choices .Parley, sneak, or fight, you'll have to fight the Sidhe in the first Drest battle anyways. Also, you might be dissuaded by the occasional “Wall of text” in the story introductions and these sections, but try not to be, because some of it is actually quite interesting, especially if you like people riffing on Arthurian myth. It is, however, somewhat annoying that none of the choices seem to have a major effect on the story, even though they could have (Sir Lionel, turning to pagan ways? That could have changed the plot, but no, it's basically “Do you want healing buffs, or a strong magical attack?”)
Of course, like any game, it's not without its flaws, and one of the most annoying is a personal bugbear of mine... ground-following camera. You don't so much zoom as pan up and down, and the game seems a little inconsistent in how far your camera moves from you (Drest and Lady Corighann can seemingly see most of the battlefield, whereas Sir Lionel's view doesn't seem to move more than 100 feet from where he is). Now, ground following camera is generally alright, except when you have obstacles you can't really see through. And there are a lot of these. In Drest's first map, there are forests, and in Sir Lionel's, there's forests and the big honking hill you have to climb. Sure, your units sometimes turn white or glow when in cover, you can select them from the bottom bar (enemy units do the same) , but it's still a pain, and not good design. It also doesn't help that the difficulty curve starts at “tense”, and that infantry units move at a painfully slow pace across the sprawling maps. On top of this, the confusion in the minimap can often lead to major annoyance, due to some terrible early map design.
For example, while I've gotten a fair way with Drest and Lady Corighann, I have not finished the first Sir Lionel mission. Why? Because you start at the edge of the map, and, due to the aforementioned vision limit, you have no idea where to go. And even when you do (Friendly hint: Up the long-ass road to the castle peppered with units), it's incredibly hard to work out exactly how to get started. And you can't save in battle. That's right, no saves in battles that last between an hour and 3 hours, so, if you screw up, which isn't always apparent, you get to go through the whole ordeal again.
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