[Originally posted on PopMatters]
From an outsider’s perspective, simulated war games seem dangerously unapproachable. The deluge of stats and conditions that must be mastered make it feel like the games can only ever have a niche appeal. But from an outsider’s perspective that is finally taking a look at a simulated wargame (in this case, King Arthur II: The Roleplaying Wargame), the genre is not as unintuitive as first imagined. The main distinction that King Arthur II has from other types of war games is its nod to “roleplaying”.
Generally, when a developer tries to blend genres together to please everybody, they end up diluting what was special about the component parts and emphasizing the negatives. Indeed, roleplaying requires the development of a small cast of characters, whereas the strategy game requires shifting of hundreds of identical mooks in an army. These are two types of games that should not mix well. But King Arthur II finds a recipe for mixing the RPG and the RTS that has generally positive results.
For starters, the game blends actual history and high fantasy to create a fascinating backdrop. The game’s maps are based on real geography and the politics are based on actual feudal principles, but among competing families and nobles, the player’s armies must contest with ogres, trolls, and wizards. The player must not just consider terrain and formation when engaging an enemy but also what magical spells the enemy hero has at his disposal and what enchanted gear to bring into battle.
The game is neatly divided into two sections, the segment that occurs on the turn-based world map and the segment that concerns field combat. Mission selection happens on an overhead map, won which the player can build settlements to control territory, move their army, research new technologies, rest their army on friendly turf, and take on new missions. During combat, the player’s army and an opponent’s army occupy opposite ends of a field. Troops are organized into different platoons and are given orders. In combat, holding certain territory will give an army certain benefits such as the ability to cast magic spells or to receive stat buffs.
Combat is fairly straightforward. Each platoon has strengths and weaknesses that the player must consider, and different terrain affects army movement and combat abilities in different ways. Holding a statue that grants healing magic means reducing the overall size of your attacking army, but the added sustainability that that artifact provides may reduce casualties against an equally equipped force. Similarly, letting an enemy hold such a monument can work for or against the player depending on how they react. These types of situations add a layer of strategy even to the most one-sided fights. Finally, each engagement is important and requires attention because your army will not recover after a fight unless you’re on friendly territory.
Still, there were a few frustrating bugs that interrupted the flow of battle for me. Units would sometimes get stuck on certain terrain, or sometimes units would be inexplicably unable to attack one another, necessitating a total restart of the fight. At its worst, some battles felt more like working around the game’s bugs than mastering its mechanics. These times were few and far between, but they were enough to cause problems.
For the most part, the combat is strategic and meaningful enough to make a satisfactory game. Honestly, however, I spent most of the game choosing to let a computer simulation instantly determine how each battle went. I did this because the world-map part of the game is where the game’s touted roleplaying takes place. Often visiting another noble’s territory or convening at a capital for a senate debate leads to the game’s best moments. The player-controlled commander must bribe, befriend, threaten, or annihilate the other nobles to gain power in each chapter of the campaign, and the feudal politicking held the greatest appeal for me.
The game’s writing is terrible, and the voice acting abysmal to the point of hilarity. Hearing the game’s corny dialogue spouted off with the forced pomp and overdone emotion of a small cast that clearly want to be doing something else has a special kind of joy. It clearly marks the “so bad it’s good” sweet spot, and as backhanded as that compliment is, the game is much more enjoyable for it..
Most of the choices in King Arthur II find the player choosing to be tyrannically ruthless or ineffectually honourable. In most games, this would be obnoxious, but for King Arthur II, it further highlights the amusing cliché that the game is absorbed in. In spite of its corniness, the political tennis-match between nobles is a lot of fun to take advantage of, and even if every character in the game is a caricature, knowing that they all want and deserve the same thing that you do makes each decision feel more significant. In the end, RPGs are based on making decisions that feel important and King Arthur II succeeds in this no matter how much I turn my nose up at it.
All in all, the game delivers on its advertised promise. As far as war games go, it’s more accessible than the unwieldy stats and conditions of others like it usually allow for, and other than a few bugs, it’s intuitive and effective. As a roleplaying game, it plays like a rendition of Game of Thrones cast and directed by a high school drama club, and as hard as it is to make that sound like a compliment, it actually works for the game.
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