[Originally posted on PopMatters]
As useful as it is to not judge a book by its cover, some covers simply reveal everything there is to know. Take a look at the cover of a Dungeons & Dragons manual and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect out of its contents. Similarly, looking at any of the promotional screenshots or material for Tangrin’s Kyn and you’ll already know what the game’s insides look like from just that first glance. Kyn is a party-based fantasy role-playing game set in the dungeons and mountains of a Norse-inspired world. When I looked at the title screen featuring armored knights lounging around a medieval port town, accompanied by soaring music, I assumed I’d be scribbling a C+ at the bottom of this report card, congratulating the developers for their effort, and uninstalling the game soon enough to make room for the next Viking dungeon-crawler about angry tough guys raiding defenseless goblins for loot and glory. But soon after the opening map, Kyn began revealing just a few extra layers beneath the surface of its well-worn template.
The most immediately obvious novelty of Kyn is that the player’s party, beginning with Alrik, the generic hero and his big-hearted sidekick Bram, are controlled simultaneously in real-time like a strategy game. However, casting spells and individual targeting is micromanaged by the player with clicks and hotkeys that are similar to those used in a classic Diablo or Torchlight dungeon crawler. Kyn pares down two complex and different sets of mechanisms to their most basic moving parts and forces them to work together, and admittedly, it initially feels very unintuitive even for the seasoned role-player. That said, the first few maps keep the training wheels on for an extended period of time, allowing the player to ease into the difficulty curve. Moreover, the ability to adjust the difficulty at any time balances even the most punishing battles and invigorates even the most routine ones. Adjusting to the oddly meshing mechanics takes time, but video game systems are complicated when they lack years of familiarity, and learning a new(ish) set of systems from scratch felt intriguing, especially given that the game offers several simpler maps first to learn all of its ins and outs. By the time more characters are added and a larger pool of abilities stack more layers of difficulty on top of one another, the player has had enough practice with the introductory material to feel at least competent enough to continue.
As challenges become more demanding and the player develops more sophisticated strategies, issuing commands becomes more frenetic and risky. However, the game includes a time-slowing function, which becomes more useful as the game progresses. When time is slowed, the player can issue individual commands and instruct each party member to carry out their next action with greater precision and in a more organized fashion. However, the player may only slow time for a set period, after which they must wait for their power to recharge. Having a specific window of time to strategize during keeps encounters tense and offers greater risk and reward for accomplishing more complex strategies.
Outside of slowing time, battles take only a few seconds each. They are sharp, decisive, and volatile, and they give each map a sense of danger and a sense of vastness without being exhausting. Furthermore, because the tide of a battle can turn within a second, they are never boring. Every victory makes the player’s characters seem powerful, and every tough encounter makes enemies feel dangerous.
Finally, although each map follows a fairly basic trek from point A to point B with a few treasure paths and side quests in between, a twist on character growth helps Kyn avoid the side quest exhaustion typical of many RPGs and dungeon crawlers. Between each map, the player returns to their hometown to stock up on new equipment and level up. However, each character receives the same amount of development points after every map regardless of their performance in the previous area. Because there is no experience points needed to progress to the next level, grinding is entirely eliminated and side quests for crafting materials, equipment, or to discover new elements of the story are optional in a way that most “optional” quests in games are not (since they usually are actually required to maximize character effectiveness). The player who embarks on a side quest only stands to gain rewards, while the player who ignores them is not left hopelessly under powered by the game’s finale. Finally, because the player can remove and redistribute every character’s ability points, they are never forced to develop along a certain path. A player can create a team made only of archers for one map and then change them into tanks for the next and still aim for a balance in the next. It’s a subtle shift away from the usual experience point model of levelling up, and it allows the player to adjust their cast to each map if they find themselves having too much trouble with a given objective.
Kyn seems to generally stand out because of these subtle shifts away from the beaten paths of the RPG genre, just slightly tweaking the expectations of its audience. However, much of its narrative tropes are all too familiar. Arlik is a generically good guy, who also happens to be good at adventuring. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself adventuring on behalf of the forces of good. Bram, his closest friend, is probably the most distinct character in the game, basically a kind-hearted doofus, but he’s still a muscly blonde guy in a genre filled with muscly blonde guys. Later additions to the party include a man seeking revenge for his lost family, a smart-mouthed thief, and an aggressive, ageing warrior. Together they lead the charge against the aeshir, a race of goblins up to some kind of magical mischief involving portals that can destroy the realms.
You’d be forgiven for nodding off during that description of the characters, but the casual dialogue and deep-seated tropes make Kyn feel like a typical evening spent playing a tabletop RPG with friends—especially early on. The routine escapism is also made somewhat more pleasing thanks to the gorgeous presentation of the game’s landscapes and the genre typical—but nonetheless very fitting—soundtrack. Although there are a fair share of darkened crypts and temples to be explored, most of the game is bright and warm. There are only a few background assets and tilesets on each map, but they are laid out in such a way as to make every settlement feel lived in and every path feel trodden on. Although the game’s technical power is obviously limited when compared with bigger budget RPGs, the design is meticulous and the game’s spaces feels like they are a part of a plausibly laid out world. Finally, Kyn’s casual tone is pretty charming and the gradually unveiled narrative twist plays on the what is otherwise a nakedly escapist fantasy in an interesting way.
From the very beginning, the aeshir and their alliance of magical creatures are hinted at as being basically harmless until a sudden and inexplicable event ignites a war between the human cities and the magical creatures in the wilderness. The deeper into the game that one gets the more apparent it becomes that some of the human cities have a nasty history with nearby populations and are not as innocent as they claim to be. However Arlik and company are legitimately good people, so the game then demands that the player acknowledge the tension that comes with being a moral and just person living in an immoral and unjust society. As a result, they still must defend their lives against people who have valid reasons for attacking what they stand for. The nods at colonial themes aren’t exactly Waiting for the Barbarians level of sophistication but Kyn does acknowledge the danger present in blindly playing out a power fantasy and sometimes paints a frankly ugly picture of people.
Remarking that flirting with deeper themes is good “for a videogame” is invariably a backhanded compliment, and Kyn or the thematically similar Bastion aren’t even the best cases of a game exploring racialized conflict, but the attempt to discuss racialized power dynamics seems consistent and intentional in Kyn. For what it’s worth, the developers are interested in exploring more than blonde muscly guys with cool swords obliterating faceless hordes. Ultimately, Kyn is the generic dungeon crawling RPG that the screenshots promise that it is, but even the most bombastic D&D manual cover won’t elaborate on the depth and nuance possible within it.
There is more to Kyn under its surface. Probably not enough to impress everyone, but it blends disparate mechanics and skews expectations in such a way that it’s an admirable debut for Tangrin studios. For a game built by such a small team, it’s incredibly well organized and just ambitious enough to deserve a second glance. Kyn is generic, but somehow it is generic in the most intriguing way that a fantasy game can be.
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