King's Bounty 2 Review
The Lord of the Grind
Fantasy is a genre that has always been close to my heart. To say The Lord of The Rings was a formative experience for my introduction to cinema and literature would be underselling it. My time with Middle-earth has made it incredibly easy for me to fall in love and get invested within any world with a fantastical setting, particularly with series like Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls. King's Bounty II looked to be another RPG in that mould.
The original King's Bounty goes back to 1990 with the first game being on PC and Sega Mega Drive. That game morphed into Heroes of Might and Magic, which King's Bounty II owes a lot of its core features to. Although I didn't play the original, I got stuck in with the 2008 spiritual sequel, King's Bounty: The Legend. It immediately intrigued me. The characters, the setting of Nostria and the madness of it, made it unlike any game I had played before. King's Bounty II had some tough boots to fill.
The main story of this long awaited sequel is your standard fantasy fare. The world is in danger, the protagonist is the chosen one who will save Nostria, et cetera. It's all very boring, uninspired and forgettable. The game fails to drag you in with any interesting facets or intrigue and it's easy to forget what happened previously when it is all so cliche. The story isn't helped by poor writing and bad voice acting. It's much easier to skip the dialogue rather than listen to over-the-top delivery of some of the worst lines I've heard recently. You don't miss much either as it is easy to work out what's happening in each quest by looking at the journal and just heading to the markers.
The animation is also rough and what should be high energy, exciting cutscenes often look wooden and hilariously unnatural. The facial animation doesn't fare better and it looks like everyone in Nostria has had a few rounds of Botox injections. Ironically, the undead characters seem to show more emotional range and are generally the most memorable characters to come across.
There are three protagonists to choose from, who are fully voice acted, but this comes at the cost of no dialogue choices for the player. It weakens the role-playing elements when you can't direct the conversation. Choices boil down to whether you interact with one character or another in certain quests. Certain choices change your alignment within 4 roles, with those being: Power, Chaos, Order and Finesse. Certain quests may have choices between Chaos and Order or Power with Finesse and you just have to interact with the marked character or item for that alignment. It is a passive way of enabling player "choice" and it usually pigeon holes you into a role rather than expanding the roleplay.
These choices also play into how you level up your character. The more points you put into Order, for example, will open up more perks for that role. This restricts any roleplay as once you've chosen an alignment you have to stick to it. Any attempt to branch out could lead to your character being weak against stronger enemies and rejecting certain decisions if it doesn't fit into the choices you've made previously. It keeps the protagonists one dimensional as you can't have any complexity in your choices. The characters themselves start off as bland as the proverbial gruel and stay that way throughout. Aivar is the warrior and has no discernible traits besides gruff, Elisa is a Paladin and is incredibly naïve on top of coming across as a teacher's pet and Katherine is the mage who is just a bit of a jerk to people. All 3 characters share the same start, so despite their differing biographies you'll play through the same starting area regardless of your choice.
Your army units also fit into those 4 alignments, with a mixed army potentially leading to issues with their morale. However, each alignment has certain strengths and weaknesses, such as Order units are usually human soldiers who have a mixture of melee, ranged and magical units. Chaotic units can be bandits or assassins, Power are usually dwarves or animals and Finesse are usually magical units. However, it is wise to have a range in your army to account for every eventuality as some alignments are stronger against others.
The core of the gameplay is split between exploration and battles. The exploration is done through a third person view in an open world of enclosed areas like Dragon Age: Inquisition. If you were hoping for a fully open world like Skyrim, then I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are confined to local areas, with the Crownlands being larger than the first area you start in. Thankfully, like all good fantasy RPGs, there is a magic teleporting horse to help you get around. However, your horse also disappears after every conversation and cutscene, so be prepared to be calling your horse all the time. As you spend time in Nostria, you will realise that it's not a truly open world. You can't plot your own path or go across the landscape as there is an abundance of invisible walls keeping you on a strict path. This path usually pushes you into unavoidable battles which become a regular barrier to your progress. This is a regular annoyance as sometimes I wish to save money and my soldiers, but the game forces you into battles and it stunts any progress you feel you're making. This wouldn't be an issue if they were optional bumps in the road, but instead they're more akin to a roadblock.
This rigidity also extends to side quests. My understanding about side missions is that they are there to add to the overall experience, but they are not compulsory. You can easily play a game and ignore all the extra bits if you want. Except King's Bounty II doesn't do this. Yes, some of the side activities were voluntary, but others you were forced to complete just so you can carry on with the main quest. One example of this was a battle you are forced to fight on the way to the Mage Tower. This battle was a difficult one and I couldn't complete it without help. So, in order to progress the main story, I had to do a side quest to get some friendly eagles on my side just to clear the path forward. This problem then repeats itself with the town of Rickville, just down the road from this battle. To clear the path through the town you're forced to complete several more side quests before moving on to the Mage Tower and finishing another side quest to open that area up.
It feels arbitrary and like filler, but it makes moving from point A to B an absolute slog. It's not like you can avoid them, and if you take a turn away from one battle, you'll just run into another one. It is neither fun nor engaging. This wouldn't be such an issue if the battles were an occasional random event, but they are so numerous it makes travelling a nuisance. Even if you think you're taking a pacifist path, there will be a battle you're forced to fight.
The entire game follows a pattern of stop and start and this isn't helped with repetitive quest design. In between constant battles on the road you are forced to complete a myriad of fetch quests, which usually necessitate a battle to actually collect the things you were asked for. Nothing makes you feel less like a destined saviour of the land than collecting some flowers for a random person you only interact with once. It makes trying to complete a main quest one of the most arduous tasks I've ever undertaken. This is on top of all the backtracking the game makes you do and with the movement speed of the character being that of a snail, this will take up most of your time. The lack of a sprint button is noticeable once you hit a larger area like the Crownlands, but there is a walk button if you want to make your experience even more painful.
The turn-based battles are a highlight, if missing some elements. Each battle takes place on a hexagonal grid with terrain usually including different levels of elevation and objects to take cover behind. There are no flanking bonuses so don't expect battles to be easier if you outmanoeuvre the enemy. Battles are also necessary to grind for XP and gold as they are one of the only ways to earn money, besides hoarding every random item and finishing every side quest.
The UI is another needless barrier in King's Bounty II. When it comes to buying soldiers, you can't buy them directly into your reserves. You have to move an existing unit to the reserves, buy the new unit and go back to the army menu to move things round. Why you can't buy directly into the reserves I don't know, as units you earn through quests go directly into the reserves. This issue also rears its head before battles. Once you start a battle, you get a screen where you can see the enemy army and an indication of how strong they are. The problem is that you can't chop and change the composition of your army on this screen. If you have a unit in reserve that can make the most of an enemy weakness, you have to retreat from the battle, head into the menus and switch out the units before heading back into the battle. It's unintuitive and a needless hindrance.
The UI is also lacking when it comes to battles. There's no clear indication if you've selected a unit, nor is there a clear indication if you've selected a skill to use. I usually had to click things several times just to make sure I was about to do something I wanted. There is also no way to see if moving to a particular hexagon will bring an enemy into your line of sight. You just have to wing it.
The world design is one of the game's strongest aspects. Each area you visit has had a lot of attention to detail put in and some of it is pretty to look at. The Crownlands has several major landmarks to look at, including the mages tower, a tall statue of someone important, probably, and a mountain that has erupted but looks like it has been suspended in time.
However, there are plenty of visual glitches, including floating rocks in areas where they shouldn't be floating. There were also some frame rate dips upon entering new areas, and it is incredibly easy to get stuck on the terrain. Once, I got stuck on a slight ledge and had to free myself by spinning around like a lunatic. Your horse is just as stupid and can also get stuck, even in areas where you can seemingly pass a bus through. Further, there is also some noticeable texture pop in which can become distracting.
I really wanted to enjoy my time with King's Bounty II, and I did for the tutorial. However, once the game “opened” up, the cracks began to show. Getting through the game is a slog and it's baffling that it is designed to be as irritating as possible. You can't enjoy the scenery as the game constantly stops you for unavoidable battles or compulsory side quests which bogs down the main experience. The side quests feel like they belong in an RPG from years ago and the movement speed of the player character could lose a race to a tortoise. The turn-based battles are a highlight but the bad UI takes this sheen away a little. This all wouldn't be as bad if the story was worth playing through, but it's so basic and by the numbers that it just isn't worth your time.