Complexity can be appealing. Steven Johnson explained it to me first in Everything Bad Is Good For You: videogames are appealing in large part because they’re hard. When you set playing a new game, you often have very little idea of how it all hangs together. Figuring out the system is a large part of the fun. I regularly lose interest in a game once the underlying system is completely revealed or it seems a safe bet that I already know what’s coming next.
I’ve played quite a bit of Heroes Of Might & Magic and Disciples II. King’s Bounty: The Legend is very much like those titles. Why I became fascinated with it is two-fold: first, it’s complex and second, it’s gorgeous. Complexity in itself is enough to get me interested, but often is not enough – Dwarf Fortress, you’re alluring, but you’re impenetrable to me.
You play the commander of an army and explore a strange (in this case, crazy) fantasy world. You recruit troops and take on enemies to complete quests. Battles play out on a hex grid, turn-based.
My royal treasure hunter commander in King’s Bounty has a wife travelling with the army. I can turn her into a zombie with a magic word, but she doesn’t like it. When she’s not a zombie, she makes my robbers and pirates fight harder, but when she’s a zombie, she’s a boon to my undead troops. We have two children, who take up two of her precious inventory slots. The other child is an exemplary learner, benefiting the whole army, and the other child is very angry, again setting an example to my men. If I want another wife (say, the pirate lady I met on the beach), I’m going to have to divorce her. These being modern times, she’s taking one fifth of my money with her. Some of my troops don’t like each other (or my wife, I’m not sure about that) – especially the undead make the others nervous. Some of my items are aware. When their morale drops too low due to excessive use, I have to go into the object and fight it to return it to form. I can also go into objects and fight them to unlock new abilities. I have this chest of Rage I found and accidentally bound to myself. It has four spirits in it. I need to talk to them to get them on my side and then use them in battles to upgrade their abilities.
The game world is largely non-linear, requiring you to size up your opposition before taking them on. At times the gameplay becomes a hunt for opponents you can beat to stock up on experience and loot, which may be scarce if you haven’t been careful, because the game world’s resources are finite. There are only so many men, money, scrolls and easy enemies to go around and you need to pay attention to juggle it all. It feels like you could play yourself into a corner if you’re not careful.
This means that your army is always in flux, because in most fights you’ll lose some guys and there is no infinite well of bowmen or snakes or bears or vampires to restock from. Eventually you’ll need to replace the bowmen with skeleton archers and the other, living troops don’t really like the undead, so what do you do? You go hunting for some coffins to pull vampires out from to replace your knights, who you’ll need to go garrison in a castle.
It’s complex and gorgeous and difficult enough to keep me coming back for more. I’m not even one third done with the game yet and already I’m looking at the sequel – Armored Princess, awesome name – in anticipation of the new twists it brings. No more hunting for wives because you’re a princess, but you have a pet dragon to train. Awesome.