Real, time and strategy. Three words that when placed together make many a PC games player yell in joy, but they’re more likely to make me groan. A few years ago, Koei changed that with a splinter series off of their wildly successful series [i]Dynasty Warriors[/i], [i]Kessen[/i]. [i]Kessen[/i] combined effective management of units in battle with full on, hack and slashing action. True, it wasn’t exactly most people’s idea of a real-time strategy game, but it definitely fits the definition and added another dimension to what people like me see as the main problem with pure RTS games – action. So fast forward a few years later and we have a Korean entrant into the strange hybrid genre that [i]Kessen[/i] had created. [i]Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders[/i] is actually a sequel to a mediocre PC RTS game, but has taken a completely different direction to its predecessor. Out go the point and click interface and in control pad based one, but while there is still a degree of PC like input in its mechanics, [i]KUF: TC[/i] for the most part feels every part like it was designed with the Xbox controller in mind. But let’s wait before we get to the game’s gameplay, and talk about its other aspects.
[i]Kessen[/i] was based on the same scenarios as the [i]Dynasty Warriors[/i] games were based on; the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. [i]Kingdom Under Fire[/i] on the other hand is based on an original source, and quite an interesting one it is too. It tells of a land called Bersia, a fantasy world inhabited by humans, orcs, elves and you probably know the rest. Typical Lord of the Rings, but what makes [i]Kingdom Under Fire[/i] quite untypical is that it is not about heroic quests or maniacal destroyers. No, it reflects a world of conflict, where different races simply cannot get along and feel the need to wage war on one another based on differences of creed, and outside appearances. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Thus the game is divided into four campaigns, two for each of the major sides in the story. On the human side, players can take control of the talented Knight Gerald or the stoic Religious defender Kendall, and for the dark forces players can play as the incredulous Dark Elf Lucretia, my personal favourite, and the superhuman one-man-army Regnier. Yes, Regnier is a human, but one with a rather unique… back-story. Each campaign has it’s own difficulty level and all four tell the same story, from four differing viewpoints. The game does a good job of not portraying the forces of Hexter and Vellond, (the orcs and Dark Elves), as not out rightly evil, in an unbiased fashion. Typically, games, movies and books show these sides as evil and bad, and there’s that, that’s all that there is to be known about them. Yes, they are the aggressors, this time anyway, and yes they hate humans very much, but, not only are these two armies in fact merely the unwilling pawns of a power struggle between Regnier, and Valdemar, the Lord of a race of half-vampires who only hold sway in the east of Bersia thanks to Regnier’s temporary support, but it really isn’t like the human forces are any less guilty of unreasonable hatred towards the other side. Because of this, the games narrative from both sides is genuinely enthralling, and somewhat unexpected, the most tragic, pitiable character in the end, is none other than Lucretia.
And I just can’t write this review without mentioning it… the first half of Lucretia’s campaign has some of the funniest dialogue I have ever seen in any videogame. Her banter with her officers, the air headed Dark Elf Cirith and the cold hearted, sarcastic Morene, a half vampire overseer to Lucretia’s unit, is absolute gold. Although it does tend to rely a bit too much on the word “bitch” sometimes, and the ridiculously forced accents that all the Dark elves seem to have is a bit off-putting, and the game also suffers from some weird aural glitches, seeing as how none of the characters can say the word “Patriarch”, perhaps the uttering of which might collapse all of Bersia or something, all is easy to forgive thanks to a good, if shoddily translated script and some, not too much, genuinely decent voice acting.
Graphically, the game is very impressive, on the whole. Whilst admittedly units tend to just be multiple copies of the exact same character model, it doesn’t matter too much in the middle of battle, and the main players of the plot are rendered extremely well, as they ought to be. The levels are absolutely huge, impressively so. In fact, perhaps they’re even a little too large since generally there isn’t a huge amount of units on a map at the same time, with a few notable exceptions. Still, this does mean the game lends itself well to guerrilla tactics and stealth. Also of note are the abnormal units, things like giant scorpions, storm mammoths, storm riders, bomber wings et al. The sightings of these support units are quite impressive and add variety to the appearance of battle. The game has a rather different soundtrack from what one would normally expect from a medieval fantasy games. What you would expect is an orchestral, dramatic soundtrack, but what you get are rock guitar, hard riffs and screaming solos. I personally like the soundtrack as it gives the game a different feel aurally, a difference matched in its approach to its gameplay, art and story. A lot can be said for a game that goes as far as it can to be unique even when one could argue it is full of clichA