Is anyone else getting slightly bored with hyper-realism in games?
Modern day games (especially AAA) are graphical powerhouses, but I can’t help but begin to feel it’s all getting a bit bland because of it. I dare say, is it becoming too easy to create a human figure, give them a sword and gun and just release them into the latest fictitious world where evil must be cleansed from the land? I’m finding myself increasingly excited by games that eschew that trend and have some real style about them, a strong aesthetic that they wear with pride. The last one that nestled under my skin was Ashen late last year, and until now, nothing has quite given me the same excitement. For the King has managed to slake my thirst for something very aesthetically pleasing and give me the sort of RPG I’ve been pining for and didn’t even realise.
For the King is, essentially, a tabletop RPG. It has its own ruleset (handily available at all times at a click of a button) and comes packaged with a set of adventures — of which there are six for you to playthrough complete with suggested difficulty levels.The overarching stories and quests are a rather familiar affair (evils across the lands and so on), but really it’s just a good framing device for you and your three adventures to began their foray into the world of heroism. It certainly isn’t ‘open-ended’, but it has enough meat on the bones for you to just enjoy the world for what it is.
And that world is full of horror and murder. Don’t let its cute, colourful, carefully retro-pixellated aesthetic fool you — For the King is punishingly, hilariously, difficult. I arrogantly scoffed at the suggested difficulties of the early adventures and threw myself in on the journeyman (essentially, ‘medium’) difficulty from the get go and promptly became responsible for the demise of nine brave adventurers in rather quick succession. It never ever felt unfair, I just played it poorly. For the King rewards pauses for consideration, the weighing up of conflict versus evasion and the acceptance that if (when) you fall, your failings will be lessons for the next trio of adventures to learn from.
You start up on a game board divided into hex-shaped sections. Over a series of turns you move your party across towns, caves, forests and more following both story and side quests. For the King uses, basically, a dice mechanic to dictate successful or unsuccessful actions. Your party doesn’t have a set movement distance, with each character ‘rolling’ for movement every turn, so moving your party has to be a little bit more considered for this random element. The ‘dice rolls’ can be altered to your advantage by using ‘focus’, essentially a mechanic that allows you to guarantee a success on a roll. However, each character has only a small pool, which can only be replenished at camps, inns or through meditation — so using it wisely is paramount, unless you get caught short at a vital moment or especially difficult enemy. Monsters also appear on the board, and you can choose to engage, sneak around, or perhaps even ambush them. Every action requires careful consideration — is fighting a monster worth the XP, or is your party a bit too busted up to win? Do you risk sneaking round, but fail the roll and then get promptly ambushed by said monster? This is not a game you should ever rush should you wish to succeed.
Combat in For the King plays very much like an older-style RPG. It’s turn based, where you select an action, your character does it, then the next person and so on. It’s not especially complex, of which I’m quite glad — otherwise For the King may be in danger of just being cruel for the sake of being cruel. Given its roguelike premise it would be very easy for it to revel in the misery of total party death, but despite its incredible difficulty, it does feel like For the King is somewhat rooting for you. Combat feels punchy and rewarding with every successful arrow to the knee, and hammer to the skull, your characters shout and cheer with every victory and the rewards and loot for said victory are never stingy.
Not content with just having you battle monsters and evildoers, For the King also has a ‘chaos’ mechanic, in which if you don’t accomplish or complete quests, the world succumbs further to darkness and gets harder. Creatures’ hit points increase, they become more numerous and, in worst-case scenarios, high level demons will emerge with the express intention of hunting down your party and putting an end to their meddling. You can stop this descent into madness by breaking chaos portals and accomplish further quests, even during this period — but the ticking clock really adds pressure to a game that already takes great pleasure in making sure your heros remember that blades, magic and teeth can and will kill you should you let your guard down for a moment.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. For the King is not mean when it comes to giving you opportunities to survive. Your party of heroes, if guided carefully, can level up accordingly and purchase plenty of new armour and weapons to increase their chances of survival. There are potions, herbs and elixirs aplenty to bolster stats and grant temporary boons and bonuses. Not only that, but discoverable lore allows for the unlocking of more specialist character classes, stronger and unique weapons and armour, and even more allies in the form of merchants and traders across the land. You don’t even have to go it alone with the inclusion of both online and couch multiplayer giving you the opportunity to spend hours upon hours arguing about what is the right course of action is before inevitably being killed anyway (just like a real tabletop RPG!).
It’s an interesting thing to note that watching the game roll to succeed on an action sometimes felt frustrating as I felt that, ultimately, I had no control over what my characters were doing. However, on reflection, I realised that this is what occurs on pretty much any tabletop board game — we roll the dice and let chance do the rest. There is an illusion of control. It seems like a minor thing, but I enjoyed For the King so much more once I let go and just allowed myself to enjoy the game and its rules.
And it’s in that ‘letting go’ that I really began to appreciate For the King for what it is — a solid representation of Dungeons & Dragons-esque adventuring and dungeon-delving. It makes no apologies for its brutality, and nor should it. The rules are fair, the warnings are plain, it’s entirely within your hands to guide your heroes through and against the dangers of evil.
Until every roll you make comes up as failed and the enemy’s blade swings one final time.