Review: Crusader Kings: Chronicles08 Aug 2016 4
Review: Crusader Kings: Chronicles
Released 21 Jul 2016
Crusader Kings II was in many ways a triumph in game design – taking something as unwieldy and in-depth as a grand strategy game and packaging it in a way that propelled it into the hearts and minds of the mainstream gamer was nothing short of a coup. As a long-time Paradox fan myself, it was gratifying to see them get the recognition they deserve, and it can be said that the game put the company on the map in more ways than one.
The key was CK2's near-limitless potential for emerging narrative. It was an experience as much about telling the story of a medieval dynasty as it was controlling a Kingdom throughout the Middle Ages, and there was a devilishly addictive quality that made you keep coming back. You had to find out whether Oswald survived his assassination attempt, after all! I imagine it was what people who watch soap operas experience, as trying to manage your menagerie of family members and their inter-personal conflicts was fascinating beyond reason.
With such a strong narrative cachet to leverage, you'd think a spin-off mobile title presented as a choose-your-own adventure would have a lot of potential, right? You'd be surprised. When Hearts of Iron IV was released, the company launched their debut title in a new wave of spin-off apps titled Hearts of Iron: War Stories. It as an interesting proof-of-concept, to say the least, and while not especially taxing to navigate, it threw in a lot of ideas that could be improved upon. Not only that, but the first-five chapters were free, so you could try it out for yourself.
Crusader Kings: Chronicles is their second outing set in this 'gamebook' style of companion apps, and while there are a lot of similarities between the two games, there a lot of differences as well. Chronicles is a lot less forgiving for one thing, and the choices aren't as obviously 'sign-posted' as to which option is optimal. Coupled with less stats (and fewer opportunities to buff those stats) as well as actual tests involving character traits, Chronicles is more interactive RPG than novel. Ultimately though it's just not as good, and is mainly a tale of missed opportunities – in more senses than one.
The main story in Chronicles is split into nine parts, including a prologue and an epilogue, and apart from some options the only other thing you can do is go to the in-app store to buy one or more of the many tie-in ebooks released for various Paradox titles. Aside form the actual story pages and the choices presented therein, the only other bits of the app relevant to you are a few stats screens. One shows off your character, what weapon he has and what order his attributes are in. The attributes – Prowess, Courtliness & Cunning – are boosted through the choices you make during your adventure, and determine how well you do at challenges relating to those values. There's also a 'Chronicle' section that documents the key decisions and outcomes in your adventure, and the final page lists your relationships with the various characters.
The writing itself is pretty good – you play Guy du Rose, son and heir to the 'Rose' family in an undisclosed location within Medieval Britain. You fight the Scots at the beginning of the game, but the rest of the story involves more internal-facing politics, so Chronicles manages the marvellous trick of appearing to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The prologue introduces you to yourself as a character, as well as allowing you to try out the various mechanics of the game. After that, you're quite quickly thrown into a tale of medieval politics and intrigue, with a fair amount of murder and suggestive encounters. I won't give too much away, but the titles of the various chapters do foreshadow what's to come.
While individual parts of Chronicles are well written, the plot can be a bit disjointed at times. Chapters don't always do a good job of linking up with each other, and sometimes don't always reflect the choices or situation from the chapter before. One moment you can be getting on well with a character, the next you're selling him out. There's also quite a few cases of characters and dynamics thrown in without any set-up or introduction, and quite a few times I found myself a little bit confused and worried that I hadn't read previous pages or chapters properly. It's worth pointing out that this was never a problem with War Stories.
Reading through each chapter for the first time is like reading a book for the first time – each page brings something new. As you progress, you'll be asked to make a choice at regular intervals. These choices vary in their approach to the scenario or situation, but they'll typically relate to one of the three stats mentioned above. Sometimes a choice results in a test, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you simply have to make a test without being presented with a choice. The test themselves involve a single attribute, and then three boxes that randomly generate a value. It feels more like a slot machine than a die-roll, and you have to get three of a kind to pass. The theory is supposed to be the higher rank you have in the attribute in question, the more likely it is you'll pass. Additional tests, like 'Skirmish' or 'Rally', aren't directly connected to stats from what I can tell, and I've yet to actually fail one. These often to relate to the smattering of combat encounters you have during the course of the tale.
Failure of a test can mean many different things – in a few cases, it can mean death, but more often than not you simply progress without getting the 'perfect' ending. You might lose your chance at love, or fail to secure an important object. This is also reflected in the choices you make – simply choosing 'wrong' can make your life more difficult in future chapters. You do get the sense that there is an optimum play-through, which is problematic for this type of game as it devalues the choices you make. Getting the 'less-than-perfect' outcome can sometimes tease you with what you could have had, like a ghost flitting between the walls. Despite several tries so far, I've yet to find that perfect run but it's not hard to imagine at this point what it involves.
Again, coming from such strong narrative stock, it's hard not to be a little bit disappointed – the whole point of CK2 was the legacy you left behind. As each successive member of your family died, you as the player would have to navigate your new ruler through the choices you'd made with the last guy – maybe he'd started a big war and got killed, maybe she'd been unpopular... maybe she'd been the best ruler ever and now you had to try and live up to that. Chronicles doesn't really do a good job of portraying this, although you can plainly see how it's trying to evolve the formula set-forth in War Stories. Death was rarer there, but if you die in Chronicles you get some (usually bleak) words about what happens to your family, and then you simply have to restart the chapter and try again – trial and error at its finest.
The 'win' text isn't much better though – I was positively crushed after the poor offering that was my first play through. I must have 'lucked' into the poorest victory ending, and my second wasn't much better either. The interesting thing about War Stories was that it presented you with a list of all the potential endings you could 'unlock' based on how you performed, but Chronicles is a bit more mysterious about it, and you're left with just the one ending. It really dents your enthusiasm as there can be an expectation created around 'succeeding', but it ended up feeling I was lucky to even survive. Using common sense you shouldn't die that often, although there's one chapter in the middle that's oddly hard to navigate through. From testing so far, it seems like there's only one or two paths that keeps you from death, which seems at odds with the rest of the story where there are far more routes. In theory, one can just keep restarting the chapter and re-rolling any test you fail until you pass.
Chronicles isn't a complete write-off. The principle established with War Stories was quite sound, and this game does do some different things to make it more interesting – if this is to be a platform for further choose-your-own adventures set in the CK2 universe, then the app should get better over time. It must be noted though that so far War Stories hasn't been updated with new content either. As things stand right now, Chronicles leaves something to be desired – sure you'll have fun doing an initial play through, then perhaps go through once or twice more to get that 'perfect' run, but either you'll get bored of the trial and error or actually achieve the dream, and then the App will cease to have any use.
Overall, not the best first impression, but certainly not the worst, and it's really down to your own sense of value. Crusader Kings: Chronicles doesn't actually offer any content for free like War Stories did, so you have to decide from the off whether you want to buy – it's not much, to be sure, but 'getting your money's worth' is ever a complicated question in the mobile realm. But then if any company has proven that you can invest in them and be rewarded further down the line, it's Paradox Interactive. We shall see.