Kingdom: New Lands is an unusual side-scrolling sim that looks at times like a RTS or tower defense game, but plays more like Majesty with a side of Empire, and it would be just as much at home in an arcade cabinet at Babycastles, or demade into a single-screen Atari 2600 game as it is on Android. To fully consider Kingdom, I need to get into the unusual circumstances of its mobile release.
Kingdom is one of those indie games that struck gold on PC, leading to the expanded “New Lands” version. When I say “struck gold,” we’re not talking FTL’s solid-gold standard, let alone the “I build a solid gold effigy of Marcus Persson a mile high” kind of success Minecraft has enjoyed, but the team at Raw Fury probably did well enough that they can afford to eat actual food now and maybe even pay rent. When Kingdom was released, I said it wasn’t a NVIDIA Shield exclusive. I was wrong, but that could change. In the past, Shield tablet and TV exclusives have been published by NVIDIA Lightspeed Studios, nee NVIDIA Shield Partners, but Raw Fury published Kingdom themselves, and they’ve offered a tantalizing clarification since in which they say that the game is “currently exclusive” to Shield devices. I like that word, “currently.” It holds promise that other Android users could get access to this one sooner or later, and maybe, just maybe, there’ll be an iOS version as well.
Most Shield-only games are very graphically intensive, taking advantage of NVIDIA’s Tegra chipset and reputation for visual quality. Kingdom is gorgeous in it's own way, but it’s also a "retro" sprite game with some parallax scrolling: nothing more demanding that Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (a game that clearly influenced Kingdom’s visual style, but not its gameplay). So why the exclusivity?
The sky is pretty when it's raining at dusk, but I did not need 192 GPU cores to render this.
The answer is in Raw Fury’s other caveat about the game: “controller required.” There are plenty of good Android tablets, but when it comes to Android TV gaming, Shield TV is the hands-down winner, being only moderately more expensive than the competition and vastly more powerful than Fire TV or any Roku product. (Let’s not even get started on the woefully unsupported Apple TV.) Before I start to sound like a bloody infomercial for NVIDIA, let’s get back to that “controller required’” thing: it’s a lie.
I’ve played more of Kingdom: New Lands with it’s fully armed and operational touch controls than with my controller. I’ll admit, it’s slicker with a controller, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed touch-only games whose controls weren’t as good as the ones Raw Fury is pretending aren’t there. The controls are incredibly simple: you spend the entire game mounted, and you can walk or gallop your horse left or right, and drop or place gold pieces. That’s it.
Drop gold in front of beggars to recruit them, and place variable amounts of gold at special locations to to build structures, buy equipment to give your people jobs, and trigger special effects. Each game starts with a short and simple tutorial that leaves you with a base camp, an archer, and a builder. After that, you’re on your own.
Part of the game is the pleasure of discovery, and the frustration of things not working the way you thought they would. I’ll try not to say too much about how things work, but unlike the “spoiler” about the game having touch controls, I have to give a little of the game away here. If you’ve sure you want to play Kingdom, and want a “pure” experience, you can stop reading here.During my first playthrough, I was just enjoying figuring out what everything did, spending coin to see what happened next. It was a lot of fun until I died with no clue as to what I should have been doing. It wasn’t until my utterly disastrous second run that I discovered that I’d done some things right the first time, and survived some nighttime raids without ever knowing they were happening.
See this shrine? No, I'm not going to tell you what it does.... but it's really important.
That’s the thing about Kingdom: it’s kind-of a 4x, but you control a single character, so you can be bored in one part of your domain while everything is going to pieces elsewhere and not even know until it’s too late. That’s not to say that you could have done anything if you had been there. The monsters come in increasingly powerful waves at night, and your monarch is nearly useless in a fight. Everything you can buy would have been much better purchased before dusk, especially construction, which need to be finished before the creeps arrive, and the only thing you can do to “fight” is drop gold, because some of the weakest monsters will grab coins and run away with them.
The game is a little disingenuous about some things, and to give away one that killed me early on, your primary threat will come from one side or the other of your domain in each game, never both. Fortifying too well on both sides is a death sentence. Since you have little control over what your people do, figuring out their default behaviors is really important, and never more so that with the builders: learning how they prioritize what to build is critical.
Do you know how many planks there are in a boat? No? Well, it's a bloody lot and they're all sold separately.
You have to spend gold and pay attention to figure things out (or go looking for a wiki, which I refused to do) and it isn’t always obvious the first time you do them. Some things you can spend money on are worse than a waste: timed poorly, they’ll get you killed, and you will time them poorly until you figure them out. Trying something new you just unlocked can be ruinous, but not trying means you won’t know when you need it, because you will (probably) need it. There are always clues, but there's still a lot I don't fully understand.
I’m not saying that Kingdom would have been better with tooltips, but it would have been a dramatically different game. Certainly the devs have embraced the “learn to play by dying a lot” model of game design, and it works pretty well, but I would have appreciated it if there was a “casual” or “sandbox” mode to this game, because there was a zen to my first playthrough that I’ve never recovered since. Perhaps that feeling could never have lasted, but I liked watching my builders make improvements and my farmers bring in the harvest without worrying about when they'd get mowed down by goblin-ghost-things. The same place can look so dramatically different depending on the weather and time of day, and some of the game’s pixelated vistas are honestly breathtaking.
My interest in Kingdom has peaked and troughed repeatedly as I’ve played, and there’s more going on there than just the survival / play ‘till you lose thing. Figuring out how to last longer starts to become tedious when you don’t have new ideas or they don’t pan out, and the worst thing about the game is slow death: a single major slip up is often irrecoverable, but you’ll be able to re-recruit and rebuild enough to survive another day, only to have your incomplete recovery blown away by the next attack, which still allows you to recover, but a little less… I like dramatic last stands, but in Kingdom they stretch out too long relative to the length of a game.
Here they come again. I hope we're ready, and if we're not... eh, it's too late to do anything about it now.
My other gripe is that the enemies are boring. For a game that’s 4x-ish, the fact that your foes really are tower defense creeps, coming in ever-increasing waves without explanation, is much less interesting than it would be if there were other kingdoms to trade with, butt heads with, and eventually absorb or be conquered by. Nothing in Kingdom is explained, so there’s no backstory about why you have such an implacable foe. That's something Empire did well: you know you're buying as much time as you can as the world dies in that game. In Kingdom I keep wondering whether this is the apocalypse (it doesn't seem to be) or if I stole the creature's MacGuffin (the crown? did they make it?) or if the devs even put together a backstory for the game.
Even so, curiosity draws me back to the game. I want to figure out why it is that my builders sometime make catapults (boredom?), and if there’s any way to marshal troops that have stationed themselves on my “safe” border and send them to the front likes. Most of all, I’ve seen very little of the titular “new lands,” that you can sail to. I want to learn their mysteries, even though that will mean playing a series of games though everything that leads up to that journey, and then doing things that will likely cause those games to end shortly thereafter. They say curiosity killed the cat, and I’ve got royalty queuing up, tucking their nekomimi into their crowns and meowing for all they’re worth. We’ll discover all of Kingdom’s secrets together, or die trying get distracted and wander off.