It’s probably an unwritten Law of Gaming Reviews that you don’t undertake two reviews at once. Probably. If not, I would be compelled to make a pizza bet that a very written Law of Gaming Reviews is most definitely don’t undertake two reviews of the same genre of game.
And so it is that I find myself appraising my second turn-based fantasy tactics RPG in a fortnight. I know. Woe is me. The struggle is indeed real.
Nevertheless, playing through two different takes on the same basic idea is an intriguing and unusual approach. One that wasn’t invited – merely an act of happenstance – but did throw up some helpful measures of comparison.
You see, turn-based RPGs are still very much a niche thing. They’re definitely enjoying a renaissance – much like boutique tabletop games – after an unkind drubbing by the real-time strategy games so popular in the 90’s and early 00’s. And, like tabletop games, the casual bystander can see them proliferate in stores both physical and digital. But, when you stop and really think about it, how many people do you know that play turn-based video games?
I know, right?
Having the opportunity to play For the King hot on the heels of running through Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, made it easier to compare and contrast it with the lineage of the genre instead of sizing it up against a modern turn-based game like X-Com 2. (That’s my one mention, I swear.)
Fell Seal plants its flag firmly in the games of the past, proudly displaying its retro colours as a form of camouflage that obscures the ridiculously versatile class system and character creation that (probably) could not have been constructed back in the day. Comparitively, For the King is a delightfully modern approach to the genre that, like Fell Seal, uses its visuals to mask some equally latter-day tweaks.
WHY? FOR THE KING. THAT’S WHY.
I normally approach a review from the point of view of story first but with For the King that’s almost a moot point. The story mainly serves as a scenario for the game’s main quest, setting the geography of the map for your campaign and couching various characters (in as much as they names and portraits) in the role of mission-givers. Your party of three random adventurers have only as much personality and backstory as you want to attribute to them. Intrigue and plot twists are provided by the gameplay, not baked into the script or affected by multiple choice decisions.
This slight approach to storytelling is not lost on For the King’s developers, Iron Oak. Like Fell Seal, For the King concentrates its efforts on gameplay mechanics but that doesn’t mean that the devs have neglected narrative entirely. The game has a main campaign – For the King – but there are several other ‘adventures’ to take part in once you’ve bested that one that offer a change of map, mechanics and even some ‘friendly’ PvP.
A novel twist is the addition of couch or online co-op play. While I controlled all three members of my party, you can play with up to two friends should you wish. Which could create some interesting tactical discussions I’ll wager.
Earlier I mentioned the masking of game mechanics behind the visuals. This initially sounds quite devious or disingenuous but I don’t intend it as any slight on either of those aspects.
For the King is gorgeous to look at, exuding the colourful charm of a Wallace & Gromit adventure through the use of rough-hewn flat-poly visuals but maintaining the level of detail you would expect from a lovingly crafted tabletop game.
Your party of choose-your-own adventurers, while limited in customisation at the outset of your campaign, soon come into their own as they’re outfitted with superior armour, weapons and equipment. But, no matter how many of the wide variety of enemies your heroes have slain, they are always adorable, dashing around the map like children that scale up and down in size depending on how busy the area is.
The world map/overworld where you spend most of your time is a joy to do so. From sandy plains to putrid swamps to the (miniature) high seas, the varying biomes all boast plenty of character. But its not just the variety of terrain on offer that makes the world enjoyable to traverse. The number of enemies, camps, towns, features and random encounters strewn throughout, all rendered in that cute clumsy claymation style, really make it seem alive. Not to mention the addition of a day/night cycle that dictates what type of enemies and encounters are on offer at any given time. Even the fog of war is cute.
Animations for the heroes and enemies compliment the bright cheerful assets well, with additional support from suitably whimsical sound design.
From adorable victory dances and cheers to the rigours of battle, each character is both detailed and endearing. Lutes take on the growling tones of electric guitars, their attacks delivered on sliding knees, such is the level of fun Iron Oak are clearly having with this charm offensive on your eyes. While there is no voice-acting as such (all of the dialogue appears in text form), each class of hero and every enemy has their own super-cute vocalisations that bubble away over a well-appointed score plucking away enjoyably in the background.
So I’ve talked about how For the King is a modern take on the genre but I’ve not said how. I’ve fawned over the delightful art style that hides the mechanics but I’ve not said what those mechanics are.
If I mentioned that For the King employed a timeline to jostle players along and minimise sightseeing, that wouldn’t be a revolutionary introduction. Other turn-based games have used the same mechanic to stop the player from sitting on their laurels and stockpiling for the inevitable endgame.
But if I then mentioned that For the King is a roguelike, well, that is quite literally a game-changer. The cutesy presentation subterfuge suddenly feels very deliberate, paper-thin story and low-to-none character complexity suddenly make sense.
To put this in context, the game loading screen is a shot of three adorable child-like adventurers looking out on to a field of pink grass at a Fisher-Price My First Castle in the distance. Once loaded, the player is greeted with a text box politely informing them that death is a constant companion in the world of Fahrul and they need not expect to succeed on their first attempt. Then it’s off to the cutesy menus with you.
Beneath the sugar-coated aesthetic beats the cold, cold heart of run-based game. Prepare yourself for a series of unfortunate (but nonetheless gleefully executed) team wipes.
After customising your three hapless heroes and choosing their class – again, like Fell Seal, For the King dispenses with the tired if familiar class names – they are sent out into the flat-poly world to make their way and the game quickly reveals the its many systems.
For starters, For the King is also an RPG-lite. There are numerous stats and numbers lurking behind either bumper on the gamepad to be sure but skill trees and progression have been streamlined to a minimum. The base stats of any hero are affected by the class assigned to them but weapons and gear are not exclusive to any particular class (as far as I could see), they are simply better suited to some attributes rather than others.
At no point will you be burdened with choosing skills or perks for your band as these are all dictated by gear and weapons. This not only creates a generous diversity of characters and functions of their classes from run to run but also tightens the screws on the risk/reward ratio of loot or purchasing items.
Weapons, gear and armour can all be destroyed incidentally, a prospect that will not only rob a hero of their combat edge but remove abilities from them entirely with the exception of doling out laughably ineffective knuckle sandwiches.
Levelling up your party members still has relevance however, as it increases their base stats which in turn makes them more adept at whatever class you’ve assigned to them. There’s just less fanfare attached to the normally heady anticipation of being able to equip a skill, trait or item.
Over and above each hero’s stats is focus. Minutes into the game, players will realise that there’s a lot of dice rolling done in plain sight, belying For the King’s tabletop roots. Focus is a welcome addition that allows the player to affect many of those dice rolls, albeit in a limited fashion. Movement allowance, hit percentages, sneaking, ambushing, opening chests, the success rate for all these actions can be improved by allotting a hero’s focus points to them. Of course, these are finite and require rest or meditation to regenerate.
UNDERGROUND, OVERWORLD, WOMBLING FREE
Movement on the map is performed by traversing hexagonal tiles but, although speed is an attribute of each character, heroes do not have set movement rates. Instead, each character must roll on their turn to determine the number of tiles they can move. And yes, different terrain will have different bonuses and penalties because roguelike.
Drawing parallels with Fell Seal again, For the King is unusually generous with the player turn. Each hero can perform various actions along the path of their turn. Buying, selling and interacting with certain world objects can be done at the start, during or end of movement but combat, resting, meditating or healing immediately ends it, irrespective of how many moves are left.
Now, you can split your party up but the game only wants you to do that so it can kill your heroes. It doesn’t explicitly say that but, trust me, that way team wipe leads. It’s another risk/reward addition that will give you pause when considering strategy and how best to manage your time when dealing with the always ticking timeline. It also means that if one of your heroes ends a turn too far away from combat or a dungeon or town, they’re not included in that activity, although certain passive class perks can mitigate this for the purposes of combat.
Entering a town or camp will avail you of its services, market and quest board, though this latter is mainly for side quests and you can only carry a limited number of them. Of course, the market – or shop – and services – where you can rest, heal or meditate – both cost the designated currency of gold, and over the course of a run, the prices will inflate so that you’re never as comfortably well off as you would normally expect. You can swap gold between adjacent characters though, so bigger expenditures can be shouldered by the party even though there’s no collective pool of gold.
Top centre in the HUD of the overworld lies the timeline and, as well as charting the course of the day/night cycle, it is a visual reminder for the player of Chaos. Chaos, as the name heavily implies, is not your friend.
Chaos indicators travel from right to left along the timeline through the course of each game day (10 turns for day, 5 for night). Should an indicator make it all the way to the left, it gets banked. Every time an indicator is banked, the world is negatively affected to the tune of increased enemy HP and spawns. Bank 3 indicators and a Chaos Beast is unleashed whose sole task is to hunt down your party.
Pro-tip: don’t unleash the Chaos Beast.
If that didn’t up the ante enough for your masochism, there are also villain characters that appear on the timeline. Once they’re added, the player has a day to discover their (possibly) undiscovered lair and beat them before they start visiting havoc upon the map.
There’s clever cherry-picking of various rogue staples that take the gameplay in interesting directions but it’s not for the feint of heart. Minutes into your first run, you’ll find yourself wading through tutorials that, while good, only hint at the complex plate-spinning going on under the hood. So it’s to be expected that you’ll fail early attempts because you simply didn’t grasp all that was going on.
But that too is a rogue staple.
NEVER BRING A KNIFE TO A GUN FIGHT
As can be expected, combat is where you’ll spend a lot of this game but curiously it’s probably the most streamlined and out-of-the-box aspect of it, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the part of the game where you have the most breathing space. Mainly because, although busy, the combat is the part of the game loop that has the least going on.
Like the overworld, there’s a timeline that shows the flow of turns and it’s affected by various buffs and debuffs that players and enemies employ. The order of play in the timeline naturally dictates combat strategy as you try to use your attacks, items, abilities and magic to their best effect against the most immediate threat.
Like any good turn-based RPG, fine-tuning your party for maximum balance and synergy is key and the flexibility of the class system may well have you experimenting quicker out of the gate than you would normally find in other games. Equally, there’s always a chance of committing to a party that doesn’t work well together or spec-ing a character poorly who just isn’t of use and that will more often than not lead to a run failing.
Outright fighting is not the only solution to every enemy presence and it is often not the most convenient. Sneaking past enemy occupied tiles is preferable when time is of the essence or when your party is split up and a successful ambush roll will give you the initiative in a battle.
As your party is affected by their proximity to one another, so too are the enemies. Attacking one enemy may alert others on nearby tiles so, again, successfully ambushing will allow you target a specific enemy without fear of drawing in a group. As you might expect by now, the enemies can also ambush you and a failed roll can regularly result in some devastating onslaughts before you can even get a hit in.
In another unusual addition, your heroes have a pool of lives. If they get KO-ed in battle, they can be revived as long as there lives in the pool. If you run out of lives, there are other activities that can grant them as rewards and the game will, in a startlingly benevolent act, reveal where structures that can also yield them are. Don’t be surprised if they are often not too close by though.
I’d be lying if I said that the run-based nature was frustrating but the death of a campaign attempt isn’t – in my experience – usually drawn out and, if you’re able to pull it out of the fire and work out how to equip that failing hero or party, you’ve created your own personal slice of storytelling. If not, you’ve learned something else to take into your next run.
The runs themselves aren’t short though and while this is worthwhile while you’re doing well, it can smart when it all comes crashing down around your ears.
In true roguelike fashion, there is an advantage to rerunning a campaign. There is a secondary currency that can be collected through gameplay: lore. Lore is obviously a much rarer commodity because it changes future playthroughs by unlocking special modifiers for your next run onwards. Magical weapons and armour, unusual locations with unique properties, new character classes, all of these can be unlocked using lore and will randomly drop or spawn, ensuring variety and, dare I say it, better odds on tomorrow’s quests.
For the King is a hard game to sell to someone.
Not because it’s bad. It’s really well made. But I probably know fewer people who play roguelikes than play turn-based games, let alone a mash-up of the two.
I hope I’ve successfully illustrated that there a lot of interesting ideas in the game that provide variety and replayability. In all of the games I’ve played so far, the only thing that remained the same are the enemy attributes and the services/market wares of the towns. Everything else is moved around to make each playthrough new.
But almost every interesting idea or mechanic has a caveat that can make life very difficult indeed and that just isn’t for everyone.
It’s one of those games for those people. You know the ones. The ones that play a perfectly acceptable mass appeal video game and say ‘wouldn’t it be great if [insert modifier that makes players miserable and turns off most of the audience]’.
I know those people. I am one. And I can smell my own.
I started off this review comparing For the King to Fell Seal and, in closing, I think the biggest distinction I can make between them isn’t the art style or mechanics or the varying story content or the other numerous ways in which the games contrast. It’s simply that Fell Seal wants you to succeed. Perhaps at its own grindy pace but you can always reload, try again and you’ll get there in the end.
For the King wants you to learn how to beat it.
The process by which you learn will not necessarily be easy (even on easy difficulty). It will oftentimes feel like the game is holding all the cards and pointedly goading you. You’ll likely imagine at some point that there’s simply too much going on in this game and you would be right. Any of the roguelike systems applied to this game would probably be enough.
But, if you are willing to broaden your turn-based horizons. If you can take a step out of your comfort zone, you stand a good chance of gaming the game. Of finding the reward in defeat (maybe not all of the time).
Xbox/Playstation – £19.99
Steam – £15.49
Switch – £30