Developer Reality Pump, Zuxxez
Publisher : Atari
Release Date : September 23, 2003
Buy 'ONCE UPON A KNIGHT': PC
The buzz on Once Upon a Knight was good enough for me to raise my hand and scream “my turn!” when it dropped into the offices of Worthplaying. I heard some pretty sweet praise coming from folks who were lucky enough to get a gander at the beta. Words like “different” and “funny” started popping up in the previews. Indeed when the game arrived at my doorstep, the box was covered in amusing images and blurbs that made me think we might be on to something here. “Once Upon a Knight,” the box declared. “Heroism. Sorcery. COWS.” Okay, I was hooked.
For a second.
Once Upon a Knight promises quite a few things – and that might be its biggest problem. Atari claims that you get two games in one – an RPG and an RTS all rolled up for your gaming pleasure. On one hand you get a campaign driven RTS where you play the part of Prince John, who must regain the throne after being kidnapped by the evil wizard Valtamand. It must be noted that the only way I know this storyline is from the manual. It’s not at all clear from the game itself! The intro movie is a mess of events that seems like it should make sense but simply doesn’t. A wizard (Evil? Good?) tries to do something with a plate of chicken but can’t succeed at first. Finally he gets it to do what he wants (also unclear) and the prince is now his prisoner! Or something. Confused? So was I. I can’t tell you what happened. It’s a great lesson in how tough those short clips can be to craft. OUAK was made in Germany by Zuxxez (makers of Earth 2150) so maybe it’s a cultural gap. It could also be the fact that the audio is buggy. Most of the time one character will talk over another. This makes it impossible to hear what’s being said. My guess is the cut scenes were rushed out the door.
And, from the looks of it, the rest of the game was rushed too. To be fair, there are many intriguing and even successful parts of OUAK. But as a whole I had to force myself to play, which is never a good sign.
Let’s break it down into its two major parts: RTS and RPG.
The game has around 20 levels (with many tasks in each level) and 80 characters and creatures. The RTS part of the game has three campaigns. This is the part of OUAK where you play the prince and move through an adventure that’s mostly cookie cutter stuff – with some notable exceptions that I’ll get into later. During each chapter you develop your character and come across new items to add to your armory, including armor, magic items and, of course, weapons. The cool part about the RTS is that you can carry characters that you create from one level to the next and they keep their experience. The characters you add to your team also have access to items on the map which adds more depth to the gameplay.
Moving through the adventure you come across some hilarious touches that make OUAK a little different than other games. Characters like the Mother-in-law (a rolling pin-wielding terror) and the ever-present cows, are worth a good chuckle or two. There are also a bunch of lines of dialogue that are laugh-out-loud funny (assuming the audio glitch doesn’t drown it out). These cool touches do a little to set the game apart but they’re too few and far between to make a deep impression.
For the most part the gameplay is your standard RTS fare. But instead of building your structures and armies with gold and lumber, the main resource in OUAK is milk. That’s right, milk. The cows are all-important and you spend a lot of your time juggling their safety and well-being with your tasks at hand. Just as you can keep your characters from one level to the next, you’re also allowed to keep your cows. They’re an integral part of the game and Zuxxez should be commended for keeping their eye on this particular prize. If the same kind of focus had been given to the game as a whole it could have been a classic. As it stands the cows can’t save the game. Quests are far too linear to be enjoyable. Unless you’re the obsessive type who just loves to beat a game, any game, you probably won’t get much fun out of the point-A to point-B tasks you’re given.
But even if you do enjoy the quests, there’s the problem of your efforts not really being worth anything sometimes. Often. for reasons beyond me, you’ll be instructed to do something and then, suddenly, it’s done for you. An example -- I was told I needed to convert some of my men to workers so they could help a guy build his hut. The instructions hinted I had to find the special building where those men could be trained. But quick as a whip some new guys walked onscreen and started helping. Where the hell did they come from? That’s no fun!
On the good side, the path finding of the characters is great. There are some problems going all the way across a map but for the most part these guys are pretty dependable. This helps to minimize the problems you might be accustomed to in other RTS games. Overall I’d say the AI in general stacks up well with other games of both the RTS and RPG genres. No small task, if you think about it. More kudos.
Also, on the “good” side is that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the battle or exploration gameplay. I know, I know that’s not technically a “good” thing. You have ample control of the camera and, thanks to the zoom feature, keeping track of what’s going on is adequate. So the fundamentals of the RTS format are all here. But a developer needs to meld good control, exciting action and clever details to make a good game. And instead of focusing on this tough task it seems Zuxxez mistakenly turned their sights on the other half of the game within a game –the RPG.
On the RPG side of OUAK, there are more maps, characters and weapons to experience. Instead of following an adventure as a prince with a large army at your side, the RPG mode allows you to build your own hero as the quest unfolds. You have a choice of heroes at the start of the game, including Barbarian, Archer and Wizard (surprise, surprise eh?) The point of your adventure is to defeat the evil and wicked and bad Syff, Queen of the Depraved, who’s actually quite amusing.
I opted to be Ben the Archer, a character who is clearly meant to be gay -- lisp and screeches and all. It’s all a bit much, but good for a smirk or two at the start. It helps that the dialogue can be genuinely funny. Things like “I believe we should shoot first and ask questions later” are pretty common and don’t grate on the nerves as much as other RTS games. The voice acting is pretty good when you get it. But OUAK has an odd array of moments in the RPG mode where you get one character speaking while the other character’s dialogue is written out. Seems to me like they couldn’t get the actor to do the lines after a rewrite!
On top of all this, the story that’s being told is kind of dull. It’s just very linear, a lot like the Warcraft 3 story, without any opportunities to break out and do something unusual. The bottom line on the RPG aspect of the game is that it’s the bare bones. Even the attempts at the all-important details leave something to be desired. For instance, at one point you’re charged to protect a boy and his cows as you escort them through wolf-infested territory. The only problem is that the wolves never go for the boy or the cows, just you. So the challenge of the mission just loses its effect completely.
Is it possible to have great graphics but such poor visual design that the great graphics almost disappeat? Yes. OUAK uses heavy duty bit-mapping to dot the landscape and the result is an impressive mess of high quality meshes. But when zoomed out I usually couldn’t make heads or tails out of what I was looking at, especially in battle. There was just too much detail. Luckily, the zoom-in feature of the game, activated by scrolling the middle mouse button, works very well (better than Warcraft 3 in my opinion) and goes a long way to actually making the whole game more enjoyable. When you zoom-in the figures and buildings start to clarify and you see that these designers really added some punch to the engine. Kudos for making the game look sweet, but hands off the detail button next time!
Oh yes, and the on-screen map is a mess. You can’t make it out if your life depended on it (and it does a number of times in the game). It has a nifty little zoom-in so you can pull out from the map and get a better idea of where you are and where you need to be, but it’s hard to read no matter what it’s set at. On the same note, the interface is littered with tiny buttons that make no sense unless you wait for the rollover to pop up. In the midst of battle there’s not usually a lot of time for that.
Once Upon a Knight also comes with pretty hefty multiplayer options, which should satisfy anyone who enjoys the game. You can play friends over the Internet on the EarthNet server system which allows you to keep 8 of your characters saved. League and Coop play is supported as well. Multiplayer is possible in both RTS and RPG mode (using either the existing maps or maps that are made with the game editor.)
In the end, the game has some fun and amusing moments. You can go through a couple of levels and not get bored. But the small details that usually make a game like this addictive are nowhere to be seen. The developer clearly tried to give us some variety in the gameplay but I don’t see it. I think Once Upon a Knight suffers from “scopeitis” – that terrifying entity that makes a game lose its focus. It looks like it got out of control as they tried to incorporate the “two games in one” angle. It seems to me that the developers had to cut too many corners in the end to get the thing shipped. Trying to be too many things to too many people never works out in the end. If the game had stuck to its RTS or RPG roots it could have been a shiny little gem. But, as it is, Once Upon a Knight just leaves you wishing it was better.