Genre: Action / Strategy
Release Date: August 15, 2004
Pre-order 'KINGDOM UNDER FIRE: Crusaders': Xbox
If there has ever been a genre in greater need of a blast of fresh air than the action/strategy genre, I’d love to hear about it. Koei’s Dynasty Warriors has long not only been the king of the genre but also largely the only major participant across the board. While the Dynasty Warriors are great brawler games, they are limited to being just that and offer very little in the way of strategy to win other than avoiding getting hit and simply going to where the action is the thickest. Meanwhile, a little game called Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders has been undergoing development by Phantagram, and if there is any game that needs to appear on a strategy gamer’s radar KUF:C has to be it. It’s not that KUF:C is trying to dethrone Koei’s series as the king of the genre, as much as it looks to be wholly capable of making its own, bigger throne that overlooks Dynasty Warriors' entirely.
KUF:C is a unique blend of RPG elements, Dynasty Warriors-esque brawling, and strategic bits almost reminiscent of Fire Emblem. The world of KUF:C bears witness to two armies, the Human army and the Dark Legion. At the games onset a human village is found burnt to the ground with Dark Legion troops in the area, sparking a massive way that erupts across the continent. There are four story paths to choose from in KUF:C though only two of which are initially available. The first Human campaign’s character is Gerald who is a Captain in the Human army, and the completion of his campaign unlocks Kendall’s campaign which is significantly harder and follows a different story arc. Likewise the initial Dark Legion character is Lucretia who is a slender Dark Elf commander, and just like Gerald’s campaign completing Lucretia’s story arc unlocks Regnier, an immortal Dark Legion General.
Like nearly any other game on the planet there are two parts of KUF:C’s gameplay; the times when you are on the battlefield and the times at which you are not. Jokes about the obvious aside, each half of the gameplay is equally important and proper planning from the safety of a castle is just as important as making quick decisions in the heat of battle. While in places such as castles, forts, and camps you are presented with a few selections to choose from. “Operations” is where you get your briefings for upcoming missions, speak with kings and generals, and gain a large part of the storyline. “Barracks”, which will be further explained later on, lets you customize and equip your officers and troops. The “Pub” option allows you to hire new officers or to listen in on soldier’s conversations, which in turn serves as another means of plot progression and ways to fill in the blanks in terms of the storyline. “Training” allows you to take what is essentially a training course in nearly any class of combat, which can be incredibly useful if you have never used a particular class of troops. Finally, “Main Gate” allows you to leave the castle and engage the enemy in your next mission. Once you have exited you are presented with the World Map, which an incredibly detailed and yet rather limited representation of the world. As beautiful as it is it also serves very little purpose as though you can move the cursor to nearly any location on the map you can only order your troops to move to the next mission. Thusly, you cannot sort of “wander” to engage enemy patrols to gain more experience or gold but are rather set on a linear path. Such a feature would be nice, but it bears mentioning that it is hardly a deal breaker but rather it is just a bit aggravating to see this lush world, only you must see it as the game sees fit. Either way once your troop has reached the next mission, via a miniature troop animation reminiscent of Monty Python, you are at your mission. After selecting whatever troops you wish to use (you must always bring your main troop, and sometimes are required to bring others along) it’s off to the battlefield.
Once on the battlefield you now control your troops in a detached manner. By moving the left stick you change an order line that allows you to give your troops a direction and distance to move to. Your troops always move in a box formation with the exception of archers and Cavalry which in rows, though you can order your troops to move in wide, normal, or close formation. The wide formation allows your troops to move faster and while they take less damage from explosions or traps they take more damage from arrows. Similarly the close formation makes your soldiers slow down and make them well defended against arrows, but at great peril against explosions or traps. This feature is one of the most used throughout the game, as there are many times where you need to advance under a hail of arrows, need to keep a low profile while bunched together to sneak through a forest, or simply chase after an enemy as fast you your troops can.
Once your troops have closed the distance, or had the distance closed, between your troops and enemy troops battle begins and the camera and control immediately and seamlessly switch to your character (Gerald or Lucretia). In this mode KUF:C handles much similarly to the Dynasty Warriors series but with a bit more strategy to it. While in combat your character has fast attacks, a strong attack, special attacks, and dodge moves, and this is where the differences between the characters make their appearance. Gerald’s repertoire if what you would expect from a medieval swordsman with his fast attacks full of slashes and jabs and his strong attack composing of a lunging jab. Gerald’s special attack is a series of quick and powerful hits that are devastating to anything foolish enough to be in their way. When the enemies get too close for comfort and begin to land blows Gerald can counter with a shove, or if pressed at the right moment Gerald will not only push the enemy away but slash at them as they go. Meanwhile Lucretia’s attacks are not quite as powerful but are much faster than Gerald’s. With the grace of a ballerina Lucretia’s fast attacks allow you to continually land blows on an enemy with her twin blades as long as you are not interrupted, while her strong attack makes her lunge forward and swipe with both blades at once. Her special attack is probably the most stylish move in the game, which causes her to crouch down, swipe at pretty much any enemy near her, then leaps into the air, flips once, then comes down wherever you want with both blades. Instead of blocking or countering hits Lucretia’s escape move causes her to shimmer back about 6 feet in an instant, far away from whatever pointed weapon was in her personal space and with plenty of time to mount a counter offensive. In addition to your special moves you can call upon those of your officers, which allows you to bring a little extra muscle to clear out enemies in your immediate vicinity. A big tactical advantage in combat comes with the inclusion of leaders into the mix. Every troop has a leader, the elimination of which causes enemy morale to drop rapidly. Nothing is funnier than watching the remnants of a once-menacing Orc troop scatter because their leader is now basting in his own juices.
When a troop isn’t directly engaged in combat they can utilize any special moves known by any officer within the troop. For instance, archers can fire direct shots instead of volleys which deliver twice the damage at half the range, or can launch a volley of fire arrows into a forest to create a devastating wall of flame. Sapper troops can set and remove traps in the terrain, while other troops can heal units or cast offensive magic such as blizzard, chain lightning, or meteors. Another useful ability is Scout, which allows you to send a single, quick moving unit to check out the terrain ahead and assess the situation before you move your troops in. It must be noted that while you can use a troop that is out of battle to hear one currently engaging enemy forces, a troop that is in battle cannot use any of its special abilities which means that in most situations foresight and planning much be used in setting up your attacks and knowing when to cover a retreat to make a quick heal.
KUF:C is definitely a thinking mans game, though and through. Many factors affect the battle conditions of any particular battle, such as ground elevation, weather conditions, terrain, sun angle, and troop classes. Putting archers in higher ground allows them to shoot farther and with greater power, but if the clouds are thick and rain is pouring down none of your units will be able to see that far. You can effectively conceal your troops by moving through wooded areas in which arrows have a hard time leaving or entering the treetops, while if you order your troops to wade across a river any enemy archers will be able to pick them off mercilessly. The sun itself can be an enemy or an ally if it is at a steep angle, as any archer looking towards the sun will have a hard time finding their mark, and likewise it is best to rush archers with your back to the sun. Troop classes play a large role in the dynamics of combat, as while aerial units can pick off infantry with impunity they are easily batted down by arrows. A Cavalry charge can also deal great damage to ground troops if used in hit and run tactics but when engaging axe-men, spearmen, or anything while not moving puts them at a huge disadvantage. As a whole, while it can be an impressive show of force to send 3 infantry troops into the fray at once to create a massive battle, it can equally gratifying to outwit your opponent by weakening them with a blazing forest and a Cavalry charge before they have even met the bulk of your forces. Upon the completion of your mission objectives a screen appears that details how many enemy units each of your troops killed, how much experience you received, and how much gold you earned. Gold and experience are shared amongst all of your troops, preventing any undue micromanagement of your battles.
With fresh experience points and coffers filled with gold you can now visit the “Barracks” back at any castle, fort, or camp to upgrade your skills and equipment. Officer’s skills are things such as melee efficiency, ranged efficiency, magical categories such as holy, curse, earth, etc., and other skills such as gunpowder, teamwork, and taming. Increasing a major skill increases the level of not only that officer but also the skills and level of the troop as a whole. Units with high melee skills also have large amounts of skill points and health. When units have enough of specific skills they can change jobs al la Final Fantasy Tactics / Advance, such as an infantry troop starting off as basic foot soldiers, then becoming improved soldiers, knights, and finally paladins. The amount of jobs varies between the races (Human, Elf, Dark Elf, Orc, etc.) and while the humans have a large amount of jobs to choose from the Dark Elves are a bit more specialized and have a few less jobs to choose from. Equipping officers and troops takes gold and large amounts of it, as it can sometimes take the entire winnings of a battle to purchase that armor you’ve had your eye on. Purchasing equipment for your officers in incredibly expensive, as it often costs more to buy armor for an officer than it does to outfit similar armor for all of the soldiers in a particular troop. Weapons and armor can have benefits as well, as such additional skill points, greater experience gains at the end of a battle, or additional defense against types of attacks such as melee, ranged, explosion, or frontal.
The graphics in KUF:C are easily the best the genre has seen and could almost be compared to conventional third person games, an impressive feat considering how many characters and objects can be on screen at once. Armor has a realistic glint to it as soldiers march through the sunlight, and the camera itself shakes slightly as it moves which makes the camera work seem much less artificial and the on-screen action seem that much more raw. The models themselves are very well done, and even up close there is barely any lack of detail or things that look amiss. The draw distance is fairly limited, but not limited to the point where it becomes an issue. What’s more, enemies coming at you look like they are actually coming out of a fog instead of suddenly appearing in front of you al la the Dynasty Warriors series. Battles look particularly massive and brutal, as groups of soldiers wage personal wars with one another and send each others blood flying about, but the most impressive effect is when it all comes together at the end of a battle and you see that the ground is littered with blood and bodies interspersed with arrows stuck into the ground. To top it all off the cutscenes in KUF:C are nearly Hollywood quality and consist largely of very artistic shots and brilliant camera work overall.
Sounds, however, are good and bad. Voiceovers in the game can run from pretty good (Gerald and his officers, Lucretia), to slightly miscast (Lucretia’s officers), to absolutely laughable (The Dark Legion General, who couldn’t over-act the role any farther if her life depended on it). On a lighter note, Lucretia does call her officers a fairly wide range of degratory terms which is always entertaining. Thankfully, the music is of high quality and is a fairly likeable mix of electric guitar and bass. Granted these instruments aren’t normally associated with medieval combat, but it really fits in a sort of primal way. The only problem is that there are very few tracks, with all of one victory loop, two battle loops, and about two other loops for any other instance or scene. They don’t really become annoying, but a greater variety of music wouldn’t be a horrible thing either. Sound effects such as the melodic crashing of sword and shield are all done very well, arrows are released from bows with a satisfying “thwump”, Orcs scream like the fat hogs they are when they finally lose that fatal pint of blood or take that last arrow in the back, and leading your men in a wide formation and top speed at the enemy causes them to raise their swords in the air and scream a battle cry fit for Braveheart.
It’s not that the game is without a flaw, obvious discrepancies in the voiceovers notwithstanding. KUF:C could have benefited greatly from an offline co-operative play mode, and while there have been rumors of co-op play on Xbox Live it remains to be seen. Nevertheless the game does support Xbox Live to allow for players to team up and wage war with one another, which will undoubtedly be the place many players will spend a large chunk of their game time in. The game also lacks a mission select mode, so to play through your favorite missions you have to reach them under another campaign file. Additionally it can be difficult to give orders to multiple troops in the heat of battle and it would have been nice to give specific formations among entire troops, such as keeping archers a hundred feet back so that they can cover the front lines. Camera control is largely pretty good and relatively painless, but every once in a while the view will inexplicably get stuck above the tree-line as you traverse a woodland area.
Still though, not only did KUF:C come out of nowhere before I popped it into the Xbox, I’ve found very little reason to take it out of it in the near future. Dynasty Warriors may be the current king when it comes to your medieval-themed brawler but KUF:C easily topples it with the excellent strategic elements that allow for even armchair generals to become masters of medieval warfare. As stated before the game is not without flaw and many areas could use a bit more polish, but hopefully between the time the preview builds were sent out and the final game goes gold these rough spots will be corrected. If you enjoy the Dynasty Warriors series or strategy games keep a close eye on Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, as even in a preview state it is undoubtedly the most solid, broad, and downright enjoyable gameplay to hit the genre in years.