Genre: Board Game
Release Date: November 28, 2006
Chess has never really dominated the video game world, outside of the long-running Chessmaster series on PC and various other ports, but I love the idea of putting out a portable, online chess game. Unfortunately, I must be in the minority, because while Online Chess Kingdoms for PSP works well enough and definitely provides what the title describes, there isn't enough support from other online players to make it worthwhile.
It's hard to knock a game for lack of player support, but when the main draw of your title, being the online mode, has hardly anyone playing it, well, it really detracts from its value. This is definitely my biggest complaint against the game, and while the single-player mode works well enough, it's nothing that I can't get at home playing an actual game of chess against another human opponent, or even with a myriad of free (or nearly free) chess options on the PC.
However, we'll talk about the single-player mode first because Online Chess Kingdoms attempts to do a few things with your basic chess title, and while some of it seems interesting, a few things feel unnecessary as well. There's a story to Online Chess Kingdoms' main mode, wherein a deity of sorts has created all of these "races," which are basically groups like Chaos, Law, Magic and so on. When they were first created, they all lived together, but they never got along. Tired of the war between these groups, the deity decided to banish them all to their own worlds, keeping them separate for some time. However, as their technology advanced, so did their ability to travel, and once again these groups have collided, which sets up the starting point of Online Chess Kingdoms.
When you begin, you can opt to choose between Classic chess or Battle chess, and you'll select from a group of factions. Assuming you pick Classic, you'll be introduced to a grid-like map, where you battle it out for dominance with another faction. On this map, you'll see a few unaligned cities, including a capital for yourself and your opponent, along with a couple of occupied cities. You also have army units that take up squares, and it's with these units that you'll try to wipe out your opponent and control the various locations. As you gain more cities, you'll start to generate points, which you can then turn around and use to create more army pieces, which will spawn out of your capital. When two opposing army units occupy the same space, you'll enter into a fight, which is basically a game of chess.
The chess pieces are represented in 3-D, and they're all designed to fit into a particular faction, but you can also opt to use classic pieces at some point. The faction-specific pieces are pretty well-rendered, as far as chess pieces can be, and if you've played chess before, you shouldn't have any difficulty figuring out which piece does what. There are five different difficulty selections for the computer AI, so even if you're new to the game, you should be able to get a comfortable difficulty level that will be challenging but not frustrating. Obviously, as you advance, you'll also want to crank up the difficulty a bit to keep in tune with what you learn.
Now, if you opted for Classic chess, you'll get your basic setup of two rows of pieces and your typical board. Each player takes turns moving a piece and battles it out to put the opposing King into checkmate. Battle chess plays out a little differently. The setup is still the same, with two rows and a standard board. However, instead of taking turns, you move as much as you can when you want, in an attempt to go faster and take out pieces from your opponent's side before he can effectively react. It's definitely an interesting way to play and takes far less time than standard chess, but I imagine it might not appeal to old-school players. Instead of strictly going for a checkmate, each piece has a point value assigned to it, and as you take out opposing pieces, you'll be racking up a score. There's a certain score you need to reach to win, and once you do, the game is over.
On the grid, once you defeat an army in a chess fight, the opposing piece disappears. You'll win the map once you've taken over and defeated every opposing piece on the board. You'll do this across a series of maps before the game is over, and if you opt to play with the classic rules, it can take a fair amount of time before you finish the main campaign.
Most of the time, the computer AI is surprisingly slow to react to your moves, which I found to be quite annoying, considering that I've played quite a few AI chess matches before where the computer reaction was quick. I'm not sure if it's a matter of loading or thinking, or if the game is trying to provide some type of human realism, but it makes the games feel unnecessarily long, and I quickly found that the main campaign was not my desired format. Having to deal with the army and grid map also lengthens the time, and it's not an interesting mode to begin with, so the whole story didn't appeal to me at all.
The online mode is a different matter, at least when you can find people to play with. The online mode takes on the same feel as the main campaign style, where you'll select a faction to align yourself with are presented with a large grid-like map. You can place your token on the border of this map, meant to represent your army advancing in toward the center. Once you place your token, any other player online can opt to challenge you, at which point you enter into a proper chess match. You can opt to play classic or battle here as well, and there's even a 24-hour mode, where you queue up a move for another player to respond to, and he must do this within 24 hours. If you've ever watched a film where players will play a game of long-distance chess over a matter of months, that's pretty much how this is. It could take some time to play this way, but you can also set up a number of matches simultaneously by doing this, which might appeal to some players.
The biggest complaint I have against Online Chess Kingdoms isn't the game's fault, but there aren't enough players online at the moment to enjoy playing the online portion. Every time I jumped online, there would be about four people within the grid map to choose to play, and usually those four were already engaged in a game … with each other. I managed to get in a few multiplayer games, and the connection was solid and definitely worked, but it's not very convenient to find an online game at this late date because there just aren't enough people to support it. Despite the promise of the title, players have simply decided to move on to other games.
Online Chess Kingdoms for PSP can definitely be found for a pretty cheap price now, both new and used, so if you're looking for a solid portable chess title, then you'll enjoy what Online Chess Kingdoms has to offer. The main mode might play out a little slow, but you can opt to play a single chess game if you want to avoid it. The variety in difficulty levels means that just about any player should find a level of challenge to the game. If you can find someone online to play against, that aspect works really well too, but don't pick up the game strictly for the online component, as you'll be disappointed in the lack of current players.