It's very common for kids to wish they were royalty; in fact, Disney has made itself a fortune by constantly reminding little girls just how badly they wish they were princesses. That's not to say this is a phenomenon confined to females, as plenty of boys have always dreamed of being king and ruling over a vast empire of loyal subjects. One of those little boys just happens to be the protagonist of Little King's Story, and while he is a capable ruler, he's likely to end up remembered more as Edward I rather than Henry VIII.
Our pint-sized monarch comes to his throne by discovering a magical crown in the forest. Upon donning the royal garb, he is whisked away to the tiny kingdom of Alpoko, a puny little landmass populated only by lazy locals getting by on subsistence farming. Royal officer Howser yearns for more, though, and convinces the little king that he alone is powerful enough to rally the peasantry and set out to unify the world. And just like that, our dive into the adventure of world domination is born.
The game's story is told through some delightfully adorable cut scenes that almost look as if they were done by finger paint. The characters all have big personalities, and the title manages to inject healthy doses of humor that work on many different levels. While some members of your braintrust may have sinister motives, the path to world domination is a charming one, and it's really hard to not fall in love with how utterly cute this game is.
Unfortunately for the king, he can't take on the world alone, so he's going to need to make something out of the army of peasants he has at his disposal. Thankfully, assigning jobs is easy enough; all you need to do is command your target citizen to follow you and then order him or her into one of the houses devoted to pumping out productive members of society. You can train farmers to dig holes and unearth treasure and healing hot springs, engineers to build stairs and bridges to new locales, miners to clear rocks, soldiers and hunters to lead the charge into combat and much more. The amount of depth available is truly staggering, and given all the different job classes, there's never a dull moment.
Once you've put your citizens to work, the rest of the game plays out as a sort of cross between Harvest Moon and Pikmin. You lead your forces into the world to battle enemies and discover treasure, and once you've gotten enough plunder, you can return to your castle to build up new structures meant to expand and enhance your kingdom. This balancing act of fighting and building continues throughout the adventure, and the game provides a steady drip of new jobs and upgrades that keep the game compelling for quite a while.
Little King's Story is an incredibly open-ended game, possibly even to a fault. There are a few guided training missions available as you start out, but very quickly the game throws the gates wide open and lets you wander and fight pretty much whenever and wherever you want. The game absolutely refuses to hold your hand, leaving players to carve their own paths to victory. While seasoned RTS players will no doubt welcome this freedom, newcomers or those less familiar with the genre will likely be overwhelmed. Even though this game might look cute and cuddly, its actual gameplay content is very traditional and very challenging. Don't expect a watered-down adventure simply because this is a Wii game featuring a child king; it holds up to anything else out there.
It is this hardcore approach that ultimately hamstrings the game in all the ways in which it should really shine. RTS gamers will tell you that one of the single most important aspects of the genre is a smart and streamlined control scheme that allows you to micromanage units and give effective commands. This is traditionally done on the PC through a combination of mouse clicks and keyboard hotkeys, a setup with which we've yet to find a console equivalent. The Wii, though, with its motion-sensing technology and IR remote, should be able to most closely approximate it, right? Not in this case, as Little King's Story eschews any motion or point-and-click control in favor of the analog stick and buttons.
Unfortunately, this setup means that targeting enemies can be a huge chore, and the title is exceptionally finicky when it comes to which direction you are facing. If your king isn't pointed directly at the object you want to attack or the item you wish to interact with, you'll simply send your minions running off into the field all willy-nilly, and they aren't smart enough to know to take one step to the right or left to interact with whatever it was you were trying to point at. Even worse, there's no way to order units to move in groups, so command must be issued to one follower at a time. If you've got 15 soldiers with you, then that's 15 times you're going to have to target the enemy and give the attack order; you can't simply issue a command for all of them.
Even more frustrating, units don't automatically fall back in formation with other members of their class, so you can easily get soldiers mixed with farmers and hunters mingling with lumberjacks. In the heat of battle, when you're trying to command troops given the game's extremely rudimentary system, this often means the death of units who were accidentally sent into combat even though they didn't belong anywhere near the front lines. While I can respect any game that doesn't include waggle for the sake of waggle, this really is a title that needed some sort of pointer control.
Pathfinding is also a major issue, as troops are terrible at keeping pace with the king and often end up dropping off because they got stuck on a set of stairs or trapped in a small space. There's no method for summoning troops back to your side, so if your team gets cut off, you'll have to backtrack and find them — hopefully before they're caught alone against a horde of enemies and get killed. While there are a couple of different formations you can use in order to snake through tricky spots, none of them are foolproof, and they shouldn't even really be necessary. In a game all about commanding a small army to do your bidding, you have to worry about the health of the kingdom if some members of the army can be stymied by a flight of steps.
In the end, Little King's Story is a cute yet exceptionally deep title that will provide hours upon hours of gameplay for anyone willing to master it. However, poor control and pathfinding, coupled with overwhelming scale and some exceptionally frustrating bosses, might turn off a lot of gamers who are looking for a game to ease them into the RTS/simulation genre. This king is no slouch, but I'm secretly hoping that maybe his heir proves to be a more capable monarch.
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