Kingdom: Two Crowns
Review by Mike Finkelstein
The Castlevania series has been around long enough that parent company Konami has been able to cross it's flagship series over with all kinds of other games and genres. While Bloodstained is fairly new by comparison (only having released its first official game in 2018), already parent company ArtPlay has found ways to cross the game over with other titles. True, they aren't other ArtPlay games (at least, not yet), but it's clear the company is looking to truly build a history for its series to rival that of the original Castlevania.
This first big crossover happens to be with the Kingdom series, published by Raw Fury. Kingdom is actually a series of three games (although if we want to split hairs, the original game was released as just Kingdom, and the released in an expanded form as Kingdom: Classic, making for four technical releases), each of them featuring a kind of side-scrolling tactical strategy game play. The latest game, Kingdom: Two Crowns, takes the core game play loop of the original titles and expands it, including the addition of co-op play (thus the "two crowns" of the title).
In the game, you play as a king or queen (randomly generated by the game), seeking to build a kingdom on some largely deserted island. Bring brought in by the ghost of an ancestor, you're instructed on the basics of building your new town, hiring peasants and giving them jobs to do, and how to build fortifications to defend your new seat of power. Your archers will defend the town at night (as the shadowy enemies try to invade) while, during the day, they'll hunt animals, bringing in money for you to spend. Meanwhile you can also hire builders to repair your town and build new fortifications and buildings to improve your town.
And so it goes. As you venture out you'll find more peasants to hire. As your town builds you'll assign more jobs and things for your citizens to do. And, every night, you'll hide back inside your town lest the enemies in the dark rob you blind and then steal your crown, ending your reign and using in a chance for a descendant of yours to try and rebuild your kingdom on the ruins of what you started.
There's something quite peaceful and sedate about Kingdom: Two Crowns once you get the game really going. You loop back and forth across your little stretch of land, looking for ways to expand, plots you can pick to set you little builders building and fortifications to fortify. Like other building and management games, a lot of the loop is doing your chores each "day" of the day/night cycle. "I have to go over here and hire these two peasants, then come over here and collect my money, then push here to ensure the fortifications are up and expand further." Over and over, each day. And then, once you've really got it humming, you have to decide what to do next. DO you continue upgrading, or do you repair the derelict ship on the island and get it ready to sail off to the next realm to conquer it as well?
That said, the game can be amazingly obtuse. Despite the (very quick) tutorial at the start, the game keeps a lot of its secrets well hidden, forcing you to stumble your way through the game, over and over, in hopes of somehow finding a way through. I had to restart the first island of the game four times before I got a version of my game that actually could hum along. Some of the problem was because each map is randomly generated and sometimes its generation is not in your favor. The bigger issue, though, is that I kept making mistakes that, if the game had a better tutorial, I wouldn't have made because I simply would have known better.
That lack of explanation does extend to the latter islands, and even more elements and things to unlock get added at the same time that the difficulty ramps up. It's very hard to make progress across the five islands of the game and, at a certain point, you might not bother. That sedate game play loop of the first island is fun, but it grows stressful, and then frustrating, as the game goes on in later stages. I like it, but I hate it all at the same time.
Of course, the reason I picked it up (and likely the reason any of you reading the site will do likewise) is because of the included Bloodstained bonus content, although the content is really pretty thin, all things considered. The new "Dead Lands" expansion adds a biome to the game, which is essentially a new art-style that changes the graphics of the base game. The game play loop, and goal, of the title remains the same, but instead of some random king or queen, you start of as Miriam. She's there to build a kingdom and fight off the forces of darkness, as a good demon hunter should.
Having Miriam, as well as Alfred, Gebel, and Zangetsu as well (yes, all four heroes of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon) available in the game does change the game some. Each has their own special power, from Miriam's freeze wave that stuns the enemies for a short time, to Gebel's bat-transformation that allows him to travel quickly for a few seconds, Zangetsu's ability to command the troops directly, or Alfred's ability to summon a duplicate to take damage for him, can get the enemies off your back. That's better than your standard monarch in the game who... actually they can't do anything except spend money and watch their citizens die. That feels rather on the nose, in fact.
Still, the inclusion of these heroes and their art style doesn't change the game that drastically as the base game, more or less, remains the same. I'm reminded of the old art packs for games like the original SimCity where you could build a city "on the moon", but you were really just playing the same game with a different set of art assets; it didn't change anything, it just looked a little different. That's "Dead Lands", a pretty theme pack for an already pretty gorgeous little pixel-art game. But once you get past the fun Bloodstained veneer, you're stuck with an obtuse game that, at times, actively seems to want you to not play it.
I find the core idea of Kingdom: Two Crowns interesting enough. Somehow, though, in all the times I've played it I still haven't really gotten it. I can get my loop going, get my islands built up, but there always comes a point where I'm out of money, my guys are dying, and I'm looking on sad that, yet again, I have failed my kingdom. The game wins again, like it always does, and in the end I just want to go back and play some proper Bloodstained which, despite being a hard game (especially in its later modes) still feels more forgiving.