Knights of Pen and Paper 2

The first Knights of Pen and Paper was something of a microcosm of mobile development – the vast potential, the bad habits, and the platform-mandated design choices. Its defining characteristic was that instead of playing a digital version of a tabletop roleplaying game, its users were controlling digital characters playing an actual tabletop roleplaying game (at least, from their perspective). It sounds innocuous, but it turned out to be an ingenious device for streamlining and adapting RPGs into small, touchscreen-driven play sessions. Once its microtransactions and grind were respectively excised and diminished in a later version, it became a genuinely great game. Unfortunately, Paradox Interactive seems to be banking on the fans’ leftover goodwill, because the game has a sequel now, and it’s much less remarkable.

The cynic in me theorizes that Knights of Pen and Paper 2 exists to recoup the funds lost when the original stopped asking for money every few seconds. The departure of the original developers and the dearth of new features both suggest a cash grab, but the most telling evidence is that the game actually subtracts significantly more content than it adds. There’s less of everything this time around – characters, classes, and game room furniture (which provide party-wide stat boosts and effects) – and the ability to select game-changing alternative DMs is gone completely. Focus and simplicity are the components that make the gameplay tick, but it was already ticking in the last game; these changes just give it a duller, more uniform rhythm.

The new additions can be counted on one hand. The first is the ability to select each character’s race – a worthwhile feature, but with only human, elf, and dwarf to choose from, it’s as trite and shallow an implementation as possible. Secondly, some dungeons feature randomly generated encounters and layouts. Obvious roguelike fan-pandering aside, this isn’t a bad feature, as these dungeons mix up the game with a marathon-style challenge when all its other tasks are closer to sprinting. Lastly, there’s an inspection system wherein die rolls determine the party’s ability to search for hidden items. It’s not an earth-shattering inclusion, but it fits the overall structure well, and it’s a rare spot of creativity in the largely imitative whole.

Admittedly, these critiques are more principled than anything; the game is inconsequential in the shadow of its predecessor, but it’s a reasonably worthwhile game in its own right. The reason the gameplay setup is so brilliant is that it converts everything that would require player movement (a basic feature that’s also incredibly difficult to implement on a touchscreen) into a menu selection and die roll. In the process, it shows how unnecessary and artificial the idea of an 80-hour RPG is. No entertainment is lost by removing the endless shuffling between quest-givers, or the inevitable scouring of every dungeon corner. It’s one of the most immediate RPGs out there, and a great choice for anyone who enjoys the genre but doesn’t have the time for it.

The premise also puts an interesting spin on combat. Since one of the characters is the game-within-a-game’s DM, many battles have a degree of customization regarding enemy type and number. Combined with the ability to rest almost anywhere at minimal cost, it’s very easy to set up encounters that feel like legitimate threats, rather than filler. The series has also stumbled into a sort of balance – a cheap sort, but balance nonetheless. While certain classes and character types (e.g. jock or goth – basically a stylistic substitute for choosing base stats) are noticeably more useful than others, the inability to add multiples of the same category to a party keeps their disparity in check.

The system isn’t perfect, of course. The general simplicity results in very few gameplay advancements and little sense of growth, which makes the 10-15-hour play time actually feel too long. This is especially evident in a group of late-game sidequests in which the characters themselves complain about the repetition (incidentally, if you’re a designer, and that doesn’t set off a huge alarm in your head, you’re not a very good designer). Furthermore, while charging gold for everything from items to traveling to inspecting is an interesting way to manage player progression, it doesn’t add anything to the experience. It’s clearly just an open wound from where microtransactions used to be, which feels like getting phantom pain after the removal of a tumour – not bad, just odd.

The game’s other draw is its metafictional presentation, but it doesn’t quite have the discipline to make it connect. The story concerns a new group of roleplayers recruited by a DM to defeat his previous player, who is systematically disrupting their fictional world by introducing the second edition rules of their chosen game. It’s fairly ambiguous whether the previous player that antagonizes the party is an actual person or just a character modeled on one, but neither explanation is particularly satisfying. The former makes no sense (outside actors can’t forcibly adjust a game’s rules), and the latter makes the DM into the pettiest character ever. There are also frequent dei ex machina and a general lack of consistency. These are cleverly justified as the DM literally making up the plot as it develops, but it’s worth remembering that intentionally poor storytelling is still poor storytelling.

The writing that binds the story together is intermittently funny, at least. Some of the (frequent) pop culture allusions feel forced, as they usually do in humour that relies on them, but others are more complex and witty, such as Rastafari-styled Mario Bros. Toad parodies that spend their days growing “XP mushrooms”. Any dialogue that doesn’t contain a geek culture reference inevitably contains some kind of self-reference instead, which are a lot more consistent with their delivery. It’s not the hilariously deconstructive postmodernism of Kingdom of Loathing, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t chuckle a little at the idea of a cave near the starting town actually being named “Nearby Cave”.

The visuals that convey all of this are bright and clean, but they may actually be too clean; important information is sometimes either missing from the interface (such as exact player health values), or difficult to detect at a glance (such as which character is currently being commanded). There’s plenty of space available in the uncluttered presentation, so the minimalism is rather unusual. On the subject of the interface, the mouse-driven menu controls are wonderfully simple and intuitive, with the small exception of transferring items between inventories. Finally, the game contains some great audio, featuring catchy battle tunes, decent instrumental variety, and pleasant sound effects.

Knights of Pen and Paper 2’s ending suggests that a hypothetical second sequel will feature significant gameplay advancement, and I can’t help but wonder why this intermediate title even exists if that’s the case. “More of the same” sequels are always frustrating to review, because in most cases, there’s nothing notably wrong with them, yet they still don’t merit a recommendation. This one is no exception. The repetition inherent in the gameplay means that existing fans will merely be burned out by the story’s end, and the unnecessary subtractive design makes the first game a better starting point for newcomers.