King's Bounty: Dark Side

King’s Bounty: Dark Side is the fourth entry into the rapidly aging series that launched (or rather, relaunched) back in 2008 from publisher 1C.  Its core gameplay is a familiar experience and it doesn’t try to be a lot more than that.  Don’t let the familiarity fool you, however.  Although its visuals and mechanics are almost exactly the same as what this series offered six years ago, Dark Side feels different somehow.  The opportunity to play as a hideously evil monster, combined with vastly improved story and writing, breathe new life into the series.

If you are a newcomer to these games, then your best bet is probably to go back and play 2009’s King’s Bounty: Armored Princess, which still stands as the best game in the series.  In each game, you play as a hero leading an army composed of a handful of different troops.  You can recruit these troops at dwellings with the gold that you win on the battlefield or with the treasure that you find scattered about the world.  Battles take place on a small hex-based grid, where you take turns with your enemies, bashing each other with melee attacks, casting spells, and using a multitude of special abilities that you and your units possess.  The combat is truly the strength of the series, as every type of unit has something that makes them useful.  Most units are only available in a few places, so you often have to replace one kind of troop with a different kind of troop.  The makeup of your army is constantly changing, which means that you are constantly adapting your tactics as you progress through the game.  It is this constant change that keeps the game feeling fresh through its long campaign.

The unique twist that Dark Side puts into the series is that this time, instead of playing as a good guy, you get to play as a bad guy. Instead of playing as a knight or a wizard character, you play as an orc, a demoness, or a vampire.  In one of many ways that the game emphasizes story, the two characters that you don’t choose remain in the story as your friends.  In another interesting little twist, the game’s prologue shows you the three bosses that you have to fight at the end – they are the three playable characters from the first game (the warrior, knight, and wizard).

Where Dark Side really delivers, surprisingly, is its story. The previous King’s Bounty games were loaded down with unimaginative, boring stories and lots of long-winded, inane dialog that wasn’t worth reading.  This time, the story approach has changed.  It is the centerpiece of the game, rather than an excuse to herd you from point A to point B.  The dialog is written much better and the characters are actually memorable this time.  The story is loaded with humor and outside of perhaps Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I have never played a game where being evil was so much fun.  So many games advertise a dark side path but fail to deliver.  In King’s Bounty: Dark Side, however, you are truly evil.  Via a neverending series of lies and manipulations, you take hostages, cause havoc, and corrupt the forces of good.  One string of quests has your blackmailing an innkeeper by capturing his wife and threatening to murder her.  After a few broken promises to return her safely when he does your bidding, you finally kill him in battle.  Not content to just let him rest in peace, you then raise him to turn him into a zombie slave as a final insult.  Later, you capture a woman and turn her into a vampire as she begs you to end her life.

In another departure from the previous games, Dark Side has adopted the popular RPG convention of giving you a base of operation. You can recruit lots of troops there and store some in reserve.  The evil allies that you befriend during your journey hang out there, offering you the occasional dialog or side quest that provides an upgrade.  As you complete side quests and advance the story, you also unlock access to stronger troops at your base.  This sort of RPG-style story progression was sorely lacking in the previous games.  It is a huge boost to this one.  There is no voice acting in the game, and most of your friends don’t have a ton to say.  This game won’t be confused with a Bioware RPG any time soon, but the friends that you make still add a lot of flavor to the game.

Another substantial change with King’s Bounty: Dark Side is its questing system.  The game gives you ill-defined tasks and quests and challenges you to solve them on your own by exploring and talking to NPCs.  Many of them require revisiting an area that you have already cleared out or talking to an NPC that you met 15 hours ago.  The game almost never gives you any guidance on what to do.  Instead, it adopts the old school RPG approach of letting you figure it out for yourself.  This is usually not very hard, because the NPCs and locations are easy to remember.  It is a testament to how well the game is designed and written that when you are given a challenge, it is usually pretty easy to figure out who can help you with it.  Some quests, like overthrowing a king and putting a puppet on the throne, are huge and long.  They can also be richly rewarding, as finishing a major quest almost always unlocks something that wasn’t available to you before.  This structure does have its downside though.  There is a little too much backtracking and revisiting of old areas multiple times.  Much of the game is spent walking around when you would rather be building up armies and fighting.

The interface, as always, is perfect. A huge variety of information and commands are available to you with just a couple of mouse clicks.  Pop-up tips abound without getting in the way.  The game is complex without being overwhelming.  The one area where King’s Bounty: Dark Side truly suffers is in how familiar its gameplay has become.  If you are new to the series, then this problem won’t be a big deal for you, but if you have put over 100 hours into the other games, then you will find yourself getting tired of battling the same enemies that you have battled a hundred times before.  While the story keeps things interesting, there are only so many excuses that you can find to fight zombies, spiders, and dragons.  Some of the units have gotten minor tweaks and some have been renamed (e.g. peasants are now “farmers”).  All of these changes are inconsequential, however.  For better or for worse, the minute-to-minute action in the game is what it has always been, the graphics are exactly the same, and most of the music is the same.  It is enjoyable, but by the time the game’s long campaign is over, you will probably have had your fill.  Dark Side is an 80+ hour marathon that is a little guilty of overstaying its welcome and padding its length with too many “kill monster” quests.

King’s Bounty: Dark Side is slightly better than Warriors of the North, thanks to its characters and humor.  It offers the twist of being the dark hero that conquers all good instead of the good hero that conquers all evil.  The gameplay was getting a little stale by the end of the last game, so Dark Side reaches into its bag of tricks and finds a few ways to keep it refreshing -- at least for a while.   The dedication to the game’s story and character pays off, just enough to keep the game interesting when it would otherwise be a slog.  Even with these improvements, there are times where it feels like a grind.  It isn’t much of a problem for this game, but for future iterations, the developer will either have to get creative once again or give the series a big makeover.