Let’s get this out of the way in the first line. There is a lot about Kingdom of the Dead that is right up my alley. I like it when a developer takes an idea and literally smothers it in old-school gameplay.
If you watch a YouTube video of KotD or even look at the screenshots, part of you inside may cry out “not another indie-art project with a game attached”, and in some ways, that’s fair, because there are a lot of them. I went into Kingdom of the Dead blind really. I don’t massively go for horror FPS titles as my jam, nor do I gravitate to games with a ‘hand-drawn (TM)’ aesthetic particularly. And no, the grammar ninja that lives in my brain does not appreciate the overuse of capital letters in the game’s title either.
So I booted up our review copy, aware that the devs had pushed back the release date at the last minute to give it some extra polish, and readied my WASD keys for a wander around a game we have seen a million times before.
Four hours later I looked at the clock and then took a double-take, wow that went quickly, and I’ve just had an awful lot of fun.
Okay, so there’s a bit of story to get through considering you could just run around blowing zombie heads off. For starters, here we are set back in 19th century East Coast America. The settings are quite gothic in nature and you are assuming the role of Agent Chamberlain, a professor turned Army General (non-standard career path, I grant you) and you are now working for the secret government program known as GATEKEEPER – and known by me, as something else with too many capital letters. GATEKEEPER’s main purpose is to defeat Death and his armies – a pretty broad-ranging remit but that’s the task at hand. Oh, and you have a talking sword. Obviously. But more about that later.
Across the game’s eight locations – of which only three are unlocked at the start of a game, you will face increasingly tough missions to defeat Death – who tends to manifest himself as a giant worm creature that instantly kills you with a single blow, at least until the end when you will set eyes on the skeletal psychopath yourself.
Each location has three independent difficulty levels and each level has extra objectives on top of the previous level as well as tougher enemies. We would suggest starting with the expectations of your skill low as that worm can be a pain to beat and you will still get a heap of satisfaction when you finally beat a level.
The game starts off in your cabin, which you can return to at any time you quit a level and from there it took me a minute or so to work out what to do. I spent a little time looking for a door but it turns out all you have to do is approach your desk from the correct side to be presented with the levels available to you.
From there you can read the brief descriptions and decide which you want to head off to first. This then sets you on your journey, which is taken on horseback while some chit-chat between you and the sword goes on setting the scene a little and revealing more of the story. We aren’t going to go into great detail because we don’t want to spoil things, but suffice to say, your sword is quite a talkative chap when he gets going.
You can skip through this preamble with a click of a mouse button, and will do once you have seen it and are revisiting a level. This will drop you off at the entrance of wherever you have headed to, The Mill, The Mansion, or The Crypt for example and from then on, that’s where things start to get a bit creepy.
Okay, I’ve managed to get so far into this review without giving away what kind of game you will be playing so let’s head that way next. If you were to hold a talking sword to my neck and force me to describe it, KINGDOM of the DEAD, in my mind at least has qualities of both Doom and Left for Dead, and that my friend is no bad thing.
As you WASD your way around the maps, heading up or down levels, or in the case of The Crypt, down and further down, you will be powering along nicely for a few seconds before you will notice a disturbance in the earth ahead followed by an onslaught of the undead. Maybe this is where I get my Left 4 Dead vibes from, but this is no Walking Dead ’em-up. These undead are maniacal, with eyes that glow piercingly – an effect all the more brilliant because of the art style. There is also comedy within the character design, some of these zombies are armed and will take potshots with pistols and rifles and there are times when you will come across them letting loose with bolt-action cowboy rifles, all the while sporting a 10-gallon stetson on their decaying skulls.
There is definite care and attention that has gone into the bad guys here. We don’t just get zombies either, and that worm thing pre-mentioned. You will be attacked by balls of evil spewing fire from the skies and weird druid-type things lobbing fireballs in your direction. Most surprisingly I actually yelped when out of nowhere I was attacked by a massive bird flapping down on me from above. Sometimes I have my headset a touch to loud it seems.
Run & Gun
Along the way, you will collect weapons that are straight out of the stable of yesteryear and this kind of game. Starting off with your sword and a pistol (ammunition is limited) you will gather up shotguns, rifles, and even Gatling Guns as you progress. Each has a different kind of ammo, and while certainly not abundant it can be replenished by opening crates and by enemy drops. It is possible to run out of ammunition in a tight spot though if you are trigger-happy. The game rewards careful shots with a little extra gore and decapitation and you will soon be trying to pull off headshot after headshot, not only to conserve bullets but, well to see heads roll too. In fact, you can render the undead largely useless by blowing off arms and the like, but generally, it is the headshot you should be seeking as there will soon be more to despatch so there is no time to dally.
The weapons feel great. I had great fun with just the pistol as it is really accurate from range. The sword on the other hand is a rubbish weapon and should only ever be used as a last resort. It is however the weapon you will use to destroy the demonic skull at the end of a level.
I do like the fact you don’t have to reload them too. Just pick up the ammo and let rip. One less key to worry about and a bit more fun to be had.
Pure old school level design
The levels, while I wouldn’t say they were infinitely replayable, hold a challenge up to a point and create a desire to go just that bit further. Progress is saved at various points throughout – when you see a book with a quill, approaching it will save it as a checkpoint. In the main, these are well spaced out, but occasionally you might feel as though you have been sent a touch too far back after a death. The mid and end of level bosses are usually accompanied by a checkpoint save just before the battle so, while it’s frustrating to keep dying, at least you can get straight back into another attempt. And that is something you will do. I always judge the sign of a fun game as one that provides that “just one more go” moment and suddenly an hour has passed.
Bugs and issues
To be fair Kingdom of the Dead seems pretty solid and well tested. I did come across some annoying issues on The Crypt level, and ultimately one that cost me my game. One of the weapons you can find are sticks of dynamite that you can lob at the end of the level worm to kill it off. What I found in the Crypt was that after I had used all the dynamite lying around, smashing open the caskets in the room while frantically charging out of the way of a one-hit death would often reveal more dynamite I could use, except I couldn’t pick it up because after smashing the coffins the item sort of fell back into it, and no amount of running over it (at pace to avoid death) would collect it. This will hopefully be fixed quite soon though.
Besides that, the lack of a map, especially with my sense of direction sometimes led me to run around and around covering the same ground. You generally get to where you need to be because the levels are quite intuitive but some areas look pretty samey so I found I could get lost, especially if I wasn’t concentrating.
Also, and this is where things might get a little sticky, performance on my home rig was perfect, but on my work machine I had frame drops and judders. For me, both should have been able to run it comfortably so I’m not sure what was going on there.
KINGDOM of the DEAD conclusion
It’s very possible you will look at the screenshots here and think ‘this is not for me’ – please don’t do that. If you are fed up with the big-budget on-rails nonsense we keep getting drip-fed and yearn to play a single-player game that is just fun, pick this up.
It’s nicely priced at $14.99 £11.99 on Steam and you will have blast. It’s also got a bit of a launch sale on the go too with 10% currently off. If the colors are off-putting there are a whole array of different ways to color the pen-drawn graphics, some are ridiculously horrible but there is even a Game Boy green coloring for some proper nostalgia.
Is it the best game of the year so far, don’t be silly. Are there bugs? Yes. Is the game too easy to complete? Possibly. Will you find yourself grinning while you play, well yes you will. And can there be a better endorsement than that? And it is cheap at half the price.