King castle

a deep but colorless game of tactics

kArthur: Knight’s Tale asks an interesting question: what if Mordred, sworn enemy and killer of the former and future king, should save Avalon from a fate worse than him? Unfortunately, this continues with a bunch of much dumber questions, like “what if Mordred was an incoherent idiot who couldn’t get his steel foot out of his mouth?” and “what if his adventure takes place in the grayest fantasy realm ever conceived?”

There’s a half-decent tactical game at the heart of knight’s tale, one with detailed character progression and satisfying tense combat. But it takes a lot of patience to see the best of it. NeocoreGames’ dark twist on Arthurian Legend is clunky and clunky, the kind of twist that usually results in an unpleasant ripping sound and a trip to crash and emergency.

The game begins after Mordred and King Arthur kill each other in the Battle of Camlann. Only in the story of knight’s tale, no warrior really dies. Thanks to the machinations of the Lady of the Lake, the souls of Mordred and Arthur are preserved. But Arthur’s mind is horribly corrupted in the process, turning him into a malevolent demigod while destroying his former kingdom. Mordred, meanwhile, wakes up in Camelot largely unscathed, vowing to kill Arthur once and for all and save Avalon or bend him to his will.

King Arthur: A Knight’s Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.

It’s an exciting premise, but Neocore just doesn’t have the narrative chops to tell the story of these legendary characters the way it clearly wants. Mordred, for example, can be played either as a true, noble knight or as the hateful bastard he always was. There’s a complex morality system built around this, which affects the loyalty of other characters based on their own ethics. But the character of Mordred fails to convince in the two narrative branches. As a goody-two-shoes, it’s terribly bland, with dialogue choices that never seem to acknowledge the redeeming arc it’s on. As a villain, Neocore can’t decide what kind of villain he is, and as a result, he goes from stoic bully to sneering narcissist to cackling fruitcake with every other dialogue choice.

This problem is also not exclusive to Mordred. Take the Lady of the Lake, who acts as the game’s narrator and is meant to come across as mysterious and intriguing. Instead, she seems to have no clue what she’s doing, constantly lamenting Mordred’s decisions when she brought him back in the first place. Those characters that Neocore understands, by comparison, don’t so much wear their personality on their sleeves as they tattoo them on their foreheads. No one demonstrates this better than Sir Yvain, a mischievous adventurer and womanizer who spends his entire introductory mission rehearsing how much he loves adventures and womanizers. It’s a nightmarish combination of impossible to take seriously and too dumb to be funny.

Once Mordred rids Camelot of any guards still loyal to Arthur, he sets out to rebuild the fallen castle and re-recruit the Knights of the Round Table. As with most tactical games, there are two layers to this. The World Map is where you select missions and manage Camelot. Here, you can tinker with your knights’ skills and gear, and use Camelot’s various amenities (which includes a clinic to treat injured knights and a training room to upgrade them outside of missions). You can also upgrade these gears, which provide bonuses to both your knights and Camelot itself. None of this is wildly original, but it all works well.

King Arthur: A Knight's Tale.  Credit: NeocoreGames.
King Arthur: A Knight’s Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.

Then there are the missions themselves, which combine free-roaming exploration with turn-based tactical combat. The first largely involves moving between episodes of the second, which is extremely knight’s talethe strongest asset of. The heart of the fight stems heavily from the pattern established by the 2012s XCOM. Characters have a set number of action points, which they use to move around the map, attack enemies, perform special abilities, or try to anticipate enemy movements with the now ubiquitous Overwatch ability.

Unlike most tactical games, there is little cover for your units to hide behind. Instead, your knights must rely on their armor to protect them. Frontal attacks on your knights initially do no damage, either being fully deflected or reducing your armor rating. Once this is depleted, attacks will damage a unit’s health, and once depleted they will eat away at your vitality, causing injury and ultimately death.

Managing your armor is crucial to victory in most battles. Knights can take a massive amount of damage as long as they face the enemy attacking them. Therefore, it’s important to position them to minimize flanking and always aim them at invading enemies before ending a turn. Ranged units like archers and mages have minimal armor so should be kept away from enemies or behind your knights. Many enemies are also armored, so you either have to try to get in behind them or use knights with two-handed weapons like Sir Kay to break through their defenses.

King Arthur: A Knight's Tale.  Credit: NeocoreGames.
King Arthur: A Knight’s Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.

It’s a cool representation of the effectiveness of plate armor, complemented by the overall combat feel. Your knights’ swords and axes smash enemies satisfyingly, while spells cast by your arcanist’s hands have a tangible impact. Best of all are the arrows, which whiz through the air at incredible speed before hitting enemy bodies. Neocore could probably make a rocking bow and arrow game if it wanted to.

Unfortunately, it’s the only element of the game’s presentation that I appreciate. Aesthetically, knight’s tale is phenomenally dull. The entire color palette seems to include sickly browns, grays and greens. I understand knight’s tale wants to portray Avalon as a dark, ramshackle world, but you can do that without it being dreary. Watch transmitted by bloodfor example, or Velen de The Witcher 3. Two of the darkest fantasy games ever made, but their worlds are dazzling places you won’t want to leave.

Meanwhile, the armor system, while new, also leads to what is arguably knight’s taleis the biggest problem. Pace. Because your characters are such tanks, missions are designed as endurance tests to balance the game for the challenge. Neocore’s approach to designing them is to have you complete the exact same objective three times. This might be less of an issue if there was more variance in combat encounters, but the enemy roster is way too stretched to support that. Your first ten to twenty hours are spent fighting bandits or zombies. It’s terribly uninspired.

Fortunately, the game is improving. New enemies are slowly being introduced, including Pictish warriors, giant trolls, and even stranger creatures. And while the game never gets dynamic, the latest game breaks up the endless gray swamps and ruins with more interesting locations. But getting to that point is tedious work, and you’d be totally justified in dismissing the game based on its opening hours and goofy dialogue. Stick with it though, and there are moderate rewards. Don’t expect it to ever reach the heights of XCOM.

King Arthur: A Knight’s Tale is available to play on PC.

The verdict

King Arthur: Knight’s Tale pulls off a pass with its decent tactical combat. If he doesn’t improve his art and spelling, though, he’ll have to see me in my office.

Advantages

  • Robust tactical engine
  • Satisfying fight
  • Good character progression systems

The inconvenients

  • terrible writing
  • ugly world
  • Takes a long time to reveal its quality