Kingdom of the Dead PC Review
As soon as the Dirigo Games title card splashes and the environment comes into view with its pencil scratched looking textures, a monochrome display with heavy use of blacks, whites and greys, there was an instant “this visual style looks rad” moment from me. Kingdom of the Dead‘s immediately holds its art style in high regard, pushing it from the get-go in every element of the game and running with it throughout the whole experience. With indie developers using games they played as youngsters for sources of inspiration, there has been an increased amount of first-person shooters going for the classic 90s feel. It is beginning to be hard to stand out in the crowd. Kingdom of the Dead is another one that has its roots built with those gameplay styles in mind. Having such a strong and striking impression from its graphic novel art, it allows the game to instantly make a mark on players when you see its unique look on display on the Steam store.
The story is based upon a war against the dead who live in the abyss. We are introduced to this with a short snippet from a book as the hero of the game, Agent Chamberlain, delivers us a short explanation about the secret bureau he works for. The bureau’s task is to keep the dead at bay by closing any portals that open up to allow these critters into our world. Chamberlain is interrupted by the delivery of a new set of missions, and so takes his talking sword, which is a relic from the abyss with the power to detect portals and seal them, and goes on these new adventures. This is all there is to the plot. It keeps it basic and to the minimum, only throwing in some dialogue during gameplay at the beginning or end of each level between Chamberlain and the talking sword, with the occasional boss throwing in a line or two as a threat. The story sets the scene and then lets the player get on it without any interruption.
Kingdom of the Dead‘s execution is straightforward. There is no complex mechanics or abilities that must be learnt. This is a straight-up run and gun while avoiding enemies and their bullets. Chamberlain has a sprint, a jump, a crouch and the ability for each weapon to use an alternative fire. For a supernatural-themed title, the weapons do remain standard apart from a talking sword. The arsenal includes tools like shotguns, rifles, Gatling guns, and dynamite, eight weapons in total that feel straight from the early1900s and all behaviour as one would expect, even with their alt-fire modes. Movement is fast, with sprint giving the speed momentum, but there are the occasional collisional issues with the environment that can launch Chamberlain off slopes. There was one such incident that led me to death during a scene with a sinking ship, in which the player is asked to climb to the top, a race against time as the water rises up behind you. It happened on other levels as well, but since there were no other instant death scenarios, it was not as bad, just frustrating to retread when the mistake was not your fault.
I could not help but feel the developer was using the Nintendo 64 classic, Goldeneye, when it came to designing the mission menu and the difficulty settings. This is because each level has three difficulties, Agentis, Speciali Agente, Princeps Angente, which the game presents as Normal, Difficult and Impossible. The higher the difficulty, the extra objectives that must be completed to successfully pass the mission, plus, each step up adds more enemies to fight against.
Disappointingly, the extra objectives are all basic, Speciali Agente means the side objective has to be done, which is active anyway, just it is now required, but these are always finding an item on an off beaten path while on the way to the end of the level. The extra challenge with Princeps Angente is making sure that the civilians freed within the mission escape alive. This can be frustrating at times, because often when they are freed, the AI makes them run towards the start of the level, but can occasionally get hit and die, an outcome that is out of the player’s hand to control. I mentioned Goldeneye, or Thief: The Dark Project if you are PC gamers, because those games do it better with a variety of objectives, making the player approach the level differently based on the difficulty setting, which is not the case with Kingdom of the Dead. This feels like a missed opportunity to add an incentive to try the harder challenges.
Missions take the player through a nice selection of environments. Some of the earlier settings are a crypt, mill and forest, but it feels the developer began to get more comfortable with level designs as the game gets further on, such as the train mission or the ship mission. The former taking place on a moving train through the countryside, while the latter is moving from the docks and onto the ship, which in turn ends up sinking, tilting it to the side and the player has to climb to the top to get out, reusing parts of the environment that were once on the walls earlier in the mission. The environment is mostly for dressing, as there is rarely any interaction within it apart from the traditional exploding barrels, but there is enough variety in their theme and structure that going through each one is entertaining, such as climbing up a city tower to get to the top and fight what seems to be a tribute to King Kong. There are nine levels in the game, which took me about 2 and a half hours to beat, although, on the save file, it shows ten boxes, with the last box not having a tick in, so I am wondering if there is a bonus mission to unlock (maybe beat it on the hardest difficulty?) or an update is coming to add this? Either way, the story ends after level nine, so it feels complete as it stands.
One thing that is interesting in the game’s design is how it does player progression with the game’s nine missions. Each time a mission is started the player only has access to the sword and pistol and three life hearts. Weapons are found within the mission and health upgrades can also be acquired to raise the maximum health, but just like the weapons, these are removed and set to three again for the next mission. The influx of weapons does speed up, so the latter missions bring the weapons to the player earlier than they would within the first few levels, such as the Gatling gun. I do not have an issue with this, but people who are used to progression in games like Doom or Unreal might not be into it, but this style is not new and is solved by how fast the guns are available in the later missions.
Fighting enemies focuses on the skill to dodge and return fire or get on them faster than they get you. There is a focus on headshots, as this can end enemies in single shots meaning that the pistol even has its worthy place in Chamberlain’s arsenal. Faster weapons are there for crowd control, forcing enemies to get lockstunned. Gunfights come thick and fast, although not as speedy as some other 90s inspired shooters. Enemies can occasionally gang on the player if not paying attention, making the fighting more entertaining, but since enemies are focused on coming directly at you there is no artificial intelligence in work, losing that unpredictability. It is the placement of the enemies that do the most danger rather than their ability to fight. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes – sword-wielding zombies, undead with shotguns, an enemy that is the Cacodemon’s long lost cousin, and a diving demon bird. While there isn’t a huge selection, there is enough for the nine levels available.
Bosses are where the game falls short. Their design is spectacular, I adore their visuals, but the mechanics for the combat remain the same as bog-standard baddies, which means dodging and attacking, there is no difference in approach for these more powerful beings, only they have a health bar and a couple of them have one-hit kill moves. For example, King Kong on the tower means you run around the ledges to get distance then attack. The Bat runs around on the ground, so dodge and shoot as it tries to ram the player, the army officer on a horse runs around a big field, so it means dodging his pistol shots and shooting at him. Most boss fights throw in standard enemies to add challenge by taking the focus away from the boss, which seems a way to cover up the uninspired fights. None of the bosses are memorable from a gameplay standpoint.
I do not think I need to say more about the game’s aesthetics and visuals. They are marvellous. The fact that the artist drew these on paper and then scanned them in to use as textures is such a rad concept. I hope more games do something similar, as it can make for such an engrossing atmosphere. If the colour does not fit your liking, there are visual options to change the colours, some psychedelic, some slight alterations to help anyone who has trouble with the tones. Performance was mostly solid, with the rare drop in frames coming for some of the random scenes where a lot of the environment was on screen and explosions happened. I am not sure if this is due to visuals or another issue, but it was so rare, and one of them was during an end of level scripted event.
Kingdom of the Dead is a solid retro-inspired first-person shooter created by Dirigo Games who understandably love the 90s approach to level design and gameplay. The clear standout with this game is its visual design, a striking presentation that makes it unique for the genre, and is matched with a catchy soundtrack. It has some faults, such as dull boss fights and poorly thought out additional objectives, but that is not enough to hinder the compelling fun that is on offer here, one that can be worked through in an afternoon. It is not on the same level as other retro-inspired shooters, such as DUSK, but one thing I always say is that not every game has to be the best, just as long as the player found it fun, and with Kingdom of the Dead, I found it entertaining from beginning to end. Kingdom of the Dead is worth checking out for people who want to step away from complexity for a bit and just shoot something without having to think much about it. Sometimes life needs simple things to have a good time.