An unpolished but potential filled tactics RPG.
Over three decades after the release of the original King’s Bounty on DOS, King’s Bounty II arrives on a multitude of systems including the Nintendo Switch. Like the original it combines the various tropes of western RPGs with deep, tactical, turn based combat. But in the more than thirty years since the original release, both western RPGs and tactics games have evolved significantly. King’s Bounty II takes some giant steps towards modernization, but gets tripped up in several places along the way.
Upon starting a new file you’ll choose from three characters, each with different abilities, advantages, and disadvantages. To some degree altering your equipment and leveling up your character in different ways can negate some of these predetermined attributes. But, especially early on, your choice of character will have a pretty big effect on combat. At its most basic level, King’s Bounty II can be divided into two primary forms of gameplay. The story, exploration, gathering of quests, and trading of items, takes place in a large third person overworld. Meanwhile combat encounters, denoted by a large highlighted area on the overworld, play out in turn based combat. While much of the exploration clearly takes cues from franchises like The Witcher or Dragon Age, combat rides a line somewhere between Civilization and Fire Emblem.
Exploring the world, talking to people, and picking up quests was by far my favorite portion of King’s Bounty II. The voice acting can be a little rough, your character moves somewhat slowly, and the Switch resolution leaves a lot to be desired, but the world begs to be explored. Even at a low resolution the world is rich, full of details, and seemingly random side quests play out in interesting and engaging ways. This is one of those games where I quickly lost track of what the primary questline even is, because I so immediately became distracted by everything around me. Quests also cause you to engage in the Morality system which affects how quests play out, along with what abilities you’ll ultimately have access to.
However, doing side quests may highlight King’s Bounty II’s more egregious issues. This is a punishing game, particularly once you actually get into combat. In order to level up your character, earn money, and procure new gear you’re pretty much required to break from the primary storyline. Unfortunately there is no real way to know if any given side quest is at your ability level until you enter whatever combat it may entail. Most quests follow the general formula of having you run around doing things in the overworld for a while before eventually engaging in combat. I quickly built up a list of unfinished quests where I had done everything except the final fight after realizing it was well above my current level.
Combat in King’s Bounty II is deep and complex but also brutally punishing and poorly tutorialized. The in game tutorial amounts to moving units, selecting a target, and not a whole lot else. Is there a height advantage during combat? How does the unit morale system work? How do my stats affect my units’ stats? As I said this is a gloriously deep combat system, and I’m sure post launch there will be plenty of wikis detailing its operation, but in the isolation of the review period, I found myself stumbling through early encounters. What makes this go from annoying to an actual problem is that King’s Bounty II makes use of unit permadeath. Units are composed of multiple soldiers. If a few die you can quickly replenish them after a battle, however if an entire unit is killed you’ll need to recruit an entirely new one. All the experience and bonuses gained by that unit from battles fought will be gone. This causes King’s Bounty II to fall into the classic game design paradigm of the game actually making itself more difficult, unless you’re already good at it. This caused me to be extremely apprehensive about going into any battle I wasn’t completely sure I could win. Luckily there is a manual save option which I made use of quite liberally.
I want to be clear that the combat mechanics themselves are not bad. As I grew to understand them through trial and error combat became much more enjoyable. As units gain experience they’ll become stronger, but as your character grows you’ll also be able to include more soldiers in a given unit. Your character will gain abilities over the course of the story that will allow them to take part in battles beyond simply commanding units. The sorcerer character for example can cast spells anywhere on the field allowing her to damage, heal, or buff units from the sideline.
The one problem King’s Bounty II faces that is exclusive to the Switch version is that of performance. While loading times are short and the frame rate only really struggles in the larger towns, resolution and image quality are both very poor. The resolution is workable during standard exploration, but when zoomed out in combat, it becomes very difficult to identify different unit types. A very rough temporal anti-aliasing implementation put in place to help with the low resolution also causes extremely noticeable ghosting artifacts along the edges of moving characters and objects. All of this is heightened when playing portably where combat relies almost entirely on reading unit names rather than identifying them by sight.
King’s Bounty II is an incredibly ambitious game that seeks to leapfrog the last thirty years of genre evolution. From a certain perspective it is impressive they’ve managed to get this far while still keeping the gameplay recognizably close to its source material. On the other hand there are just too many obvious quality of life issues to ignore. Too often exploring the world becomes a game of walking in a direction until you realize you’re not supposed to have gone that way due to high level enemies. Too often combat results in re-loading a manual save as you trial and error your way through various unexplained mechanics. There is a good game deep beneath the surface, but it lacks a lot of polish that it would need to be truly great.