Honestly, sometimes you just want to curl up underneath a big, comforting fantasy RPG blanket. You wanna feel the warmth of familiar tropes -- of paladins upholding justice and mages causing mischief. You wanna hold close to a reassuring inventory of swords and potions and rings that give +5 bonuses. And you wanna snuggle deep inside a journal brimming with quests. As I write this, months into Sydney
's longest lockdown of the pandemic, King's Bounty 2
is exactly the kind of doona of dungeons and, yes, dragons I want to crawl beneath and remain cocooned inside.
Despite its title, King's Bounty 2 is far from the second game in the series. Released in 1990, the first was a hero-based strategy game with turn-based combat whose developers would go on to refine that formula with the Heroes of Might & Magic
games. In 2008, King's Bounty
was revived by a new developer and subtitled The Legend
, delivering a more contemporary top-down perspective open-world to explore alongside the many hex-grids of tactical combat. Subsequent expansions and follow-ups to King's Bounty: The Legend bore a confusing range of subtitles (Armored Princess
, Dark Side
) but none found themselves elevated to the status of full sequel until now.
I couldn't tell you why this particular instalment in the convoluted King's Bounty series warrants a "2" appending to its name, but it's there and I guess it's no more strange than the 15th Battlefield
game being called Battlefield 1
. So we move on.
"There's nothing to stop you starting as a warrior and pursuing magic skills, if you later realise that's where your preferences lie...”
Like its predecessors, King's Bounty 2 mixes RPG adventuring and tactical, turn-based combat. In the former, you are role-playing as one individual character while, in the latter, you are commanding an army. The balance definitely tends towards role-playing and you'll spend most of your time on horseback or on foot, exploring the surprisingly large world, chatting with NPCs, looting hidden treasure, and checking quests off your list.
At the outset, you pick one of three characters, each with a selection of starting skills drawn from familiar archetypes: the warrior, the mage and the paladin. In each case these are mere starting points, a small headstart in a certain direction down the skill tree, but there's nothing to stop you starting as a warrior and pursuing magic skills, if you later realise that's where your preferences lie. You're also free to dabble in a range of skills, and my experience suggests a more flexible approach stands you in good stead against a wide variety of enemies.
It isn't just a skill tree full of combat bonuses, though. The four main branches are analogous to the attitude you adopt when interacting with NPCs and how you complete quests. And they then each align with a category of troop with which you fill your army. Take an "Order" approach to the choices you make during a quest -- reporting that thief to the authorities rather than letting them pay you off -- and you gain access to the more powerful skills available later in the Order branch of the skill tree, skills that improve your leadership, healing abilities, add buffs and so on.
"Display a lot of Power, but little Finesse, for example, and you'll be leading an army of dwarven militia and giant gryphons...”
Similarly, pursuing Power by taking a more ruthless, forceful approach in a quest means you'll unlock skills that enable you to hit harder in combat; favouring Finesse results in more thoughtful, more diplomatic quest solutions and, in turn, lets you invest further into various forms of magic; and the fourth and final branch, Anarchy, invites more underhanded techniques and sees a related advantage to seizing the initiative and counter-attacking during combat.
The system works well because you're able to mix and match Order, Power, Finesse and Anarchy skills and troops to the extent that your character displays these attributes in their actions. Display a lot of Power, but little Finesse, for example, and you'll be leading an army of dwarven militia and giant gryphons, but little in the way of useful spells. I started with the Paladin archetype and ended up with the vast majority of my skill points fairly evenly distributed between Order and Finesse, with just a few invested into Power. I was pretty happy forming my army from a well-rounded pool of knights, swordsmen, archers and magical golems, and always felt I had enough bases covered across my starting army of five and my reserves.
It helps that you can see exactly what you're up against before you commit to a fight. When wandering the world, you'll see encounters clearly marked by a glowing gold circle outlining where the battle will take place while within the various enemies you'll face will be milling around. Even then, once you enter the gold circle, you'll see a pre-combat screen detailing exactly what units the enemy has and an overall indication of their relative strength. Find yourself having second thoughts at the prospect of a tough fight, and you can retreat at no cost. Perhaps you think you need to switch some troops out of your army for some more appropriate candidates in your reserve. Or perhaps you just decide now's not the time, and you want to head off in a different direction and come back later. It's great at letting you take each combat encounter at your own pace, letting you exhaust every avenue of preparation before charging into the fray.
"Battlefields will be pocked with trees, large boulders, walls, steps and platforms, all of which affect your movement and, when performing ranged attacks, a unit's line of sight...”
Once battle commences, King's Bounty 2 offers up a pretty solid tactical combat experience. Fights take place across an arena cordoned off from the world and marked out into a hex grid. Terrain matters, so if you approach an enemy near a bridge, that bridge will provide a chokepoint on the hex map. Battlefields will be pocked with trees, large boulders, walls, steps and platforms, all of which affect your movement and, when performing ranged attacks, a unit's line of sight, letting you seize the high ground, funnel enemies into chokepoints, and take cover from their ranged attacks. As commander, you don't venture onto the field as such, but rather give orders and once a round have the opportunity to cast a powerful spell -- a limited but often decisive action.
While typically no longer than a handful of rounds, battles always require smart tactical decisions. Positioning your units, knowing when to advance or defend, or when to outflank, are all crucial choices. And picking the right moment to use one of your unit's unique active abilities can prove vital in changing the course of battle. Certainly, some of the smaller encounters I ran into during a sidequest were a touch on the easy side, but every major battle I fought along one of the main questlines proved a stern challenge--plenty of which required multiple attempts to refine a winning strategy. Combat in King's Bounty 2 is always a pleasure to encounter and never less than satisfying to conquer.
"The writing is of mixed quality, but for every clunky line of exposition there are curious plot twists and surprising flashes of humour. There were even plenty of moments where a quest choice confronted me with a genuine dilemma...”
In between battles, exploration and conversation occupy your time, alongside a little bit of shopping. After a slow slog through a snowbound tutorial area, the world opens up into a vast valley crammed with camps, villages, taverns, caves, temples, swamps, rivers, farms, forests and castles. People are everywhere, many of whom are up for a brief chat and even a quest for you to undertake. The main storyline offers intrigue and a dash of occult mystery, but for me the real stars of the show were the many charming and oddball characters I encountered throughout the many, many sidequests. The writing is of mixed quality, but for every clunky line of exposition there are curious plot twists and surprising flashes of humour. There were even plenty of moments where a quest choice confronted me with a genuine dilemma, and several that had me taking a course of action that I felt was morally correct even if I knew it wasn't optimal for my character build. You know a story has you invested when you start making choices that aren't necessarily advantageous to your stats.
King's Bounty 2 is never going to win any awards for its art, but I was surprised at the number of times I caught myself admiring the scenery. I'd be riding my horse through the woods when I'd emerge onto a cliffside trail and be struck by the beauty of the view. I was constantly exploring out of the way areas, spinning the camera around to assess each new vista, and taking a frankly obscene number of screenshots. I think it helps that the world is quite modest in scale, yet extremely varied in its environmental detail. Eye-catching landmarks, like the main castle or the mage school or the huge aqueduct loom large and striking, while in the distance you can almost always catch a glimpse of the frozen-in-time erupting volcano, the colossal statue overlooking the valley or just a really cool-looking snow-capped mountain range. It's also utterly dense with stuff, with barely a short walk between any two locations of interest.
"The combat is solid. The role-playing is solid. The questing and adventuring and writing and everything else are solid, too...”
King's Bounty 2 lives up to its name in the sense that it delivers abundance. Like an ultra-compressed version of Skyrim
, it feels full of things to do even if it doesn't necessarily excel at any of them. The combat is solid. The role-playing is solid. The questing and adventuring and writing and everything else are solid, too. It's comforting and familiar and simply does what it does without a great deal of fuss. In many ways it feels like the ideal pandemic lockdown game. I'll happily load King's Bounty 2, pull up the covers and settle in for the weeks and months to come.