Road of Kings Review
We check out a fantasy board game inspired RPG for mobile platforms where every game is different from the last
Road of Kings is a casual, turn-based RPG for mobile platforms (both iOS and Android), due for release on January 18, 2014. I was given the opportunity to test the beta version for review; the game is under active development as of this writing, so minor adjustments from my play experience are to be expected.
In Road of Kings, you take the role of a barbarian out to win the kingship of his tribe. The game sets you with a hard limit of 100 turns to accomplish this goal, ensuring single games are speedy. The game presents you with a choice between two modes, standard and classic, but unfortunately doesn't state the differences between the two. Whatever the difference is, it's not readily apparent through play, either.
The game is themed after 30's pulp sword-and-sandal fiction in general, and Conan in particular. Right from the get-go, the game offers a robust random name generator for your character loaded with names that could be ripped from Howard's own pages. Unfortunately, the character name seems to be the only point of customization offered as far as your character goes. The background music is worth commending; the use of period instruments is pleasant and atmospheric, easily one of my favourite parts of the game.
Play itself begins with your character on a hex map; tutorials are there to guide you but the user interface is fairly intuitive. You travel around the map, consuming two resources: food, and remaining turns. Food is renewable, more-or-less; you start out with nothing and you deplete it fast. It's very easy to starve to death if you stay in one place for very long. Similarly, the game makes it very easy to waste turns.
There's not a lot of ways to heal up after battle, and the game is littered with ruins that it encourages you to search repeatedly. Random events, such as getting jailed or lost in the woods can easily eat vast quantities of time, as well. All told, this creates an unpleasant conflict: progress in the game demands you move at a frantic pace, accumulating gold and followers as fast as humanly possible, but the game itself is one that would like to be leisurely explored. Who needs to be king when there's ruins to be plundered? To be certain, this is definitely a game you play to play rather than play to win, but that doesn't mean the two need to conflict. There's a lot of encounters to be had in the game, random, semi-random, and fixed, and this is where the game shines. The writing is sparse, owing to the nature of the game, but it creates a compelling enough backdrop for you to want to keep reading. Intrigue abounds from the corrupt lords of the land, and the wilderness is full of wild and wonderful things to find. This is where the game is most successful: it sets out to create the feeling of an old-style tabletop RPG, and it really scratches that nostalgic itch.
Unfortunately, it falls flat on its face when it comes to combat. A would-be barbarian king should feel powerful, but battles are so random that you swiftly learn to expect disappointment with each attack you order. Both you and your party members have a stat for combat skill, but it doesn't seem to prevent all-too frequent hits for little to no damage against the enemy. Road of Kings takes a cue from roguelikes in making combat deadly enough to make you restart frequently, but it fails to learn the most important lesson that genre teaches: the majority of deaths need to be due to user error. If combat goes badly in Road of Kings, there's usually very little you could have done to make it less deadly or resource-consuming. There's no leveling-up in this game, and no weapon upgrades. Magical artifacts can be found that can be used in combat, but (understandably, for the genre) they're few and far between; you can't ever rely on getting one. You simply have no control at all over how hard you hit, how hard you get hit, and which of your party members gets hit.
If you survive, chances are you'll be stuck needing to rest in order to heal up, having to hunt for food all the while. And with no way to ensure a surplus or even to make sure you'll hunt enough for the party, it's very easy to get yourself into a death spiral of starving party members. Replacing them with new wanderers and passers-by costs money, too, money which you need to beat the game.
It makes for a conflicted experience, all told: there's a thoughtful game of resource management in here, keeping you moving and accumulating wealth, and there's a quick-paced board game driving the combat and keeping you stuck in the same swamp hex for a good tenth of the maximum time available to you. Still, the writing and music are worth the price of admission, and one thing the randomness is good for is making sure games never take too much time. So, despite its flaws, it definitely has that one-more-gameish bite to it. Road of Kings won't keep up up until 5AM, but it'll still keep you up past your bedtime.