Developer: Neocore Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
I freely admit that this review is a bit late. King Arthur II released at the very end of January, but in my defence, I've had the devil's own time just trying to play it. Not only have I struggled to push the resource-devouring performance up to a stable 25-30 FPS, but it shipped with an inordinate number of bugs that literally stopped me from playing for more than a few minutes before dumping me back to the desktop. Subsequent patches introduced more problems than they fixed, resulting in a truly bizarre flag texture glitch that either crashed the game or disabled Crossfire by forcing us to Alt-Tab. It's finally (just about) stable enough to review after an aggressive round of updates, so once more into the breach!
More than that, though, I've been playing King Arthur II obsessively. Not because I'm particularly engrossed in the proceedings, but because I've been desperately searching for the hidden depths that the strong premise and underrated original game promised to deliver.
Depth, as it turns out, that isn't actually there.
All is not well in Camelot. After King Arthur united Britannia and bought peace to pseudo-mythical England, the Holy Grail has been sundered and the legendary monarch brought low by a magical curse. It's up to Arthur's son, William Pendragon, to sally forth against a Fomorian invasion and match the machinations of Witch Queen Morgawse; all the while attempting to recruit a roster of heroes new and old. It's a reasonable setup for a sequel, and the role-playing aspects of the experience are present and correct.
Much like the original, questing essentially involves taking part in optional text adventures that hark back to the ancient Fighting Fantasy and Choose Your Own Adventure books. Your choices affect the outcome of each mission - which grants you different areas to control, new artefacts to wield and different heroes to lead into battle. On top of that, a new moral choice system lets you unlock bonuses by choosing religious, pagan, good or evil options. Though a patronising narrator and some shabby voice work does its best to aggravate and annoy - and some of missions seem to play out in the same way regardless of which choices you make - this quirky and somewhat dorky structure is still easily the most addictive part of the package. The 'one more turn' factor is infinitely compelling.
Unfortunately, it's only half of the package. King Arthur II is a Wargame, after all, and some vicious streamlining soon starts to make its presence felt.
Upon entering the world map, you'll initially balk at the enormous game world at your disposal. But it's all a lie. It's a menu in all but name, a linear and static GUI that just contains a few inescapable battles to join and some upgrade options for each area under your control. You can't levy taxes from any of these regions or push into new ones unless the game wants you to; it's an illusion that superficially looks like the dynamic overworld of a grand strategy title but might as well be a list of objectives. Realising this, you'll take your one army - note: your one army since King Arthur II refuses to give you control over a variety of different forces until much later in the game - and enter battle.
At which point, it's business as usual. RTS fans will feel right at home with the real-time strategy on offer thanks to its familiar controls and reliance on classic rock-paper-scissors unit balance. A few victory locations grant you the potential to cast different spells if you capture them, but the raw action tends to boil down to confusing all-out brawls rather than tactical skirmishes and probing attacks. It's functional and enjoyable at best and unimaginative at worst - made infinitely more vexing than it should be due to an awkward and restrictive camera. Total War this ain't, but it's solid enough to hold its own.
That being said, fans of the franchise are going to enjoy the visuals if nothing else. King Arthur II enjoys a muddy, gritty and authentic art style that makes the massed battles a joy to behold, grounding you in the lore and the universe even as you mass all your unit groups for yet another brainless charge. Flying units, heroes and mythical creatures are great fun to wield from visual standpoint - they look distinctive, exciting and above all powerful. As mentioned, though, performance is incredibly hit-and-miss, and you'll struggle to hit 30 FPS even on a liquid-cooled, flame-gouting demon rig at maximum settings. Crash reports are also still rife at the time of writing.
Magic is the most divisive new feature of King Arthur II, and a new focus that will prove to be deal-breaking for many. Spellcasting is now a core part of the battling, with each force sporting their own magic shield that grants them resistance to a range of damaging hexes. Gaining and upgrading spellcasters and their abilities through the storybook quests is a thoroughly addictive and rewarding setup, and wielding their arcane powers to debilitate the enemy is an exciting, empowering and intuitive affair. Opposing mages can be staggered before their spells charge up, adding a nifty and tense dimension of timing and skill to the proceedings.
But it's ripe for exploitation. Magic is just too powerful for its own good, and can easily dominate the battlefield once you've acquired a few choice abilities. After quickly whittling down an opponent's magic shield and their hitpoints from afar, it's all too tempting to just roll in with your heroes and vanguard to crush any remaining resistance. Empowering? Yes. But not a great basis for grand strategy, which many armchair generals will absolutely detest.
So what we're left with is a Role-Playing Wargame that absolutely nails the roleplaying aspect of the experience but fails to deliver on the Wargame part. Which is where, thankfully, the story manages to elevate King Arthur II back into contention. Your tale, though disappointingly linear, is a compelling and exciting one - and you'll want to grind through the samey battles just to see where it takes you next. King Arthur II absolutely packs that indescribable X Factor that keeps you glued to your monitor despite very real misgivings... but it's not enough to secure a wholehearted recommendation.
- Satisfying and addictive storybook adventuring
- Grim, gritty and gripping art direction
- Thrilling storyline
- Linear and limited, lacks depth where it counts
- Unfulfilling and seriously unbalanced RTS gameplay
- Choppy and unstable performance, more optimisation needed
The Short Version: King Arthur II: The Role-Playing Wargame sets out to streamline the franchise and arguably goes too far. The storybook questing is still a quirky and unique draw, but the uninspiring and unbalanced real-time battles fail to deliver the strategic edge that would have guaranteed it a wholehearted recommendation. Fans will love the story and setting, but for most gamers, £34.99 will be a big ask.