ron, Nov-30 2007

Don't tell me legends

Looking at its aggregate review scores, Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom is not even a game, but just an experiment in how to make reviewers angry. Going by the scores, it is significantly worse than either Champions: Return To Arms and Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance II, which I've picked not only because they are closely comparable genre peers, but because I've actually played them both for many hours.

The first thing we need to establish here is that the hack&slash genre, or action-RPGs if you will, is a viable type of games. They aren't as mainstream as first-person shooters have become lately, but there are people who play them and enjoy them, co-op or otherwise. That the aforementioned two other hack&slash games have gotten so much higher scores should suffice to show that most reviewers are willing, at least some of time, to approach a game with some respect, even if it's in a genre they would not personally seek out when given the free choice.

Now I don't know what specifically all these reviewers were looking for in the games, and I'm not saying that the relative results are necessarily invalid or unjust on every imaginable scale either, but they don't make any sense whatsoever against my understanding of videogame quality. The short version is that Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom is at least on par with either of the other two. I.e. it's improved in some significant ways, and then it has some new flaws of its own. There's some balance there, and I'm even fully willing to argue that Dark Kingdom is the better game.

It has a proper melee combat engine that integrates jumping, blocking, dodging and of course combos built from two basic attack types (a lighter, wider-area swipe and a heavier, narrow bashing attack), and yes, having all the different combos makes sense because they are differentiated by range, area of effect and bonus properties (stunning, knock-back). Between the limited attack range and the significant down-time at the end of long combos, the game even rewards players for anticipating how many hits it will take to fell an enemy and then aborting the combo at the right time, so any allegations of this being just another button-masher are false ones with very little room for subjectivity.
And, to return to the clearer argument, neither Return To Arms nor Dark Alliance II offer anything even remotely on the same level of depth and meaning.

Dark Kingdom also has a much saner economy system. Instead of emulating a Diablo-style inventory that just gets annoying to use without a mouse, it has per-type sub-inventories that are linear lists of items. So when you want to look if you can equip a better pair of shoulder pads, you will be able to navigate a list of shoulder pads and shoulder pads alone, complete with the appreciated display of how much better or worse these things are when compared to what you currently wear.
And instead of making you warp back to base regularly to flush the bad ones out from your inventory, the game borrows MMORPG lingo and lets you "disenchant" any superfluous item, out in the field, at any time, and you gain "essence" in the process, which is the game's currency. You can then spend this essence at any save point, because save points double-up as stores – which is a really good way to handle it, in a gamey-game sense, realism be damned – to buy better equipment or to heal yourself.

Speaking of healing yourself, the game also eliminates potions and instead implements God Of War/Devil May Cry-style orbs that are left behind by defeated enemies, often in accordance to how you defeated them. These orbs come in three different flavors: health refills, mana refills or money. It's an immediate fix, but you have to earn it. It rewards players for consistently good performance plus it is just another element that allows the game to function without the constant interruptions that are town warps.
How any reviewer can think that this system is inferior in any way to buying potions in town and clicking the corresponding shoulder button once health or mana run low is beyond my ability to comprehend cultural diversity.

The skill trees and the abilities contained within seem to be roughly on par. The story is clearly better than "Kill these bandits! Okay, now kill the bandit leader! Okay, thanks, now kill the evil wizard who controlled all bandit leaders!". Clearly.

Also of note is how attention was paid to functional graphics. In Return To Arms in particular, it is often hard to detect loot of any kind, be it potions or armor or weapons, against the background graphics. It all gets lost in one dark brown pulp when you are a few steps away, to only become visible when the highlighting outline appears around an item, but that highlighting (or even picking it up) only even works after the item has descended back to the ground from its overdone initial phase of unrestricted flight, out of the deceasing enemy, or the chest you just opened. Dark Kingdom on the other hand surrounds every loot drop with an obvious blue sparkle effect in addition to making the drops really large, so this just has to be appreciated in any genre cross-referencing comparison.

Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom is by no means a flawless example of its particular genre, on the contrary, it is obviously rushed for launch and has some problems. E.g. at times the camera just wonks out for a second when you get too close to a wall, it has really poor puzzles, it has a very cut-down selection of character classes with just three archetypes (melee fighter, ranged fighter, mage), and the integration of the story is raw. Very. While the combat animations are solid, there's a distinct lack of varied expression that you'd need to build plausible story delivery and character interaction on, not to mention the jarring way the game just rips you out of gameplay flow when you hit an arbitrary cut-scene trigger, especially early in the game.

But the thing is that its basic gameplay systems, the combat, the skills, and the associated issues of control, economy and inventory, make the play experience significantly better than the two aforementioned games. Games that were universally scored much higher.
The only way these relative scores make any sense to me are if they are based primarily on graphics, and how graphics meet the reviewers' expectations of what the system should be able to do. I could understand that. Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom has neat, clean graphics and the framerate holds together well, but if you're operating on a "600$ lulz" mindset, it's not hard to be disappointed by the lack of shiny metal bumpiness and special effects. Also, in a true display of bone-headed decision-making, Dark Kingdom throws a long night-time segment at the player starting at about thirty minutes into the game, which is a sure-fire way to destroy a first impression. Graphics wowziness is not a big factor towards my scoring of games, so that could explain the huge gap between my impressions and everyone else's.

I'm by no means ready to review this one yet, but currently I'd gravitate towards a 0 on the scale that I use here, due to the aforementioned limitations. So I'm not even expressing warm mushroom clouds of love here, but it's simply not the broken, unsalvageable mess that the aggregate scores make it appear to be. And care how little or how much you will about my evaluation, but from this posting alone you can probably get a better idea about how Dark Kingdom actually plays, and how it compares within the genre, than from any of the sub-60/100 reviews it received. It's serious business, that game reviewing stuff, so much is for sure.

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