Kingdom Under Fire enjoyed a successful following with its PC release a few years ago, and developer Phantagram was clearly hoping to capitalize on the older Xbox demographic by developing a console version of the real-time strategy, called Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders. Yet where at least one previous attempt at the real-time genre on Xbox (Aliens vs. Predator) found ways to maintain the integrity of the RTS gameplay, Phantagram oversimplifies things by eliminating most of the strategic elements and implementing more console-friendly gameplay. The result is a mixed bag, unless you’re a fan of melee combat a la Dynasty Warriors, but the most disappointing result of all this is that KUF: The Crusaders becomes an RTS whose most enticing portion, strategy, suffers the most.
KUF: The Crusaders is broken down into four different modes, each having its own hero. The first two modes allow you to control human generals, while the two more difficult and unlockable modes allow you to control generals from the dark legion. Borrowing heavily from Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” each campaign tells a different point of view of the same war. This opens up an interesting game experience and keeps you interested in learning the whole picture of the war. There is also an online mode available from the onset that lets you battle head-to-head with a friend using all four generals.
You primarily control the hero of your faction, with support from two main officers. If you’re into fighting hundreds of enemies in what seems like an endless war, then you’re in good company. Your hero has two basic moves, a quick weak attack and a slightly slower strong attack, and calling your officers for help enables you to get some extra ranged or melee assistance. Rather than command these sidekicks strategically, though, the officers amount to little more than an additional special move, which is slightly disappointing. While they can be useful, especially once you upgrade them with lightning spells or healing attributes, they’re basically glorified special moves akin to a fighting game. It would have been nice to control them or place them strategically, as you can with your archer and scout troops, but no dice. As a result, you’ll find yourself button-mashing your way through countless enemies trying to find the general of each squadron.
Why find the general? Simple: killing lots of enemies boosts troop morale, and the higher morale, the better your troops are at helping you out. Naturally, then, killing the general is significant a pick-me-up, but doing away with him also means that the remaining enemies flee the area, allowing you to collect experience points and move your squadron to the next area. Moving your troops toward your next goal adds a touch of realism to the game, but I found myself getting bored as I trudged for miles to my next battle. Most of the time the battles were intense, and I’d only have to walk a few feet to find the next one, but some of the interludes are a bit too long.
As you may have gathered from the examples above, you can upgrade both yourself and your troops by using the cash and experience points earned during battles. You can also change your supporting troop classes by using stat points to upgrade their jobs. For example, your archers will eventually evolve into bombardiers, and upgraded Paladins will fill your energy between battles. It’s nice to know Paladins have your back, and it provides a cool special effect as they pull light from the heavens.
I’m going to be straight with you, though: The action portions of the game are the best parts of the gameplay. And for a title hoping to be known as an RTS, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The RTS aspects in KUF: The Crusaders aren’t as smooth as they should be, in spite of Phantagram giving you all the necessary tools for a good strategy game. You can position scouts in front of you to seek the enemy or lure them into well-developed traps. You can position archers out of view to unleash advantageous long-range attacks. You can even direct them to attack at certain times or tell them whom to attack (the enemy general, for instance). The possibilities seem endless as you are manage these various groups.
The problem lies in the camera. Don’t get me wrong, it works beautifully when you are melee fighting as your hero; if this were a Dynasty Warriors clone, I’d be happy with the results. But when you’re trying to position your archers or command your scouts, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a bearing on where everyone is. Keep in mind that this is a real-time strategy. You can’t pause the game and get a bird’s-eye view of everyone’s location on the map. You can’t advance troops in a square grid, like you do in Final Fantasy Tactics. Instead, you have to use the triggers to toggle between your squads in real-time, all while trying to fight off hordes of orcs or whatever stands in your way. In a sense, there really isn’t any strategy once things get rolling. There is a bit of calm before some fights where you can set positions, but once you engage the enemy, forget about any strategy and just button mash with the hope that you’ll make it out alive.
This is compounded by poor AI for your hero when you leave him to command other troops. I can’t count the number of times I would “leave” to set up my archers, only to come back to half my men killed and my hero barely making a dent. In many respects, it’s actually better to let your other squads manage themselves and focus on playing as the hero. At least then you can get your business taken care of. A pause feature allowing you to set your troops using icons (think “Risk”) would have gone a long way toward solving the real-time micro-management problems.
At least the characters look good while they die. The map will at times have 100 or more troops on the scene, and each one is impeccably detailed with bump-mapped armor. The sense of scale and battle is also handled impressively, particularly as you battle characters that are three to four times your size, and even when there are 30+ enemies on-screen at once, there’s little to no slowdown. That’s impressive when you add in the elemental effects like dust particles and snow. The environments themselves are straight out of Dungeons and Dragons, with rolling hills, wide-open fields, dark castles and eerie forests. Add to that orcs, trolls and dragons, and you get the picture.
The music in the game is excellent and offers a great motivational kick as you’re slashing your way to victory. My only gripe is that the heavy metal guitar gets annoying after a while. They should have changed it up a little more, but what’s there is good. The voice acting, on the other hand, is awful. Often there are uncomfortable pauses and overacting that just seem out of place. The game takes place in a serious time, and I want desperately to believe the situation is critical. It’s hard to take the story seriously, though, when you have characters who talk like Lord Farquaad.
The online portion of the game differs greatly from the campaign mode. For starters, you’re granted access to all four generals, including the Dark Legion, which is only available as an unlockable in the campaign mode. The gameplay itself is stripped down to one army versus another, with one army positioned on one side of the map and the other positioned on the other side.
Impressively, the game runs just as smoothly online as it does offline, but part of that could be the fact that you’re only given a basic infantry of four troops. You do earn experience points in online matches, which can then be used to beef up your army. However, those four troops don’t include your officers, so you can’t call upon the dynamic duo for special abilities. It would have been incredible if the game supported 16 players in two separate alliances (or even eight, since it’s two teams of four), but the two-player support is all you get. And although the gameplay gets slightly more strategic as you build your troops’ experience, for the most part it’s just a matter of who can mash buttons faster.
Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders ultimately feels like it should have been designed as a Dynasty Warriors clone. It would have done a wonderful job as such. The environments and character designs are beautiful accomplishments, and the sense of scale is an incredible feat. But the RTS aspects hurt the game badly. Whereas Aliens vs. Predator allows great control over troops but not-so-fun action, KUF: The Crusaders offers great action but is far too difficult when it comes to controlling your army in real-time. In many thick situations it feels like you rely a little too much on luck to make your way out alive. If you’re a fan of the Dynasty Warriors series, then you should seriously consider KUF: The Crusaders for your collection. A lot of time and effort went into this game, and it shows. It’s just that some serious AI and strategic issues keep this game from being an all-around masterpiece.
- Gameplay: 7.7
- The action is pure fun, but it’s hindered greatly by the RTS portions.
- Graphics: 8.9
- Beautiful images and some of the best effects I’ve seen. More camera control during the RTS moments would’ve been nice.
- Sound: 7.7
- Excellent score fits nicely with the action, but poor voice acting takes away from the story.
- Replay: 7.5
- Four campaign modes and online play will keep fans of Dynasty Warriors playing.
- Overall: 7.3
- Good for fans of the Dynasty Warriors series. Bad for the rest of us.
— Jason Thomas