King Arthur: Fallen Champions is a strange game. I don’t mean strange insofar that the gameplay itself is odd. In fact, in many ways, it is exactly like King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame, which, if you recall, I was a fan of. It is odd in that Fallen Champions is not really a new game, but nor is it an expansion. Fallen Champions is basically a stand-alone, short, cheap, side story meant to bridge the original King Arthur game to its sequel, which we expect either late 2011 or early 2012.
Total War: Camelot
The original King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame, was a hybrid turn based/RTS strategy game, in the mold of Total War, developed by the Hungarian studio NeoCore Games, and originally published in 2009. The game had a rocky start, with a ton of bugs and play-issues, but the intervening years saw patches and expansions that effectively made the original game a ton of fun. The premise was pretty straightforward; you played as Arthur, slowly conquering a fantasy version of ancient Britain, complete with elves, ghosts, giants, etc. In between Total War styled battles (that benefited from the addition of magical spells), players built up their territories, pulled together armies, researched technologies, and most importantly: went on adventures. It was this aspect of Arthur that put the “Role-Playing” in the “Wargame.”
Basically, every now and then you could send one of your hero units to a scroll icon on the main map, which would start a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style text adventure. These little adventures were surprisingly deep, and could lead to serious consequences for your game, either granting new units, artifacts, skills, or alliances, or in the converse, leading to war with one of your neighbors.
Once the bugs were fixed and the game played adequately, the combination of turn-based and real time strategy, as well as the role playing elements, made for a great, if underappreciated, game. News that a sequel was coming was welcome. So, when NeoCore announced that they would release a stand-alone Arthur game, called King Arthur: Fallen Champions, meant to bridge the story between the first and the upcoming second, I was initially excited. Unfortunately, what NeoCore released did not live up to expectations.
Follow The Path
Fallen Champions is basically a set of 10 missions and text adventures split between three separate heroes. These include a knight from King Arthur’s court seeking his kidnapped bride, an Elven (Sidhe) sorceress seeking a way to return to her ancestral home, and a barbarian (Pict) shaman following a prophecy that he will bring glory to his tribe. Each character gets three missions, broken up first into a text adventure and then into a battle, and each is played in order. However, players may switch between characters between missions at will.
One necessary note: do not expect to find any of the core Arthurian legend characters here. Arthur does not make an appearance, nor does Merlin, Morgana, Mordred, Guinevere, Lancelot, or any other character you may be familiar with. The game does take place in the same world as the original Arthur game, but that is the extent of the Arthurian ties.
Once the player has completed all three missions for one character, they must then move to the other two and complete their missions. When all characters have completed their three missions, the player will then gain access to the 10th and final mission: a climactic battle bringing all three characters together to face down the big-bad.
That’s the game, in its entirety. NeoCore stripped out all of the turn-based strategy gameplay, and took away a huge amount of player choice and character progression. This is a controversial decision. Be warned, if you are looking for a deep 4X style strategy experience, this is not the game for you. May I suggest the original Arthur game, or one of the many Total War’s and their clones.
However, what the decision to take the focus away from the macro-strategy level allowed NeoCore to do was to focus on the text adventures and the RTS missions themselves, and deliver something more crafted than what we saw in the original Arthur game. The text adventures are generally well written, each following a different story for each character, and each posing a number of different choices to the player.
As in the original game, the player’s decisions in each mission’s text adventure will effect which units they have access to in the corresponding mission, and certain choices may allow characters to gain abilities and artifacts. However, because there is no empire-building and army construction in the game, these choices have much greater impact. The army you are given is the one you have to use, there is no altering it except through how you played through the text-quest. Messing up there can make some of the missions exponentially more difficult.
Likewise, the RTS missions themselves are more interesting than the typical missions we saw in the first game. For one, they are almost never limited to putting two armies on the field and waiting until one of them wins. Rather, most of the missions will have special objectives or modifiers. The game often likes to give the player only a handful of units, and task them with defeating a much greater opponent, mostly through the use of creative gameplay and unique objects in the levels. For instance, in one level you must tactically flee through the woods, pursued by a much larger opposing force, and to win you must strategically ignite streams of oil littered throughout the level. Simply wait for your opponent to start crossing them and burn them to death. In another level, you must defend three bridges for a specific amount of time, but one of them is rigged to drop at your command. Each level has its own hook, and each was interesting to play.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
So, that is the good news: the game is actually fun, features some new mission mechanics, and is a nice addition for fans of the first game while they are waiting for the second. Here’s the bad news: virtually no technical improvements are evident in Fallen Champions. Fans hoping to score a first look at the updated engine and graphics of King Arthur 2 are going to be sorely disappointed: Fallen Champions looks and plays exactly like its 2009 predecessor.
It’s pretty evident that NeoCore took the quick and dirty route here, essentially releasing a stand-alone expansion pack based on their tested and existing technology. It’s disappointing as that technology has some significant flaws, such as frame rate issues, dropped commands, and a general unwillingness to let players move units where they want for no apparent reason. The graphics, while passable at the highest settings, are nowhere near what they should be for a game released in late 2011, and nowhere near what the trailers indicate King Arthur 2 will look like. For something NeoCore is selling as a new game, the lack of any technical improvements is a significant shortcoming.
Further, the game feels tacked together. There are virtually no cinematics for the storyline, no unique voiceovers beyond the narrator, and no significantly new unit skills or types. While the text adventures are fun to play and unique for the characters, there are only a few of them, and the stories never feel fully fleshed out. The ending is a great example of this shortcoming: once you defeat the big-bad, nothing happens. You get a short text box saying how the champions won and mysteriously disappeared, and then you get a notice that “You Won!” with the option to quit or load a new game.
For a game that supposedly is meant to bridge stories, not a lot of storytelling actually goes on, and ultimately what story is told is pretty meager.
Finally, and this won’t be a problem for everyone, but the game is difficult. Even on the lower difficulty settings, some players will get frustrated with certain missions (specifically one involving three bridges). Seasoned Arthur/Total War players will likely be fine, but newcomers should be forewarned.
Waiting For The Once And Future King
In the end, this game is not the second coming of Arthur, but it was not meant to be. For $10, players get from 5-6 hours of gameplay, spread across 10 unique and interesting missions. They also get a three year old engine, no turn based strategy gameplay, and a game held together by the digital equivalent of spit and paste. As such, my recommendation must be limited: if you played the original Arthur and enjoyed it, this may be $10 well spent while you wait for Arthur 2. If you are new to the series, I cannot recommend Fallen Champions, you are much better off getting The King Arthur Collection for $30, which includes the original game and four pieces of DLC.
Here’s hoping NeoCore had their Z-team on this one, and their top guys are still working hard to make Arthur 2 live up to its considerable potential.