Phantagram has created their latest RTS in true fantasy form. Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes, the prequel to the critically acclaimed Kingdom Under Fire: Crusaders, is set during the Encablossa War in the land of Bersia. The player chooses to take control of one of seven heroes in a war between ?good? humans and the ?evil? Dark Legion, which is made up of dark elves, ogres, and half-vampires. The humans are led by Rupert (a giant with an even bigger war-hammer), Ellen (a beautiful bow-slinger with an embarrassing secret), and Walter (a warrior leading with iron mace and shield in hand). Many fans of Crusaders may recognize Rupert and Ellen, who were support characters in the game. The Dark Legion side has four playable characters as well. The sword-wielding Dark Elf Cirith, an iron chain swinging half-vampire named Morene, the half-vampire Leinhart (who, like Cirith, also has his own sword) and Urukubarr, a massive ogre whose weapon of choice is his own bare hands.
All in all, the game has 50 separate missions to play, though not all of them are pertinent to the storyline. Many of the missions are side-quests that are completely irrelevant to the plot, though they do come in handy while trying to level-up your troops and hero. Each campaign is assigned a difficulty rating, ranging from Easy to Hell. At first, only three of the seven heroes are available ? Ellen and Walter for the humans and Leinhardt for the Dark Legion. Each completion of a storyline for a character will unlock another campaign for another hero, with Urukubarr of the Dark Legion being the last. The reasoning behind this system is that if a player cannot complete a particular campaign, then the chances are good that they won?t fair much better on the campaign that follows it.
Now, with the basics out of the way, it?s time to enter bitch mode! First off, in the graphics area, this game excels during the real-time gameplay. The graphics of the soldiers are nice and smooth. A slight drop in frame-rate occasionally occurs, but only when the battlefield is littered with units. The battlefields themselves are nicely designed, with an abundance of forests, lakes, and mountains. The landscape is actually difficult to see most of the time as it is mostly covered with a fog, which acts as a ?fog of war.? This is a major downside, for it really covers up what could potentially be a beautifully designed environment. Unfortunately, once one ventures outside the real-time realm, all hell breaks loose. The cinematics are poorly presented. I?m sorry Phantagram, but static shots of characters with a rotating camera are hardly going to cut it.
As for the audio, don?t even get me started on the voice acting. Oh, you really want to know? Well, this might be the most monotone, non-emotional, dull, poorly translated, driest script I have ever heard in a game?EVER! Scattered throughout the game are grammatical errors, due mostly to poor translation from Korean to English. Repetitive command shouts from the unit leaders become unbearable. Generic commands are shouted out after every order that is issued?EVERY ORDER! After the 100th ?Move Out,? I was more than half-tempted to stab the speech comprehension section of my brain with a pencil in an attempt to stop the pain! The music, though exhilarating and exciting at first, becomes very repetitive and annoying after only a few hours of gameplay. Even the most hardcore of metal fans can only take so much of the same guitar and drum rock-outs in one sitting. Warning: No beautiful orchestral soundtracks found here! The sound effects are nothing special. The game is filled with war sounds including explosions, sword clashes, and the occasional death grunt. In short, the mute button (either in the game or on your TV, your preference) will be your best friend!
The gameplay can only be described one way: chaotic. When you begin the game, you are thrown in with basically no tutorial whatsoever. Novices to the real-time strategy genre may have some problems adapting to handling all aspects of the game at once, at least initially. Proficiency in troop movement, battlefield tactics, and special moves/magics are essential in this game. If you don?t have it at first, you better damn well learn it, or this game will become very frustrating for you. The system can be extremely nerve-racking. Sans the fact that it is much easier to play real-time strategies on a PC than on a console (thanks to a hot-key keyboard layout and an easily maneuverable mouse), the button layout/command system could be better. On more than one occasion we found ourselves fiddling with the controller to get our troops away from certain doom?never a good feeling.
At anyone one time, you can control your main unit as well as up to four other different units. Each type of unit is proficient in some areas and weak in others. For example, cavalry units are quite skilled at slaughtering infantry and archers, but fall quickly when faced off against spearmen. Bombers are invulnerable to all types of foot soldiers, except those who launch projectiles such as archers. I think you get the point. As mentioned earlier, the game is full of irrelevant side quests. During these side quests, you earn gold and experience points which can be used to upgrade troops, officers, and heroes. As the skill of an officer is increased, the troops he/she leads also gain the skill increase. As specific skill increases and level-ups are met, ?job? classifications for the troops can be changed. As melee skills increase, regular infantry can be upgraded to knights. Knights can be upgraded to cavalry with a skill in melee and horses or to a paladin with skill increases in magic and melee. The list goes on and on. Though each race has different ?jobs,? many of them are very similar and well balanced for the most part. In addition to the jobs, there are four creatable elemental units: ice maidens, earth golems, thunder rhinos, and flame wraiths. Though it takes a good amount of experience and skill to create one of these, you will find it is well worth the time and effort. Jobs and skills aside, experience and gold can also be used to upgrade the armor and weapons of your troops, officers, and hero.
When you reach the point that you have to throw strategy out the window, and you find yourself engaged in chaotic combat, the gameplay turns to hack and slash warfare. With dozens upon dozens of units attacking in battle royal melee, it can be difficult to focus on one target. Therefore, you can choose one of two options. First, you can simply repeatedly hit the X button, hitting everything in your path. Though the game does offer different combos and special moves, they are not effective enough to consider. As your second option, you can hunt down the enemy troop leader. The game is set up so that once the enemy leader falls, the entire enemy group is defeated. This doesn?t make too much sense to me. I guess it can be blamed on disorganization in the absence of leadership, but whatever, I?m not complaining. I prefer the second option. The leaders usually aren?t that much stronger than the troops he leads, and therefore, you can take down an entire enemy group with the defeat of one slightly more difficult enemy. Sounds like a good deal to me. The game sports some other features, including the assistance of a subordinate. With the simple click of the BLACK or WHITE button, a subordinate officer can launch a special attack, striking the enemies closest to you. This comes in handy when you are surrounded or being chased. As for the camera?junk. In trying to stay focused on your selected troops, it is extremely hard to look ahead of the group. The developers configured the controller so that the right analog stick ?controlled? the camera, but it is so difficult to use. Camera sucks, end of story. The environment comes into play during combat in the form of bonuses or penalties that are given out depending on how and where you attack, and with which unit you are attacking. For example, archers receive bonuses when they are attacking from the high ground, however, they incur penalties in close combat, when firing while facing the sun, or while firing to or from a forested area. In general, the controls, camera, and combat all need significant improvements. The only redeeming factor is the chaotic beauty of all the troops on the map at once in one great epic battle that would even give the likes of Aragorn chills.
As for replay value, it gains the highest score in this review. For players with XBOX Live, you can go online and battle with up to six players. Do you want to team up for a three-on-three battle, or just have one massive free-for-all? How about ignoring troops all together and doing three-on-three leader combat? It even offers a three-versus-CPU Invasion Mode. It?s totally up to you. Experience points are gained online which can be used to upgrade troops (like in single player offline) and carry over into the next match. As with all online play, a bit of lag can be expected when playing with up to six players, but this is a risk that is easily offset if you have a decent Internet connection. Custom games are also available offline if you don?t have an XBOX Live connection, in which you can play under one of the seven heroes from the game or under one of the four heroes from Crusaders. Lastly, the ability to play seven different story campaign modes greatly contributes to such a high replay value score.
Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is not for the casual gamer. High difficulty, poor construction, and annoying audio make this game a rental, at best, for all but the most hardcore of real-time strategy gamers. I personally feel this prequel was rushed, being released less than a year after its predecessor. This most definitely attributed to the game being sub-par as far as real-time strategy standards go. Next time Phantagram, don?t be in such a hurry. It isn?t easy to make a real-time strategy game for a console. Fix the controls, allow more freedom with the camera, get some better voice actors, and quit being so lazy with the cinematics. More time spent in these areas could have transformed this average game into something special.