King’s Bounty II is a wildly ambitious title. Particularly on Nintendo Switch. It has the world size and scale of a Witcher 3, with a complex tactical battle system that aims to modernise the Heroes of Might & Magic formula. It offers a world filled with factions, moral choices, side quests and exotic locations to explore. After the opening hour or so in which you’re restricted to a relatively small tutorial area, you’re dropped in a map that is absolutely filled with icons to chase around. And yet all of this was made for a tiny fraction of the budget that an Assassin’s Creed game would be made for.
Does it have bugs? Yeah. I had to load a few saves along the way. Is it the most refined experience? No. The cut scenes are cinematic in the way that Edward D. Wood filmmaking was, and bless their souls, they tried, but the voice actors should probably look for different jobs. But here’s the thing: the plus side to the “Eurojank” titles is that the developers can actually produce their vision, and that is certainly the case here. Whether it’s Spiders’ Greedfall or The Technomancer, Piranha Bytes’ Risen, Zuxxez Entertainment’s Two Worlds, or TaleWorlds’ Mount & Blade, “Eurojank” games have a soul and creative differentiation that AAA-blockbusters shine away into homogenisation. The blockbusters need to appeal to everyone. The “Eurojanks” only need to appeal to a specific audience. I much prefer that.
King’s Bounty II kicks off in the same way that Elder Scrolls titles do; you’re a prisoner and then, immediately, you’re not. Here you’ve got three different protagonist character choices, and they all have slightly different backstories, but the end result of this little introduction is the same for each; they are each given a couple of recruits to command, a few stray battle dogs, and a horse, and told to leg it on out of there. During the course of this tutorial, set in the chilly north, you’ll do a side quest for a dancing wizard-skeleton (no, seriously, the animation for the undead in this game is exquisite), add a couple of ghouls and warrior-skeletons to your force, optionally take down a witch, and then fight a climatic intro battle against a horde of marauders, from which a dragon saves you. You’re dropped in the main capital city, then, told to go figure out what’s going on, and then you’re left to your own devices.
It’s blissfully pulp fantasy stuff, and the developers know that what they’re working with never goes beyond a really good Dungeons & Dragons adventure module. They roll with it, and once you settle into the “jank”, the pulp fantasy experience is a lot of fun. Most quests involve some kind of moral decision, allowing you to align yourself equally with the knights in shining armour or the undead, the dwarves or the forces of the wilderness. And in fairness to the developers, while there are some tropsey fetch quests (always told with a wink and a glee, like the time you need to track down a bunch of green-featured chickens in a fetch quest that is more self-aware parody than genuine quest), most of the little narrative arcs are some kind of genuine attempt to build character and deliver a Witcher-like vignette within the context of the broader world.
It is worth noting that the pathfinding and the journal system is irritating in the extreme. For just one common example of unhelpful the navigation systems could be, there were times that I could have sworn that a quest had bugged out because the quest marker was telling me that I was at the destination only for nothing to happen… only for me to discover that I needed to find a way above or below ground. Despite that, however, I did enjoy completing a lot of quests in King’s Bounty II, both main and optional, because I found travelling around the place to be enjoyable. The Switch version suffers from texture pop-in and a shuddering frame rate at times, but the vision for the world is delightful pulp fantasy stuff and, as I played on, that was what was important to my overall impression of the game.
For all the above, though, it’s the combat that really makes King’s Bounty II. Rather than fight battles as your protagonist, he or she actually stands back directing the action and casting the spells. It’s the units that you recruit that fight the battles, and there are a lot of them to choose between. You can only take a handful of units into battle, and you need to be careful that the units belong to compatible factions as much as possible (the knights from the “order” faction don’t fight so well alongside undead or savage bears), but as you progress on your quest you’ll end up with a vibrant army to choose between. These units all become more powerful with experience, too, and by the end of the quest you’ll feel like you’re a genuinely threatening general with a massive, well-equipped force at your beck and call.
Battle plays out in small arenas, broken up into hexagons. Units all have unique special abilities, and you can further support your allies (or hinder your opponents) with magic that you cast directly, though you need to be careful, because you only get one spell per turn. Finally, you can also improve your own character with equipment and loot, and this will boost the strength of your fighting forces. There are a lot of moving parts in this combat system, and it does give you a lot of flexibility to come up with your own strategies and tactics. Most importantly, it never gets old, despite King’s Bounty II having a substantially lengthy campaign that involves a lot of combat.
My one big issue with King’s Bounty II is something that seems to be universal as far as “Eurojank” RPGs go; the difficulty spikes can be obscene, and you don’t necessarily know when you’ve wandered into one. The game doesn’t feature random encounters, but it loves placing enemy battles that are well beyond your capabilities between yourself and your destination, with no way around them. More than a few times I got a good way through a quest, only to have to abandon it until much later because I’d hit a wall that I wasn’t passing through in the immediate term. This issue really is common to these less refined RPGs, and I can only imagine just how much work it would be to balance out that much complexity over such a large world, filled with so many quests, so it’s not something I ever begrudge these developers, but I mention it here because I know it’s a sticking point that blocks some other people out.
King’s Bounty II is excellent, and much like The Witcher 3, having this thing on the Switch, portable, and playable wherever is very much worth dealing with the drop in visual fidelity. Hugely expansive in scope, and deeply traditional as a fantasy RPG, for fans of fantasy RPGs, King’s Bounty II is a rough gem in so many ways, and the lack of budget compared to what the big guns can achieve is evident at every step. Ultimately, however, that tactical combat system is impossible to put down.
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