Little King’s Story begins with a charming intro movie. A little boy follows some rats into a forest, finds a magical crown, and becomes king. The visuals are painterly and colorful, and the narration makes the story feel like a fairy tale. The movie perfectly captures the sense of whimsy that sets Little King’s Story apart from other games. It’s full of style and a surprising amount of substance, but it also has flaws in its fundamental gameplay that rear their head constantly over the dozens of hours that this adventure lasts.
Little King’s Story is built from a mix of genres. It’s a city building sim, an adventure game, and an RPG, all perfectly combined. The RPG elements feel like a natural extension of the adventuring, and the adventuring feels like a natural extension of the city building. Watching your kingdom grow is one of the great joys of the game: watching the wood bridge becomes a stone bridge, watching your castle growing from a hut into an actual castle, or watching the empty plains of a newly conquered land turning into a bustling community. Every time you build a building you’ll want to wander your kingdom and see how it’s changed. Once you’re done exploring your kingdom, you’ll want to explore the lands around you. This is also one of the high points of the game. You go out with your Royal Guard, which usually consists of a mix of citizens, soldiers, archers, farmers, lumberjacks, treasure hunters, architects, each of which is capable of specific actions. There’s a particular excitement when you first get a new job class, let’s say a miner, and can finally see what’s behind that big rock that you’ve passed several times. As you get further into the game, your Royal Guard grows, and you’re able to include a larger variety of classes in it, allowing you to go deeper and deeper into unexplored territory. The game is at its best when you’ve gone so far that there’s no easy way back to your kingdom, when it feels like it’s just you (and your Royal Guard) against whatever is ahead. But since you can transport back to your castle at any time, you’re not punished for this extreme exploration; it’s encouraged. Even if your Royal Guard is hurt or some men have been lost, the draw of discovery and the knowledge that you can back out any time will make you charge ahead every time.
Unfortunately, while you can transport to your castle any time, getting back to where you were isn’t so easy. There are cannons across the world that, once built, allow you to jump between them, but they’re not all that common so you’ll be doing a lot of back tracking especially when you start accepting quests that make you revisit the same places over and over again.
For all the fun that’s to be had exploring and building up your kingdom, the basics of the game are flawed. Combat is very Pikmin-esque. When you see an enemy, you lock on to it and send your citizens to attack. Like Pikmin, they even jump when sent out, making it appear that you’re throwing them into battle. But the targeting system is a hassle to deal with. The game auto locks onto a target, and you can’t switch between them without moving the king, so aiming requires you to constantly move forwards and backwards as you try to line up a shot and even then it becomes unlikely that the auto-targeting will let you select a different enemy. It gets worse when the game sends multiple enemies at you during some quests and many boss fights. It’s impossible to target the boss when surrounded by tiny enemies that aren’t particularly dangerous, just in they way. At these times, it feels like the game is taking advantage of its own poor targeting system in order to make enemies harder than they should be.
There are several other little annoyances throughout the game. Managing your Royal Guard is also a hassle, especially as it grows in number and classes. You’re constantly having to cycle through your Guard to get to the class you want, and if one of them gets stuck on an object, they’ll stay stuck and you’ll be down a man. Assigning a job to a citizen is more work than it should be. You must first go to your podium, then summon a carefree adult, recruit him or her to your Royal Guard, walk across your kingdom to the desired training building, and finally send the carefree adult inside. If you accidentally send in the wrong person, there’s no way to take it back and you’ve wasted money. There’s no auto-save or save-anywhere feature; you must return to the castle, and summon your servant every time that you want to save.
The bosses encapsulate everything that’s wonderful and wrong with Little King’s Story: they’re both wildly imaginative and needlessly frustrating. Battles with them begin with a cut scene in the same style as the intro movie, setting a tone of whimsy. No battle is ever just a straight and simple fight; there’s always a twist. Maybe it plays like a game of pinball or a quiz show, but it’s always unique. It’s also always frustrating. Even though the game gives you a general tip for each boss, it’s often too general, and you’ll spend your first several attempts just trying to figure out what, specifically, you’re supposed to do. Once you figure that out, actually doing it introduces a whole new host of frustrations, including trying to target the boss and manage your squad while under a time limit and surrounded by enemies. By the time the fight is finished, the whimsy is gone.
The problems with Little King’s Story are minor in the grand scheme of the game, but since they’re present in the basic mechanics, they’re problems you’ll have to deal with over and over again. They’re annoying but not enough to ruin the game. The fun of exploration and conquest are just enough to make up for the many flaws. I want to keep conquering, I want to keep questing, and I want to keep playing.