A game with with a title like that is bound to have some identity issues, or at least a clutter of features and ideas. King Arthur doesn’t disappoint in this area: it really is a role playing game, a wargame, and a game about King Arthur. While all of that sounds rather interesting (Arthurian legend being rather fresh territory for any video game, and most strategy games needing as much role playing as they can get), the game actually combines them in interesting and fun ways. This isn’t a laborious Frankenstein’s monster with each gameplay element carefully and tiredly regurgitated. It’s its own brand of game, and it’s never less than inventive.
The story follows King Arthur as he pulls the Sword from the Stone. Of course, when Arthur does this, he opens our world up to invasion and interference from magical, mystical, sometimes religious forces. As a result, British history as we know it will never be the same, what with the living, breathing faeries, ogres, and other fantastical creatures now roaming the British Isles.
Faced with a divided kingdom and newly marshaled set of demonic and magical forces, you, as Arthur, must unite Britain and win the land back for Britons, whatever the cost. Unfortunately in grand fantasy video game tradition, you begin by progressing through a long, drawn-out tutorial. Here, you learn the basics of combat, recruitment, questing, and allegiance-making. While the strategy elements are presented in the driest and most straightforward of ways (thankfully, considering the game is finicky and difficult for even strategy fans), the leveling, knight-recruiting, and questing mechanics are a little trickier to master.
Questing is handled by what is a mixture of frustrating, fun, and charming interface mechanics. When one of your knights (your heroes) activates a quest, he (for only men may be knights in this world and only ladies may marry them) enters into a text-based self-contained scenario. Here, he makes decisions based on whatever moral compass that you choose to follow, and his options are dictated by his skills and your desires. Thus, when questing to discover the power and whereabouts of the mystical Lady of the Lake, your chosen hero will be asked to make many difficult, choose your own adventure-style decisions. Upon discovering a band of bedraggled knights, do you pay them to join your army, press them into service, or abandon them?
All decisions affect several key attributes of your hero. Favoring the old ways (druids, mystical water-bound ladies, and other old powers of Britannia) will increase your favor and standing with that faction (just as you can easily make friends with the followers of Jesus Christ). You can also play Arthur (and his knights) as good or tyrannical figures. While I chose to play what I thought to be the most historically appropriate brand of Arthur (a good and just king who always favored the Old, pagan ways), players can do what they please.
During these missions, players can also engage in violence, theft, intrigue, diplomacy, and other exciting Kingly machinations. All acts are governed by the leading hero’s skills (offense, loyalty, honor, magic, etc.), and tricky decisions will also net you money, experience, and power (or tax your troops’ loyalty if you make bad decisions). For all its text-based presentation, it is a complicated system, and the first couple of quests that you complete may not sell you on their importance even if they affect your world noticeably. As you progress, however, you will come to realize that playing these quests properly is the key to victory, just as much as winning major skirmishes and battles.
This is where King Arthur’s greatest failing can be found: it is incredibly obtuse and frustrating. At almost every turn, you will be confronted with decisions whose outcomes are purposefully or mistakenly made terribly unclear, including incredibly hard battles and a grand strategic game that does as little as possible to ease you into its truly harsh world. It’s a strange critique to level at the game: there is a tutorial explanation for almost every single pane, menu, and window, and the game painstakingly introduces you to each new concept and mechanic as it becomes available to you.
Introduction and summation do not lead to comprehension, though, especially when the connections between all of these options and demands (really, the most important parts of gameplay) are completely ignored. The game never tells me that I should be careful with my money and my food, and I should. I encountered many quests where both would have made my life easier. Likewise, the game allows you (in the early sections) to horribly hobble your fighting force. If I hadn’t gone back and read forum posts, I would have no idea how to get past the early stages of the game. To make matters worse, the RPG-tinged RTS battles are grand (and, like the rest of the game, beautiful and pleasingly Celtic), but they are also overly hard. Archers are better than absolutely anything else out there (even after a recent patch). There is even an option to weaken all archers in the game, so great is the imbalance created by these units.
King Arthur is an impressive accomplishment on almost all fronts. It melds wonderful retro text quests and skill-based challenges with some great leveling and item-collecting mechanics, and it really oozes atmosphere from its sometimes soft rock pseudo Celtic score to its lush landscapes. However, every time that you try to immerse yourself in the game, it pulls you out by killing you or hamstringing your campaign for reasons you couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Patches may help, but even then, the game needs a major overhaul from a readability and comprehensibility standpoint. It’s fun, beautiful, and clever, but it’s difficult to enjoy unless you really work at it. If you can stomach its shortcomings (and school yourself in its ways as quickly as possible), King Arthur is a unique and rewarding game.