Neocore’s Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade and Neocore’s King Arthur: The Role Playing Wargame are very similar to each other. They are both alternatives to the hefty Total War series, they both dress their period RTS combat in period “authentic” music and art, and they’re both a bit rough around the edges.
Lionheart takes place in Jerusalem and the countryside and cities around Jerusalem. There are two campaigns: one focuses on the battles fought by Richard and his Crusading armies, the other on Saladin and his fight to retake Jerusalem. Supposedly, the “Saracen” campaign (as Saladin’s is called) is more difficult (and it also takes place years after Richard’s campaign), and the game thus recommends that players play as Saladin only after stepping into Richard’s shoes. Saladin’s campaign is actually much less complicated than Richard’s, thanks to the two completely different overarching upgrade and reward systems that govern each campaign.
As Richard, I moved inland, taking various enemy holdings, assaulting cities, and learning the ropes of Lionheart’s battle system. The combat in the two campaigns is identical (and both are similar to Arthur’s battles). Before combat, players can get the lay of the land, set up troops, siege towers, and war machines to their liking and also arrange formations. Once play has started, combat can still be paused at any time. It’s a feature I used regularly: units can be lost (or routed) in a matter of seconds, so constant “pause updates” are necessary to hold the line.
Combat will be familiar to veterans of the Total War and King Arthur franchises; it’s easy to learn and hard to master. Units have important weaknesses and strengths. Pikemen are the toughest units in the game, and (until units sporting powerful abilities and upgrades grace the screen) in the early game, they rule the battlefield. Units come with a set number of bonuses and weaknesses (archers hidden in trees are deadly, swordsman caught out in the open will fold quickly, etc.), but each unit can level up and upgrade their skills (or purchase new ones), assuming that they survive each battle.
It’s good that Lionheart’s upgrade scheme is a deep one. The game isn’t free with money, and without money, I found myself constantly scrounging for units and armor. It’s an effective way of getting the player’s attention. I was certainly paying attention after losing three units in the first battle and coming out “victorious” with barely enough money to buy a new set of weak archers.
There are three ways to combat the dearth of money and units in Lionheart. Play better, upgrade smartly, and pick a side. Despite the fact that my Crusade boasts armies from many nations, I had to side with one of four factions every time that I picked a battle plan. Sometimes the Holy Roman Emperor will want you to pick up a supply of weapons, while the Pope will want you to save a band of pilgrims. Not all missions provide such choices (and when they are provided, they mostly changed the area of the map that I fought over and nothing more), but the different paths are prevalent enough to make standard missions just a bit more interesting. Helpfully, battles are never random, as they were in Arthur. Instead, each mission takes place in a carefully designed arena. Sometimes I’d be attacking or defending a castle; other times I’d hide my units in the forest and ambush an approaching army. While there are still capture points that bestow bonuses to their controllers, it’s not the same mad rush to capture and hold all points that hampered Arthur’s combat. Every combat encounter is uniquely structured (unlike Arthur’s randomized battlefields), which stops the game from getting boring.
Unfortunately, the political posturing and resultant in-game strategy that make Richard’s campaign exciting are nonexistent in Saladin’s campaign. Instead, I used a simple upgrade tree to buy global bonuses or new units for my army. It’s certainly less fussy and easier to comprehend as a system, but it’s also less fun. I’d much rather play the Great Game than buy a new shield wall ability (especially if playing that Game lets me buy a similar ability).
As with Arthur, Neocore has done its best to make Lionheart “feel” like it’s set in the Holy Land. The music, full of wailing “Eastern” instruments and guitar riffs, sounds like it was pulled from a Ridley Scott movie. The landscape is dusty and lush by turns, and the units certainly look their part. It’s all a bit drab, stripped of the wildly fluctuating colors that Arthur’s setting and magic system provided. Laying siege to castles is also a dull affair. There’s little to do tactically besides throw rocks at the walls and defend against counter attacks. Lionheart would really benefit from a more complicated siege system.
Lionheart is also plagued by some truly inexcusable bugs. I would randomly get kicked out into the desktop and was in fact prevented from completing the European campaign because my game continually crashed out of that campaign’s penultimate battle. It’s incredibly frustrating to lose anywhere from forty five minutes to an hour and a half of hard fighting. It’s demoralizing, and it sets me up for an hour or so of the exact same battle tactics (assuming that I was winning). Games with hour long, no save missions cannot afford to have issues like this.
Lionheart is a better game, play-wise, than Arthur. The combat scenarios are actually varied, the political machinations are fun and add depth to the combat, and the game is chary enough with its supplies and rewards that players have to strategize and play carefully and well. It’s also a bit drab visually, and anything having to do with cities (especially combat inside city walls) is excruciatingly boring. I’m excited to see what direction Neocore takes their strategy games in next. Hopefully, they’ll once again learn from their mistakes and successes. Arthur is a solid, unassuming strategy game. It’s challenging and fun, for the most part, even if it gets bogged down in certain spots. Fans of Neocore’s strategy games (and Total War games) are in for a well designed treat, as are newcomers to the genre. Just be ready for a few snags and crashes along the way.