By Will Whitehurst / September 12th, 2013
|Title: Kingdoms Fall
Publisher/Developer: Last Life Games
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Age Rating: 9+
Kingdoms Fall had me a little bit skeptical at first. The beautiful dark fantasy art on the app icon and title screen might suggest otherwise, but the trailer for this indie iOS title paints it as the closest thing the platform has to Zelda. It promises action, adventure and puzzles galore, mixed with a story that promises all sorts of intrigue. Pretty lofty and ambitious for an iOS game, I must say, but it lives up to the hype. Like any rare gems, Kingdoms Fall is hard, rough and unpolished, yet pretty and elegant. In other words: this little throwback, despite its flaws, is great for iDevice owners who want something outside of the iOS platform’s casual norms.
In Kingdoms Fall, you start out by choosing the gender of your protagonist, and then the gameplay takes center stage alongside a rather basic story. Your kingdom is under attack by the evil Necromancer King’s armies, and you must kill the generals guarding the rival king’s castle with powerful magic, then dispose of the king in a similar fashion. Along the way, you do the usual puzzle-solving and enemy-slaying, assisted by items such as a shield, bombs, a boomerang, a wand, a magical ring, running shoes and a grappling hook. Sounds about right. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the kingdom’s prince or princess, as you’re going to have to fight and solve puzzles until the bitter end.
With Kingdoms Fall, Last Life has definitely stuck to the 16-bit aesthetics in the graphical department. The aforementioned dark fantasy art on the title screen and app icon may suggest otherwise, but these graphics are strictly retro. They’re beautifully done, I might add, but with some shades of RPG Maker thrown in with the character designs and some of the locales. In other words, Kingdoms Fall certainly looks the part, and the environments have their own sense of detail. You venture through deserts, pirate ships, caves, mines, and even a lake of fire. For all intents and purposes, this game simply looks fantastic.
One way that Kingdoms Fall differs from its 16-bit brethren is in its fully orchestrated music. The themes do get somewhat repetitive and are rather short, but they have their fair share of lush instrumentation. I wouldn’t call the music in this game earth-shattering, yet some of the themes have an epic quality to them that perfectly matches the area they’re played in. Unfortunately, the sound effects occasionally leave much to be desired, with plenty of generic sword slashes and shield clinks. But then, they sound a tad more realistic than those featured in an SNES title, so that’s one definition of progress.
On the other hand, the gameplay in Kingdoms Fall is, as mentioned before, straight-up retro Zelda by another name. There is much puzzle-solving, enemy-killing and item-grabbing here. While the puzzles start out as typical floor spikes and pressure plates, they get progressively more difficult beyond this. Some of them, including one of the pressure plates in the pirate level, proved to be a little agonizing. Luckily, when you play through the game, the special items are put to excellent use in every segment, and the later dungeons can even require you to use three or four in the same dungeon to survive. The enemies are pretty basic, but there is some good variety here, and most of them will stop at nothing to kill you. Slime blobs charge at you, orcs swing swords, giant frogs spew bile, tiny rats come at you, and, of course, the bosses are absolutely menacing. And one thing that all of these enemies have in common: you can block a good majority of their attacks with your shield. A lot of the enemies in this game fire cheap shots, especially the bosses, so this is a pretty good mechanic. Keep that one thing in mind when you’re fighting an enemy, and you should definitely be fine.
Kingdoms Fall does offer some breaks in between the hardcore puzzle-solving. You can talk to NPCs, who drop quite a few hints and speak some generic but well-meaning dialogue that fits well with the game’s tone. There’s an in-game store which sells things such as potions, bombs, and a coveted bow and arrow. That item is overpriced, yes, but boy, is it useful. And, on the subject of attaining rup – I mean gems to buy stuff, it’s actually fairly easy to do so by such means as killing enemies or opening up treasure chests. You can even attain the grappling hook by way of a referral code that you give to a friend.
The controls and difficulty curve are the only major gripes I have with Kingdoms Fall, but they hampered my full enjoyment of it, and will certainly limit its audience. Even with the control update applied as of this writing, the touch joystick can still be a bit wonky at times, and the four buttons for the items you equip could be bigger. In Kingdoms Fall, Last Life Games implements a new riff on the typical D-pad control scheme, where you can control your character by simply dragging your finger in the right direction. This is quite intuitive, but it presents two problems of note: one, your character moves extremely slowly; and two, the movement involved in things such as avoiding attacks, talking to NPCs or walking across bridges is precise to a fault, and the controls simply aren’t built for that kind of precision.
As for the difficulty, it’s extremely high and thrown at you right from the start. Of course, common sense comes in – use the items that you need, especially your shield – but it’s no help when the buttons for them sometimes can’t register your presses and your attacks have to be absolutely exact. And it doesn’t stop there: not only do you start over back at the beginning of each stage, regardless of whether or not you’re near a boss fight, but the game’s Game Over screen dissolves in at an extremely slow rate. I can definitely take starting back from the beginning, seeing as how you earn your way to the powerful bosses, but the Game Over screen’s slow dissolve is something that made me quite angry after several deaths. To be fair, however, a lot of old NES and SNES titles, including old Zeldas, have had similar difficulty flaws. And Kingdoms Fall, like those games, pressures you to aim high, suck it up and relish the difficulty. Good enough for me.
While it has its fair share of problems, Kingdoms Fall is pretty much the only iOS game of its kind. In terms of scope, exploration, design and obvious nods to the retro gaming aesthetic, you can’t find anything quite like this on the App Store. For $1.99, there is plenty of fun to be had here—it took me about five hours to complete the game in its entirety, which is extremely good for an iOS game, and the numerous items and Game Center trophy support can add to the replay value for people who give this game time. If you’re a Zelda fan who owns an iDevice and is looking for a hardcore retro experience, this is perfect for you. With that said, Last Life Games has made quite a fine iOS debut in Kingdoms Fall, and I can’t wait to see what this indie developer can come up with next.
Review copy supplied by publisher. This review was written based on the game as played on an iPhone 5 running iOS 6.1.4.
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