Monday, July 25, 2011

King's Bounty Reboots

There is a certain critically acclaimed, publicly tolerated subgenre of gaming which goes by the awkward portmanteau "Metroidvania." Based on the Metroid series of games, with an assist from a variation on Castlevania starting with Symphony of the Night, this subgenre focuses nominally on exploration and freedom. The idea is that you appear to have total freedom to explore, but difficulty and items which unlock areas - we'll call them "keys" but they can be more varied than that, like double-jumps or new spells - appear to open new areas.

In the Metroidvania style of gaming, these things tend to be fairly rigid. You explore for a while, and may note several obvious obstacles - this block clearly needs a new type of bomb, that door requires a key you don't have. There are a handful of options which are available to you, one or two of which expand the number of options. Go here, get the key, go there, get the double-jump. It's not quite fully user-driven and emergent, but it's not the linear experience that most games utilize. It is designer-created and fairly rigid, but offers both a small amount of choice but a large feeling of satisfaction.

Perhaps the most interesting and usually successful part of the 2008 King's Bounty remake, and its expansion/sequel Armored Princess, are that it adapts these Metroidvania concepts. However, since it does so in a strategy/RPG style instead of the platformer/RPG style of Castlevania, it invokes a similar feeling despite using very different mechanics. In many ways, it's better: King's Bounty only rarely uses keys, instead, it lets you choose your path by giving you information about potential opponents. It tells you what kind of enemies are in your way, as well as their strength relative to yours, allowing you to judge whether you're up for taking them on.

The gameplay, then, works like this: you get a few quests, which point you in the right direction to travel. In your way are several wandering or static enemies, which can be scouted. You can find multiple different paths, or do entirely different quests in a different area of the map, until you go up in levels, can hire more troops, and suddenly the enemies which had been rated as "Strong" are "Slightly Weaker" and can be cleared out, leading to more levels, more money, and so on.

The "Metroidvania" moniker is insufficient for describing this model, though it's closer than just about anything else to describe King's Bounty. I propose "organic exploration". It's not quite emergent narrative - though it's close - but it has the feeling of letting your knowledge of the map and game slowly expand with your character's power. It's something a little bit magical, like the aim of RPGs and many other games, but rarely ever actually achieved so directly.

With King's Bounty organic exploration comes problems, though. It's possible to fail. Not fail as in "you have to reload your last saved game". Fail as in "your strategy has failed. Restart the game." You can, quite easily, work yourself into a corner where you don't have enough money to recruit troops to replace the ones you just lost. But this is the flip-side to the organic exploration. The thrill of expansion is useless if it's not also balanced by the thrill of defeat.

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