Hybrid strategy/role-playing games have been around for many, many years, but real-time strategy and role-playing games are fairly new combinations. These two genres, when combined, fuse the frantic tension of RTS gaming with the character attachment and story development you get from role-playing games. Korean developer Phantagram is the latest to test the waters in this area with its hybrid game Kingdom Under Fire, where a rich, hero-driven storyline meets frantic real-time strategy. SSG's Warlords: Battlecry tested these waters earlier this year, and if you take that game and add a pinch of Diablo II and Baldur's Gate, you might get something approaching Kingdom Under Fire.
Kingdom Under Fire takes place on the continent of Bersiah and chronicles the struggle between the elves and humans of the Race of Light and the orcs and ogres of the Race of Darkness. There are seven major heroes: three from the Race of Light and four from the Race of Darkness. Curian, Keithr, and Moonlight form the Light contingent. Curian is an orphan who became a renowned warrior, while Keithr is a legendary knight who founded the nation of Azillia and has returned to protect Bersiah from the terror of Darkness. Moonlight is one of history's most famous and powerful magicians. Together, these three comrades will form the backbone of the Race of Light's resistance to the dark hordes.
The Race of Darkness is led by Rick Blood, a ruthless conqueror who commands several heroes by virtue of having vanquished them in battle. One of these is Likuku the Ogre, who desires to rule the continent of Bersiah according to a "survival of the fittest" doctrine (with himself undoubtedly being the fittest). Amaruak is a lich who is counted among Rick Blood's favorites, while Richter Rosenheim is an ancient vampire lord who distrusts Amaruak and despises Likuku. The motivations of each of the heroes influence the direction of the campaign, and there are places in the various scenarios where these competing desires and ambitions play out to tell the story of Bersiah and the war between the races. Thanks to the competition between the main characters, the story is bound to take twists when you least expect it. In addition, Kingdom Under Fire has a cast of subheroes to flesh out the story and provide contrast to the main characters.
In keeping with the conventions of the real-time strategy genre, Kingdom Under Fire is based on gathering resources, building structures, and using them to produce units. These resources are gold, iron, mana, and food, and the traditional peasant units harvest them. All the familiar RTS devices form the basis of the game, and you'll be able to build extensive bases, upgrade structures, and train units. Most of the units produced have special abilities, such as the lich's black plague spell or the ability of vampires to cloak themselves. Because the heroes play such an important role, there is the additional consideration of items like armor, weapons, and potions and other magic artifacts. Only heroes can wield these, but their use can turn the tide of battle.
The RPG portion of Kingdom Under Fire contains hints of such popular games as Diablo II and Baldur's Gate. This part of the game can include up to three characters and is an integral part of the progress of the various campaigns. In between various missions, the story will be told through RPG segments where the focus will shift from tactical RTS battles to the exploits of the heroes who are at the heart of Kingdom Under Fire.
One RPG scenario begins with Curian, Keithr, and Moonlight entering Castle Kenderlief. They've been sent on a mission by King Gernot to enlist the help of Lord Demetrich in the war against the orcs. The entrance to the castle is scripted, and once inside, the party is quickly led to the throne room where Demetrich awaits his guests. It quickly becomes clear that Demetrich isn't interested in this particular war, and when news arrives that Lord Gernot's troops are actually marching on the castle itself, Lord Demetrich gives the orders to kill the emissaries. At this point, the game turns from scripted plot to wide-open play, as Lord Demetrich's guards bar the way to prevent escape and then proceed to attack.
From this point on, gameplay becomes a question of survival and proceeds very much like in Diablo II: Click on your target and attack until dead. The game mechanics are actually closer to Baldur's Gate in this regard, since once you give the order to attack a target, your character will continue to do so until the target is destroyed. There are other parallels to Diablo II. Each character has a health bar and a mana bar, and these can be replenished with red and blue potions just as in Diablo 2. These can be found in various rooms of the castle after you conquer particularly dangerous monsters. Castle guards and monsters of uncertain origin will pop up to bar the way, and the adventure turns into a regular old-fashioned dungeon crawl. The graphics are very similar to those in Diablo II in their 2D appearance and general manner of presentation, and the hallways, doors, and floors combine to create an effect that resembles Blizzard's game quite closely.
While in the RPG setting, the heroes have the same special abilities as they have in the single-player campaign scenarios. These are crucial to success in the RPG segment, as some of the monsters can be very tough. The whole manner of play is quite reminiscent of the Black Isle role-playing games because you have different types of characters working together in a real-time environment with unique skills. Just as in other role-playing games, the weaker members need to be protected in hand-to-hand combat, and you'll find yourself leading with your fighters and using your magician to support from the rear. As you explore the environments in the RPG missions, you'll have to find ways to proceed past locked doors and eventually emerge from the labyrinth into which you've been cast.
The role-playing interludes aren't just for the sake of varying the gameplay, either. If you're successful in your quest, your heroes will find items they can carry through to subsequent missions in the main campaign game, and this will increase your capabilities in that area considerably. In this way, the RPG segments are really a continuation of the larger struggle on a more personal level.
Kingdom Under Fire clearly intends to use this mixture of role-playing and strategy to carry the campaign story along, and elements of the RPG segment are integrated into the single-player missions. For example, in one scenario, Rick Blood is about to complete the altar of destruction, which will endow the Race of Darkness with unstoppable power. While Rick oversees the building of the temple, it's up to Richter to line up a defense and fight a holding action. This is initially the objective of the scenario. However, after repulsing the initial assault, you'll suddenly find that your objective has changed from a defensive mission to an offensive one: Deep in the midst of the enemy camp, Amaruak is trapped. All of a sudden, your mission has changed. Instead of defending against an all-out assault, you're now in charge of leading one, and it's up to Richter and Likuku to cross most of the map, invade the enemy's stronghold, and rescue their stranded comrade. This uncertainty requires that you have an open-ended, flexible play style, as concentration on a static defense (or too much offense) can quickly lead to defeat when you're asked to shift gears to meet unforeseen mission objectives.
Kingdom Under Fire frequently incorporates scripted events directly into the campaign missions so that the beginning or middle of a scenario might involve units performing actions before you take control of them. One scenario has Curian and a companion en route to a town when the town is suddenly set upon by orcs. The orcs get a head start until a passing knight alerts Curian to the danger. This can also happen in the middle of a mission in response to some trigger, and toward the end of the campaigns, the game's storylines will play out to a large extent through such in-game animations. The graphics in Kingdom Under Fire are entirely 2D and have a hand-drawn look similar to that found in Disciple: Sacred Lands.
Gameplay in Kingdom Under Fire is veryfast, and with the large numbers of units and large maps, it can become downright crazy. If you enjoy a nonstop game pace that places a premium on fast reaction times, then you will like Kingdom Under Fire. The beta build we previewed was rather jerky at times, but when this is corrected, for the final release, the game should move along at lightning speed. The need to protect heroes from sudden counterattacks while still using them on the attack to press your advantage makes Kingdom Under Fire a tremendous challenge. One interesting feature is the ability to designate leader units, which can use formation orders to deploy the units under their command. Interface control will be a key point in getting the most out of your units in this game.
Kingdom Under Fire will incorporate a skirmish mode as well as the campaign, and in addition, the game will be playable on Wargate, Phantagram's exclusive Kingdom Under Fire server, and via LAN. Kingdom Under Fire should be out within the next month, so if you're in the mood for a mix of RTS and role-playing, this is a game you should keep your eyes on.