King Arthur - The Role-playing Wargame had surprise on its side when it was released in 2009. Developer NeoCore Games' blend of choose-your-own-adventure quests and real-time fantasy battles came out of nowhere with impressive cross-genre experimentations, even if the end result was uneven and a bit too offbeat for its own good. Stand-alone add-on Fallen Champions also comes as something of a surprise for how much it pulls back from what its big brother brought to the table. The action here is distilled to the basics, giving you a close-up view of the innovative storytelling devices and the tactical real-time strategy combat without any of the kingdom building that gave the earlier game a Total War vibe. So you might not be getting exactly what you expect, although the game is very good in its own right and a great way for newcomers to ease into the deeper waters that await in the full King Arthur.
Story and setting in Fallen Champions serve as a bridge between the first King Arthur game and its successor. Befitting a $10 online-only release, the game is shorter and more to the point than its predecessor. All of the grand strategic overlay about conquering England is completely dropped in favour of a more intimate story about what happens to a trio of heroes in the wake of Arthur's wars. The plot focuses on Arthurian knight Sir Lionel, Pictish shaman Drest, and Sidhe witch Lady Corrigan. You swap among their three perspectives at the end of every mission during the linear campaign. The tales told here take events even further into grim, Warhammer-styled fantasy than the last game. You're a long way from the noble Knights of the Round Table and shining Camelot on the hill, with Lionel slaughtering foes to rescue his kidnapped love; Drest fighting to save the Picts; and Lady Corrigan sneaking through gauntlets of enemies to try to get back to her spirit world home. The dark palette gives the game's attractive visuals an effectively bleak feeling.
Game structure follows the one presented in King Arthur, with the strategic layer removed. Story sequences during missions are still told with Q-and-A dialogue that could have been pulled from the famous Choose Your Own Adventure and Endless Quest books published in the '80s. Everything is handled with text blurbs. Your protagonist is constantly thrown into some kind of perilous situation, like trying to avoid Sidhe patrols, dealing with an aggressive wandering knight, or simply trying to get through a darkened wood without getting lost, and you choose a course of action to follow. Sometimes you make the right call and score allies, artifacts, or stat boosts. Sometimes you slip up and take a penalty.
This storytelling method is effective, if not entirely so. The text is atmospheric enough to draw you into this fantasy world, and the three different storylines move in varying directions, with the knight doing a lot of straight-out scrapping, the Sidhe enchantress sneaking around with her magic, and the Pict doing a bit of both. But there generally isn't enough at stake to make you really care. Too often you're given just a couple of stark choices that boil down to either fleeing in terror or sticking your chest out and marching right up to the (potential) bad guys. So after a while, you find yourself scanning the text and quickly clicking on a response just to get through the preamble and into an RTS battle. More intricate dialogue choices with real consequences might have boosted immersion and added to the replay value.
Real-time engagements are the meat of Fallen Champions. Battles feel like cut-down versions of engagements in the Total War series, although the quality here is high enough to resist criticizing this as any sort of poor man's version of those games. Tactical elements are strongly emphasized through the use of terrain features. Maps are loaded with hills, rivers, dense forests, ruined keeps, and many other amenities that can be used to aid in battles. The main drawback to the intricate terrain is the camera, which is clumsy to navigate and can't be scrolled back far enough to view the maps properly.
Missions also stress much more than just point A-point B exploration and mindless slaughters to the finish. Some involve stealth, like the Sidhe missions, where you need to sneak past enemy patrols and campfires, and the Pictish ones where your druid-like magical units can only move during the night. A wide range of units lets you mix things up and prevents you from just band selecting your entire army for mass charges. Most of the RTS standards are here, like cavalry, archers, pikemen, and so forth, along with some fantasy additions like giants and healing priests. The AI is astute as well, making scenarios very challenging on all but the easiest difficulty setting. Troops are always deployed smartly and aggressively. The only major flaw is predictability, as your enemies always come at you a little too aggressively with head-on charges. Heroes also gain skill points and acquire artifacts like magic weapons, rings, and armor that can be equipped before going into battle, providing further tactical options and a role-playing dimension.
One major miscue causes problems, however. Just like with King Arthur, there are no mid-mission save options. Once you start a scenario, you have to wrap it up in one sitting or come back to start from scratch. This wasn't a big deal in the prior game because it was balanced between running a kingdom and doing quick RTS missions. Here, though, the battles are the emphasis of the game and have often been padded out to the point where they can take well over an hour to finish. Some also come with nasty surprises after the midway point, while others deal with stealthy objectives where just one screwup gets you killed. The lack of any way to save progress on the fly is a real annoyance.
King Arthur: Fallen Champions is a tantalizing, bite-sized taste of a much bigger and broader experience. It doesn't feel quite like a complete game, although condensing things down to quests and combat is in some ways a superior approach to the kitchen-sink stylings of the original game. Even with some minor quest dissatisfaction and the save issue, the reasonable $10 price makes it a recommended buy for those who enjoyed its predecessor and for newcomers in search of an accessible jumping-on point for the series as a whole.