Brutal difficulty is the calling card of Kingmaker, the first expansion for last year's Majesty 2: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim. This is one of those add-ons that feel a lot like a lost part of the original game, one that adds little to the core gameplay aside from new missions dressed up with extreme difficulty. But even though franchise veterans will get all that they can handle, the new scenarios are often so sadistic that you can't beat them without a ton of trial-and-error experimentation. Shortcomings of the original game also remain unaddressed, making the expansion suitable only for hardcore fans of the franchise looking for punitive new challenges.
The heart of Kingmaker is its new eight-mission campaign, and the only other notable addition is a map editor that, while it's powerful and relatively user-friendly, would have been more appropriate as a throw-in for a patch than as part of a full-blown expansion pack. Just when all seems well in the charming fantasy kingdom of Ardania, where a Sean Connery soundalike narrates missions and tax collectors roam around asking about decidedly IRS-like forms, you get a plea for help from a certain Lord Blackviper about being plagued by glowing eyes in the dark. Just a couple of minutes after this weirdness is introduced, you discover that these glowing eyes belong to hordes of goblins. Greenskins led by the warlord Grum-Gog are rampaging through your once-peaceable realms, and only you can stop them by building more guilds, marketplaces, temples, and watchtowers. Missions play out exactly as they did in the original game, with you portraying a ruler who can construct buildings, recruit troops, and research new skills, but not actually order any units to do anything. Instead, you need to bribe your subjects to complete tasks. So if you need a goblin base destroyed, a bear den taken out, a marauding werewolf killed before he single-handedly wrecks your Wizards Guild, a far-off trading post defended, or even an unrevealed section of the map explored, you need to flag the area and assign a bounty. Dish out enough gold, and you might get a gang of heroes interested. Cheap out, and the job will go wanting.
As with the original Majesty and last year's remake, this is an innovative twist on traditional real-time strategy gaming. Instead of playing a godlike ruler, you play a more authentic monarch who can only offer up incentives to his citizens and then cross fingers and toes that the job gets done. This can be both addictive and entertaining, due to how different it is from a standard RTS and because of the unique way the game challenges your strategic thinking. The setting is lighthearted and welcoming too, with very little taken seriously. This is an easy game to like in many ways. But there are some issues with giving up so much control, mainly the frustration that comes with not being able to issue direct orders. It's more than a bit annoying to see your subjects wander by a treasure chest sitting out in the open, and it's intensely aggravating to watch heroes turning a blind eye to packs of monsters busily reducing your royal palace to a heap of burning rubble while off supposedly looking for adventure. Repetition is another problem. Missions see you building the same towns over and over again. Objectives in the game are accomplished by plopping down a flag and setting a gold reward. So there isn't much difference between stomping out a cheesy little wolf den and crushing a main mission objective such as a big goblin HQ.
Kingmaker's new campaign unfortunately emphasizes these flaws. There is very little new gameplay content. Everything (buildings, troops, buffs, etc.) is much the same as it was in the original game. And missions consist of the same old assignments where you need to clear enemies from maps and indulge in side quests to gain access to special units and equipment. All of your assignments are also ramped way, way up when it comes to difficulty. Your starting location is always plopped down in some nightmarish locale surrounded by various monster dens, lairs, and portals to hell, while the base of the main enemy is never far off, either. Even when you can deal with obvious foes, maps mix things up with unwelcome surprises like ogre-spawning portals that pop up practically right on top of you at the worst possible moments. It's like the original game, but dialed up to 11.
The result is constant enemy pressure from the beginning of each scenario, with no chance of getting away with even the slightest miscue. Make one mistake by putting a guard tower in the wrong place, or not building enough warrior guilds, or failing to get dwarves into the action quickly enough, and you're done. It feels like you're trying to beat the clock most of the time, as well. If you fail to finish off the main foe quickly enough, it's as if you hit a point of no return where so many monsters attack your settlement that you're inevitably overrun. So missions have to be learned, and you get the lay of the land through experimentation. Of course, figuring out what you have to do through failure only adds to the sense of repetition that was one of the pitfalls of the original game. As you might expect, such difficulty offers a great deal of challenge, but at the expense of making you feel like you're on a frustrating treadmill, grinding away against a bunch of missions that are rigged against you.
Kingmaker will be up your alley only if you found yourself begging for more after finishing Majesty 2 last year. Nearly identical gameplay along with the demanding challenge of the campaign can make it a suitable chaser to follow up the first game, but there is nothing new here, and the difficulty is so extreme that you might just succumb to frustration before you give in to the goblins. Extra ingenuity on the part of the developers would have been much appreciated, especially by those who got what they wanted from Majesty 2 and were hoping for more out of an expansion.