King's Bounty: Armored Princess does more of the same really well. The stand-alone expansion to 2008's cult hit King's Bounty: The Legend adds virtually nothing to the original's strategy role-playing game formula, but the game does all of the by-the-numbers stuff so perfectly that you can't help but love the deja vu. While developer Katauri Interactive isn't going to win any awards for innovation here, this is still a must-play for anyone who loves this genre.
Most of the plot of Armored Princess is a straightforward extension of the original King's Bounty. The demons that you fought as the champion of the fantasy realm Endoria are back for round two, and only the armored princess of the title stands in their way. Princess Amelie is the hero you play as here, a maid in mail who winds up being sent to the alternate reality of Teana on a hunt for her mentor, the knight Bill Gilbert, and eight magical stones that can save the world. This basically turns into an tropical getaway because Teana is kind of a Caribbean world divided into a succession of fairly small islands, each with distinct personalities. One is full of pirates, for instance, another loaded with barbarians, and so on. This adds an energetic atmosphere to the new game and breaks up your adventure into easily digestible chunks. This structure also bluntly lets you know how you're doing because you can tell pretty much immediately whether or not you have enough levels under your belt to take on an island. Running into a bunch of invincible barbarians on a new island is a pretty good cue that you should kick your sailboat into reverse. New islands generally have to be accessed with maps that must be taken from tough enemies, too, which also keeps you from getting ahead of yourself for the most part.
Plot and basic structure are identical to that in both its predecessor and tons of other Heroes of Might & Magic-inspired sagas. You guide Amelie across intricate maps of fairly traditional fantasy lands (enemies generally come with claws, swords, and shields, although you do run into the odd robot) with a horde of units in tow that serve as shock troops for battles. Whenever you take on some bad guys, these grunts do the fighting for you, although you give them their marching orders on turn-based hexagonal battlefields. Amelie starts off as a first-level wuss of a paladin, mage, or warrior (your choice) that can recruit only basic bowmen, clerics, and pitchfork-wielding peasants into her army. But with time, levels, and increases in her leadership stat, she will be able to field troops like giant snakes, giant spiders, ancient bears, sneaky buccaneers, creepy vampires, and many other D&D refugees. The goal is, of course, to explore the nooks and crannies of the islands, as well as slay evildoers and monsters. You'll also solve quests; buff Amelie by leveling up and tweaking her many might, mind, or magic abilities via an extensive skill tree; and progress to the final showdown. One significant addition is a pet dragon that levels up and has special abilities that can be used in combat. The beast's role isn't well defined, though, so it seems less like a traveling buddy than a way to cast extra spells during battles.
So there are no stop-the-presses moments here. The only real difference between the first King's Bounty and its follow-up is how quickly the difficulty scales up. Armored Princess assumes that you have played the original, which means that it gets right to the point. Battles turn tough as soon as you reach the second island, forcing you to really learn the ins and outs of the game's hero skill progression tree, as well as how to best recruit and employ troops in battle. You will have a rough time of it here unless you have either played the first game or have some previous experience with strategy RPGs. Still, it's not an unfair progression. The difficulty increases quickly but not suddenly. If you're paying attention at all, you won't get caught by impossible opposition. It's not as if you go directly from whomping spiders and pirates to getting scorched by invincible demons. And even when you're in tough against serious opposition, the incredibly detailed maps provide entertainment all on their own. Exploration is even more of an entertaining diversion than combat because your speed on horseback allows you to gallop away from impossible-to-defeat baddies and even occasionally snipe a big reward or reach a castle where you can recruit powerful units without fighting. Maps have goodies crammed into every nook and cranny, including buried chests full of gold, magical doodads, and the mystic runes that power Amelie's skills. Quests can be found all over the place, and they are typically offered up along with reams of colorful text that develop Amelie's personality and build up Teana as a real place through the collection of oddballs handing out these jobs. You can safely skip all this verbiage, of course, but taking the time to read it all is rewarding if you're seriously into role playing.
With all that said, Armored Princess feels dated at times. The graphics engine is really showing its age now but the art style is more cartoony than realistic, so the game can get away with broad caricatures, chunky monster models, and whiz-bang spell effects. These consist of fireworks and cheesy animations like spooky faces indicating units being scared. Islands and battle arenas are stocked with lots of added details as well, including cobwebby corners and overgrown graveyards. But there are also some performance issues here, most notably how you get stuck on scenery when guiding Amelie around the islands. Clicking on inaccessible areas--which is easy to do because the islands are veritable mazes of narrow paths and greenery--causes her to simply stop and wait for a new order. This is both annoying and life threatening because these inopportune pauses can get you caught by pursuing enemies. Audio is also archaic. Unit sound effects in battle are almost nonexistent and never memorable even when you can hear them. Music is also a generic blat of horns that you'll forget moments after shutting down the game.
Even though it may be a slave to its genre, King's Bounty: Armored Princess is still an impressive representation of the modern strategy RPG. Story, exploration, combat, and character development come together in a great, addictive game that will keep you hooked for many, many hours.