UK REVIEW--First impressions can be misleading, and this is very much the case with Little King's Story. At first glance it looks simplistic, but this is actually a mature, fresh, and challenging game. There are references to everything from Nietzsche to Cervantes, and Douglas Adams to Captain Beefheart, as well as nods through the dialogue, visuals and music to gaming classics such as Super Mario Bros and Space Invaders. It has its foibles--a weak story, occasional pathfinding and targeting issues, and what may be the single most annoying sound effect to grace a console this generation--but it succeeds in delivering a lengthy and satisfying role-playing and strategy experience, with some truly epic fights unlike almost anything else you'll find on the Wii.
Little King's Story opens with you, the titular royal, in a rather squalid little hut, set on an island in the middle of a charming and seemingly safe little world. Your quest pits you against a few troublesome creatures that are getting in the way of you expanding the poky little kingdom that has just accepted you as its ruler. You'll be directed by Howser the Bull-Knight, who has a slightly unhealthy and poorly hidden desire for world domination, and accompanied by your trusty bovine steed, Pancho.
You head out into the world with instructions from Howser to seek out treasure to fill your coffers and so expand your domain. The gameplay itself is an intriguing combination of real-time strategy and role-playing traditions. Your ability to deal with the threats and obstacles that you encounter in the world is defined by the make-up of your group, and though this is relatively easy to do when you have only a handful of subjects with two or three job types at your command, it gets fairly complex towards the end when you're juggling up to 30 characters with more than 15 different jobs.
After easing into the game via a gentle tutorial, you have to choose a combination of farmers and grunt soldiers. The former are good at digging, while the latter are much better at dealing with any threats you come across, but completely incapable of unearthing the treasure you need to expand your kingdom. After you have amassed a small horde and defeated your first guardian--the game's mini-bosses--you'll soon have the options to create hunters, who are your ranged attackers, and carpenters, who can build stairs and bridges to allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas. Soon enough you start to encounter obstacles too tough for your grunts and farmers to simply bash out of your way, and a little more treasure--as well as the defeat of another guardian--allows you to build a logging camp. At this point you can train lumberjacks, who can smash hulking great tree trunks into manageable pieces for your less-able subjects to hack into, and later you'll gain access to miners who can do the same thing with rocks.
While this may sound a little arbitrary, it works well as a method for restricting and guiding your progress, as well as steadily increasing the complexity of your group-building without ever overwhelming you with options. With almost every mission you complete you'll be able to either expand your team, access a new type of unit, or make your subjects tougher, and so feel that much closer to being able to take on the next big challenge.
Combat in Little King's Story starts out very simply, as you have very few weapons in your arsenal; it's simply a matter of sending your grunts and farmers in to bash your foes over the head with their swords and shovels, and recalling them at the right moments if the enemy in question looks to be charging up a more-powerful attack. Your hunters have a very limited ammunition supply, which quickly forces you into creating strategies that require you saving them for times of dire need rather than simply keeping the various creatures at arm's length in an effort to stop your troops taking too much damage. Later on, more specialised combat characters come into play--Chefs, for instance, can saute a massive chicken in seconds, saving your grunts a gruelling encounter, but are little use for anything else. Thankfully there is no great penalty initially for getting these things wrong--while your troops can die they are generally returned to you the following day, as they mysteriously wash ashore of a morning. Every so often news comes in that one of those washed ashore had passed on before anyone could reach them, which prompts mourning from your subjects--seeing them wandering around in funeral garb sobbing quietly serves as a good reminder to be a little more careful next time you go into battle.
Controlling your team is a fairly simple affair, and is managed through a combination of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. The Nunchuk's analogue stick controls targeting and movement, while the Wii Remote's buttons let you send subjects out, call them back in, add to your team if you're short, or change their formation. This system works really well for the most part, making it very easy to either overwhelm single targets or spread your forces across several when attacking more balanced packs of enemies.
There are two notable exceptions to this, however. When you have several closely packed targets, it can be a little tricky to choose the one you want. Your targeting indicator, in an attempt to be helpful, locks on to the closest targets in the vague direction in which you're pointing, causing problems when you're trying to quickly prioritise and take out multiple targets at slightly different ranges. This doesn't happen that regularly, even in boss fights, but it crops up often enough to be irksome. The other issue is that once you have more than a handful of subjects under your control, you will find yourself quite regularly going back to retrieve those members who have gotten stuck behind pesky walls, fallen over small ledges, or have simply proved themselves incapable of following you up a flight of stairs.
In addition to the random, wandering foes there are three different types of set-piece battle to contend with. The first of these that you come across is the guardian fights. These are battles against much more powerful enemies than you'll find roaming the plains, and each one requires a slightly different strategy. The second type you come across are smaller encounters with relatively powerful creatures that essentially have bounties on their heads--a farmer might want you to get rid of his plague of man-eating watermelons, for instance. These fights are randomly generated throughout the game and so do have some elements of repetition, but there are enough different missions on offer at any given moment that this never really becomes a problem.
While not hugely challenging, these missions are a valuable way of making money between the larger battles so that you can expand your kingdom and troupe of subjects. Finally, you get into fights with other kings, and the fun--in terms of combat at least--really begins. The game's various kings all offer wildly different boss fights, ranging from one who insists you match him intellectually via a series of riddles, to one truly obese individual with whom you have to literally play pinball among other weird and wonderful tasks. Others take a turn for the decidedly bizarre and downright nasty, with one king throwing up on you as a primary attack, and another eating your subjects only to spit body parts back out at you.
This Little King's story is a little weak, however, and for the most part it plays out as a simple tale of world domination. Nevertheless, the beautiful and often surreal cut-scenes and set-pieces that punctuate the story make up for this in some fashion because they are often worth watching in their own right. The main storyline takes about 24 hours to play through non-stop, though even on the standard difficulty level, you should expect to have to have several attempts at most of the major fights, some of which can take in excess of half an hour to complete by themselves. The total play time can also be easily extended by completing a series of collection side-quests to earn rewards that will make your subsequent progress easier.
With its soft-focus look, brightly coloured and varied landscapes, and some truly bizarre enemies--expect to fight everything from skeletal dragons to angry turnips and over-animated office supplies--the game is a pleasure to look at, especially during the beautifully rendered cut-scenes. The endearing nature doesn't stop with the way the game looks, either; pause for a moment with no enemies around and your subjects will stop and begin to chat among themselves, and those citizens not in your royal guard will greet you cheerily as you wander past on your way out into the wilderness. Given enough time and successful outings, members will even start to fall in love--a process which can lead to marriage and then children, who are useful in their own right because they're the only type of character that can be sent scrabbling up trees to fetch items that have found their way into the branches.
The quality of Little King's audio is inconsistent, but its classical score is a great fit for the look and feel of the game. You will almost certainly get sick of hearing the William Tell Overture by the time you reach the final guardian battle, and the charming gibberish-speak of your subjects can grate after a time, but almost nothing here is so irritating that it should seriously detract from your enjoyment of the game as a whole. That having been said, the decision to assign a sound apparently sampled from a dog's chew toy to each footstep was a gross error; when walking back for a third or fourth attempt at a particularly challenging boss fight, it may induce rage most unbefitting someone playing such a charming game.
Little King's Story is one of those rare games that manages to keep on surprising and pleasing you as you play it. In addition to featuring amusing characters, gorgeous visuals, and challenging boss fights, it also raises interesting points about religion, the nature of leadership, the rights of monarchy, and a whole host of other things. It is not without its foibles, but Little King's Story is still a great game for any Wii-owning RPG or RTS fan.