The game of chess dates back to ancient times, and seeing as how it's still widely played around the world in its traditional form, this seems like a good indication that no additions, improvements, spin-offs, sequels, or other departures are necessary. Nevertheless, here comes Online Chess Kingdoms, a PlayStation Portable game whose title pretty much says it all. The first two words may well be intriguing to you. While online chess dates back to the ancient times of the Internet, there's something to be said for the idea of having portable online chess on the PSP, and it basically works as advertised, if you can find someone to play. As for the "Kingdoms" part, it represents an awkward attempt to layer a storyline and greater sense of purpose to chess, as well as add a real-time twist to the conventional rules. In spite of this, it seems unlikely that anyone without an inherent interest in chess would be willing to give this game a shot. Still, those with a casual appreciation for chess may enjoy it.
The premise of Online Chess Kingdoms is that some omnipotent deity once created the world from forces like chaos, magic, spirit, order, and law. But after a while, these forces started to squabble, so the deity sends them all packing to their own respective realms. Much later, these forces each become advanced enough to reach their neighbors' borders, so they decide to battle, and many games of chess ensue. This all manifests itself in the game in the form of multiple fully 3D chess sets, featuring various alien-looking fantasy and sci-fi characters that vaguely resemble the chess pieces they represent. There's also some repetitive, epic-sounding music that blares during gameplay, which is evocative of big fantasy battles but seems sort of silly as accompaniment for chess. When playing a quick game, you do have the option to play using traditional-looking chess sets, but you'll likely be seeing more of these original armies since they figure prominently both in the campaign mode and when playing online.
The campaign features a strategic layer in which you and your opponents take turns moving your armies around a gridlike map similar to a chessboard. When two opposing armies meet, a game of chess ensues, and the winning army remains. Since a typical chess match can take a good 20 or 30 minutes, the campaign can feel very drawn out, especially since Online Chess Kingdoms doesn't play a particularly fast game of chess. However, that's where the battle mode comes in.
Before you start a campaign game or a quick match, you get to choose between classic chess and the battle mode. Classic chess is faithful to the traditional rules, as you'd expect. Battle mode, meanwhile, takes classic chess and makes it real time. If you played chess as a little kid, perhaps you had an experience where you decided to ignore the whole turn-based nature of the game and just move all your pieces as quickly as possible to stomp your surprised and irritated opponent. That's basically what this battle mode is. You have to quickly move a cursor around the playing field to make your units advance and crush the opposition as quickly as possible. Each chess piece has a different point value in this mode, and the first player to reach the point limit is the winner. Such a match takes just a couple of minutes. But while it's faster than classic chess, maybe it's no surprise that it isn't better. It seems too easy to let the opponent come to you, so that you can pick off his individual units while all of your forces are still gathered together. At best, battle mode is a decent distraction from the real game.
As for the online mode, it's got a strange but fairly interesting structure that's tied into the premise of the campaign game. When you join a lobby you side with one of the different factions, and your goal is to wipe out the other factions, one territory at a time. To get into a match against another player, you may select a territory along your faction's border to attack, and then another player on the opposing side may choose to receive your defense. Then you play chess. Alternatively, you can opt to defend your own territories against would-be attacks. Winning matches earns you prestige, which is basically an indication of how experienced you are.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem with all this seems to be that very few people are playing. There are always multiple lobbies available, featuring both classic chess and battle mode as well as a play-by-e-mail-style mode in which you take just one turn before signing off and letting your opponent go. However, during multiple attempts to play online on consecutive days following the game's release, we never found more than a half-dozen players competing. Unsurprisingly, all of them were playing classic chess. If you can find an opponent, the online chess works fine, though there's no way to communicate with the other player or anything of the sort. Some sort of a "quick match" option for quickly finding a live opponent really would have helped. Your other multiplayer options here include a two-player pass-and-play mode, but you might as well just break out a real chess set if you want to play someone nearby.
Fortunately, you can still play the online mode even if no one's around at the time, since you'll be pitted against the computer if no one accepts your defense after a minute. When playing offline, there are four difficulty settings to choose from, ranging from novice to master. Online, the computer seems to be locked into playing at intermediate level. It's not too bad for practicing against if you're an average chess player, but sometimes the computer will make completely bone-headed moves, blatantly sacrificing its pieces for no discernible reason. So if you're an experienced player you'll probably want to jump straight to the master difficulty, which seems challenging. Of course, other chess programs out there provide far more sophisticated scales of artificial intelligence to play against, as well as complete tutorials and training modes.
Real-life decorative chess sets aren't necessarily well suited for playing the game, because it's so important to be able to instantly distinguish the different chess pieces from one another. For this same reason, the various 3D armies and fairly elaborate 3D backgrounds in Online Chess Kingdoms, while fairly good looking, don't help the game. In fact, at the default viewing angle you'll probably get into some situations in which you literally can't see an opponent's chess piece behind another piece until it's too late. Fortunately, you have the option to undo your turns, though we ran into a bug more than once that caused the game to freeze up after using the undo feature too many times. You can also play in a split-screen mode that shows a traditional 2D chess set off to the side, which is a good option if you find the 3D graphics distracting. It's worth noting that the 3D units also have attack animations for when they take an opposing piece, though these are nothing special. The old CD-ROM classic, Battle Chess, featured unique and humorous combat sequences for every possible unit-against-unit combination, but in Online Chess Kingdoms, your units all have the same basic attack against any opposing piece.
Online Chess Kingdoms inherently has something going for it just by letting you play a competent version of chess on the PSP, once you get past all the fantasy weirdness. The online mode also works fairly well, though it's too bad the game hasn't reached a critical mass of players. In the end, Online Chess Kingdoms may even make you gain some appreciation for the underlying game, since this is proof positive that any efforts to make chess better or more exciting are simply unnecessary.