Building out your units with new equipment and abilities is essential to achieving victory.
Did you think that was all there was to The Crusaders' gameplay? Not by a long shot. As you fight, you'll transparently accumulate experience points and gold, and between missions you'll visit towns and castles where you can do all sorts of fancy between-missions stuff, like upgrading skills and equipment, hiring mercenaries, eavesdropping at the local tavern for some extra story tidbits, and so on. Frankly, the degree of customization this game offers for your forces is a little bit nuts. It almost seems like it has too many options for its own good, at first. That is, until you witness the effects, firsthand, that a proper round of upgrades can have on your battle performance.
Here's a breakdown in simple terms: You can upgrade the skills and equipment of your main officers, each of whom is attached to a group of soldiers. Skills, such as melee, ranged, and teamwork, have a broad effect on the fighting ability of the group. Equipment, like new weapons and armor, enhances the individual officers, but it also has residual effects on the group's battle prowess as well. Furthermore, when you have a high enough skill level in the right categories, you can learn powerful, new abilities, such as elemental magic attacks that can be unleashed in battle for doling out extra damage. Finally, if your skills are developed in the proper configurations, you can even change your troops' job classes to something entirely different. Converting regular infantry into knights, for example, makes them far more powerful, and archers can become longbowmen to gain extra range and damage potential. Naturally, using the right kind of troops at the right times is key to victory.
A version of this customization setup is available in Kingdom Under Fire's Xbox Live support, which is, unfortunately, a little less fully featured than we'd hoped for, especially given the impressive single-player missions. You'll pick from one of the four playable characters, and then you'll assemble groups of warriors in a manner that's similar to the way you do so in the main game. And as you fight one-on-one battles against other players online, you'll gain experience points that level up your troops and let you both acquire special abilities and change to new jobs, like in the campaigns. The game will match you up with other players who have armies of strength and ability similar to yours, although we ran into a few problems connecting to other players' games after the matching tool had found them. There's also some noticeable lag as you play (which, admittedly, can be affected by your connection speed). The battles online, with their lack of music or dramatic development, feel a little anticlimactic after you've played the carefully set up single-player missions. Still, the online mode ought to be entertaining enough for people who are really into the core gameplay.
Phantagram has coaxed the Xbox into producing some truly stunning visuals in Kingdom Under Fire. The individual units, both for your major characters and the support troops, are pretty highly detailed as it is. Consequently, you'll see cloth rippling, fur bristling, and blood erupting in a gruesome, fine mist as you slash your foes. These units look good already, so imagine there are literally scores of them onscreen at once, locked in combat all around you while you're right in the thick of it, slashing away. There are some truly huge units that pop up in the midst of the regular foot soldiers, such as the towering giant scorpions or the ogres that stand fully twice the height of a human. If you've played the Dynasty Warriors games, you know the basic concept. Just imagine that there are a lot more guys; they're fighting a lot harder; and they're a lot cooler-looking.
The game has a really appealing Europe-as-seen-through-an-Asian-filter aesthetic that produces knights, orcs, and so on that are basically recognizable but that present enough variation to make them interesting. There are a lot of nice touches that lend the battles even more effect, such as the way your soldiers will raise their swords and then hurtle, while screaming, into battle when approaching the enemy. There's also the way you can see a soldier walking down a line of archers, lighting each of their arrowheads before they unleash a volley of fire arrows. It's hard to appreciate the incredible frenzy of the battles in the game by reading about them or by looking at still screenshots of them. It's an effect that's best absorbed when you see the fighting in action.
The overall presentation, from the heavily populated battlefields to the driving metal soundtrack, really brings the combat to the fore.
Phantagram has really outdone itself with the game's soundtrack, too. The battles are underscored by driving metal tracks that serve to amp you up as you go charging headlong into yet another bloody melee. The music is just as heavy in other areas, even between missions. While you're upgrading your troops or checking out the parameters of the next mission, for instance, you'll often hear the deep crunch of power chords in the background. The music is refreshingly consistent with the visual aesthetics and the gritty sounds of battle that you'll hear in every mission. Unfortunately, the English voice acting is decidedly the weakest aspect of The Crusaders' sound. The main characters are usually passable, but some of the supporting characters are downright awful. But you can change the dialogue over to Korean (while maintaining the English subtitles), which is far more emotive and passionate. It's similar to the contrast you get between a well-acted anime in Japanese and its low-budget, English-dubbed counterpart. Once you learn the game's mechanics enough to get along solely through visual cues, you can safely switch to the Korean voice acting for a much more guttural vocal experience during battle.
Given the Kingdom Under Fire series' inauspicious beginnings, it's really a great surprise to see that The Crusaders has turned out to be such a uniquely entertaining game. Make no mistake, though: This is not a game for everyone. You'll need a strong appreciation for hack-and-slash action, strategic warfare, and some light RPG elements to really enjoy the game. Moreover, the daunting learning curve may turn off all but the most committed tacticians. If you're willing to stick with it, though, The Crusaders offers some amazingly epic battles in the many missions spread across its four campaigns. Ultimately, this is the kind of rewarding gameplay experience that's worth putting in a little work for.