Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders is the new sequel to 2001's lackluster real-time strategy game Kingdom Under Fire: A War of Heroes, which was released exclusively on the PC. This follow-up, developed by Korean series creator Phantagram, has jumped platforms--from the PC to the Xbox--and has changed genres from a by-the-numbers, overhead RTS to a tantalizing mix of strategy and action the likes of which has rarely been accomplished with such grandiosity. There's so much packed into this game that it's almost too complicated for its own good--almost. But once you climb The Crusaders' steep learning curve and experience the wild frenzy of its massive battles, you'll find all that complexity pays off in spades.
Korean developer Phantagram brings its Kingdom Under Fire series into new territory with The Crusaders.
The plot here is a continuation of the story arc begun in A War of Heroes, which recounts the ongoing conflict between the human alliance, consisting of the kingdoms Hironeiden and Ecclesia, and the Dark Legion, a hellish consortium of orcs, ogres, half-vampires, dark elves, and other assorted nasties. The Crusaders picks up about 50 years after the end of the previous game, when the tenuous peace is shattered by a bloody raid on a human village. The strife between the humans and the Dark Legion owes equally to racial hatreds and territorial disputes, with a hotly contested holy ground sometimes coming into play. Oh, and there's a mysterious artifact with awesome powers thrown in for good measure. Much of the game's storyline is exposed by simple talking heads that are set against the world map between missions, although you'll get a good number of dramatically staged cutscenes during battle, too.
The Crusaders' storyline is a little dense. In fact, it's set up by several screens of text (presented when you start the game) that provide little visual or dramatic context. However, the plot does become interesting after you've played a few missions and have gotten to know some of the important characters, and it also provides a fine impetus for all the raging battles that make up the bulk of the gameplay. The game features four campaigns, two for each side and two of which are available for play immediately. Each of the four campaigns has a different playable character who will serve as the commander of your forces, in addition to serving as the warrior you'll get to use during the action component of the game. The remaining two campaigns will become unlocked when you complete the first two, and the storyline progresses in order as you play through all four campaigns (which, in true RTS style, become progressively more difficult as you go).
Anyway, the point of this game is its combat--and what furious combat it is. In short, the gameplay in The Crusaders consists of both real-time strategy, whereby you command regiments of troops to move and attack on the battlefield, and Dynasty Warriors-style hack-and-slash action, in which you take control of your leader and go toe-to-toe, alongside your troops, against (literally) scores of enemies all at once. One of the most impressive things you'll notice right off the bat is that the strategy and the action are mixed together seamlessly. As a result, you'll be commanding your forces one moment, and then you'll be down on the battlefield swinging your sword the next. All the while, the camera never cuts away from one view to another; it merely zooms in closer to the action.
In the strategy parts, you'll command entire groups of soldiers at once, rather than being forced to micromanage individual units (which, let's face it, would be downright impossible using a joystick). The interface for commanding your troops isn't entirely accessible from the get-go, but it gets the job done pretty well, and you'll certainly warm up to it after just a few missions. You cycle through your troop regiments with the shoulder buttons, and the camera will center itself behind whichever group is currently selected. An onscreen cursor allows you to move the troops around, it makes them attack a nearby enemy group, and so on. If you're using this alone, it can be hard to simultaneously get a feel for the events on the battlefield while assigning orders to your troops. Thankfully, you can pull up a minimap that covers up only about a quarter of the screen, and you can move your troops around and assign them to perform all the same actions this way as well. Pretty quickly, it will become second nature for you to pop up the minimap, assign orders to your groups, and then switch back to the action--in seconds--to watch it all go down.
The popup minimap really helps you form and execute tactics more quickly than if you only use the 3D view.
Aside from standard move and attack commands, you can make your units perform all sorts of special abilities, from more-powerful attacks to support techniques to even magic spells (more on that later). There's a wealth of unit types in the game, from basic infantry and archers to specialized, faction-specific troops, like paladins (who can both fight and cast healing magic). Additionally, there are giant scorpions that act as hideously huge, living siege weapons. Some missions require you to bring specific types of units into battle, but often you'll have a couple of slots you can fill with the units of your choice. So perhaps you'll bring sappers, who can set traps to snare enemies, or orc-ghouls, who can self-destruct, causing massive damage to nearby foes.
Though the common troops form the backbone of your war effort, it's the officers who lead them that you'll end up focusing a great deal of your attention on. The unit led by your own character will be with you in every mission, and as soon as it joins battle, the hands-on action starts. You'll immediately be in control of your leader, hacking away at the hordes of enemies all around you while using a variety of melee combos and special moves to tear through, literally, scores of bodies. The action combat in The Crusaders has a good feel to it. You'll really get the feeling that you're engaged in--and are playing a crucial role in--an epically bloody conflict. As you fight, you'll build up skill points that can be used to execute a more powerful attack, summon secondary officers so they can unleash their own powerhouse moves, or initiate some of your troops' aforementioned special abilities.
If all this command-issuing and skull-cleaving sounds like a hell of a lot to keep up with--simultaneously--during a battle...well, it is. At times--mainly early on and before you've gotten a handle on the interface--the game can be too much, especially since it affords you no opportunity to pause the action, formulate your tactics, and issue your commands before moving on. So, initially, players who aren't accustomed to strategy games may find it difficult to get all their troops in the right places, and they may not be able to do the right things fast enough to keep up with the flow of battle. The Crusaders makes you think fast, without a doubt, but once you do get to the point where you can keep up with the action and can start to best the enemy hordes, there's a great feeling of accomplishment waiting for you.