Kingdoms Under Fire: Heroes

Kingdoms Under Fire: Heroes

Written by Cyril Lachel on 12/5/2005 for Xbox  

Let's just get one thing out of the way before diving too far into this review, Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is a difficult game.  It's not that the missions are too difficult or that you're asked to do things that are too frustrating.  Rather, this game is hard because it's vague, to the point where you might need to restart once you've figured out how to play the game and what you are supposed to be doing.  But don't rush away from Heroes too fast, because once you've mastered the controls, know how to upgrade your characters, and fight with the best of them, you'll find an entertaining experience that will have you going for more than a few hours.

Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is the prequel to Kingdom Under Fire: the Crusaders, the 2004 game that surprised just about everybody with its unique blend of balls-to-the-wall action and strategic game play.  Like the 2004 game, you take control of one of the heroes who leads his army into battle against all kinds of enemy fighters.  But this game is more than just an action game; it requires you to control multiple units – archers, sappers, spearmen, etc. – and fight on a number of fronts.  At first this all seems pretty simple, but once you've taken control of three or four different types of fighters you will need to constantly be switching from group to group making sure they are doing just what you want them.

If switching between groups and managing units sounds familiar, then it's because those are some of the tried and true elements of the real-time strategy genre.  Even though it may seem like odd, real-time strategy in not a strange thing for Kingdom Under Fire, as the first game, 2001's A War of Heroes, was an RTS game for the PC.  But Heroes is not your traditional strategy game, it plays more like a merger between those strategy games and the all-out action of titles like Dynasty Warriors.  It may seem like a strange combination, but after you've gotten used to it you'll find that Heroes is one of the most exciting games of the year.

But Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is not an easy game to just jump in to.  You start with only two Heroes available to you (Ellen and Walter); as you beat their stories more of the characters will be unlocked, ultimately allowing you to play through seven different adventures, each filling in more of the overarching story.  Unfortunately, none of these characters really come with the adequate tutorial you'd expect from a game as complex as this.  Unlike most action games, Heroes requires you to learn a lot about the control, managing your units, magic, and even upgrades, all without much in the way of help.  From time to time a box will pop up on the screen providing some hints and control clarification, but it's hardly enough information for a game with just a steep learning curve.

If you're familiar with Kingdom Under Fire: the Crusaders then chances are you'll feel right at home in this installment.  Heroes ends up playing quite a bit like the Crusaders, which certainly isn't a bad thing since that was a spectacular game with a lot of great gameplay mechanics.  This is really more of an expansion pack, adding onto what needed to be fixed and leaving the rest well enough alone.  If you haven't experienced the Crusaders don't worry, you can get into this adventure and have just as much fun … it's just going to take some work climbing the steep learning curve.

As I mentioned earlier, you have the chance to play through a number of different campaigns filling in a large story.  Unfortunately that story isn't all that interesting, and seems overly convoluted and poorly translated.  These story driven moments groan on for quite awhile, usually without a great dramatic payoff.  Some of these cut scenes are done in the game's 3D engine (although, their lips do not move), but by and large the dialogue sequences are presented with a still image and a lot of text.  None of this is very interesting, and it is easily the worst part of the whole experience.

Each character has a series of missions all their own, generally offering between five and ten main missions (with a few side quests that are not required, but are still fun to play).  That may not sound like a lot, but since a mission can last for a half hour, you may find yourself working on things for quite awhile.  Some of these campaigns are no more than a few hours long while others manage to keep you busy for a number of hours.  The good thing is that the events in the campaigns are often varied, not only with new tasks to complete but also a number of different locations to fight in.  Though you will be doing the same kinds of things from area to area – seek out a bunch of enemies and annihilate them – each mission is different enough to keep you going and for it to still be exciting even when you're about to beat it.

The fighters themselves are all different, each with their own set of unique moves and weapons.  At first you'll be using nothing but broadswords, but as you play through the game with more advanced characters you'll find yourself using all kinds of interesting weapons.  Rupert, for example, uses a large war hammer that is able to bat away a dozen enemies at once with one mighty swing.  Perhaps my favorite is Vellond, a dark woman who uses this insane looking Iron Chains that can be used to grab an enemy and literally whip him into a group of his peers.  And if weapons aren't your thing, then the extremely tall Urukubarr and his bare fists are going to be your best friends.  You never get to fight with more than your one hero character, which means you can move other units but never fully control their action (though, you can order them to do specific tasks).  The rest of the non-playable characters are pretty smart when it comes to fighting, so these large battles are usually as simple as running around looking for people to slaughter.  If the battle gets to be too much for you it's easy enough to retreat and regroup.

Although your hero is strong with a mighty weapon you won't be fighting all by yourself, you will have two partners (officers) next to you ready to defend you and use magic whenever you call for it.  If that doesn't do it, then perhaps the large army behind you will help you out.  Between these non-playable characters you should have enough back up to take on just about any type of enemy.  Thankfully there are a number of cool characters to take on, from orcs and elves to flame wraiths, ice maidens, and flying wyverns.  Each of these enemies have different vulnerabilities and some awesome moves (including magic).  Early on you'll really learn to hate these characters, but they'll grow on you after you've spent some time playing on the dark side.

Customizing your characters with new skills and upgraded weapons also plays a big part in Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes.  In the bases you can use the experience and money you won from the missions to upgrade just about everything you and your army could want.  You can add new magic to your characters, buy new armor, and even give your fighters new jobs.  Unfortunately, like so much else in this game, there aren't a lot of instructions to help guide you through this somewhat complex area.   It's worth your time to figure it out, though, since it's really the only way to create the army you want.  There are quite a lot of enhancements for your characters, which means you will likely have to play through the game multiple times in order to see everything your lowly fighters can do.

Customizing your character isn't limited to your hero and their immediate infantry, in the bases you are able to hire new characters and back them with all kinds of cool armies.  There are archers and mortars that help you from long distances, sappers to set traps, and even people on horseback looking for a quick fight.  The great thing about these different types of armies is that it always seems like there was a lot of attention put on balancing them out.  Before long you'll see how pitting the right group of warriors against the right group of baddies will make the fight a lot easier, adding a lot of strategy to the action. 

Not only are these different armies useful in battle, but they also tend to have some useful special abilities exclusive to their group.  For example, if you're a human archer you will be able to set fire to objects (and enemies) thanks to the special flame arrows you can select and send flying.  Depending on the character you play as (and whether they are human or part of the dark legion) your armies will change, this also changes some of the abilities they have.  Using the archers again as an example, if you were to select the dark elf archers you would be able to add Elemental Boost to your arrow instead of the traditional flame.  Both sides have interesting characters you'll want to experiment with and customize to perfection.

In game the control feels pretty smooth, even when you're controlling multiple armies at the same time.  The game is pretty user friendly once you get used to it; you can control multiple armies at the same time with no more than a push of one button, as well as switching between the different groups using your L and R triggers so you can command them separately.  When you're actually in a battle the game turns into a full-on hack and slash action experience, one that has you rushing around a large area looking for people to try out your multi-hit combos on.  At first it will be just a few armies in the melee with you, but as you advance through the story you'll quickly discover that there are some truly epic battles, the likes of which you only see in movies like the Lord of the Rings and Alexander.  Although the characters have a lot of moves they are often kind of hard to pull off and not all that effect when you do, so much of the action is nothing more than repeatedly pushing one of the two attack buttons until everything is dead.  This does feel a  little repetitive after awhile, but thankfully there's more to do than just button mash each battle.

When you're in these action sequences the game tends to feel like Koei's Dynasty Warriors series, only with more of a medieval theme in place.  But even if you've completely burned out on the Dynasty Warriors gameplay, there is still enough in Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes to keep you interested.  A great deal of the excitement comes not from the button mashing you do in battle, but rather making sure you have the right troops battling the right enemies and people around to keep the magic flowing.  I won't say the game play holds up all the way through the game (it does get tiring doing the same moves over and over), but there's enough excitement going on around you to keep you from even noticing these minor problems.

In battle the game looks stunning, especially when you have hundreds of characters on screen at once.  With all the characters attacking at once and some truly impressive magic being flung around it's easy to be impressed by the game's visuals.  Occasionally the frame rate will get bogged down a little (especially when the larger enemies hit the screen), but the overall frame rate is good enough for what they are trying to accomplish.  When you're out of a battle and just exploring the map it's easier to notice some of the ways they were able to fit so many people on screen at one time.  The levels themselves, while large, aren't especially detailed.  Don't get me wrong, they still look good, but as you run through it you can see how they used the same trees, textures, and backgrounds to achieve their goals.  There is also a thick layer of fog not too far in front of you making it hard to discern things in the distance.  Thankfully this isn't that big of a deal since you'll just be looking for a new enemy (or another army to group up with) and will be using your map for that.  Once you're in a battle you'll have a hard time remembering the problems you had with the graphics engine.

In most of these medieval-style role-playing games you get a lot of dynamic music to put you in the mood.  Well, Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes features dynamic music … but it's certainly not the type you'll hear in a Lord of the Rings game or a Dragon Warrior sequel.  Instead of orchestras and brassy horns we get hardcore metal.  Now I'm not a big fan of heavy metal, but I have to admit that these songs really do a great job of conveying the urgency of these battles.  While playing the game I realized that it's not the heavy metal I'm not a fan of, it's the constant barrage of screaming that usually accompanies the music.  Heroes presents these songs in their instrumental form, which ends up fitting in quite a bit, even if at first it seems horribly out of place.  Some people may never warm up to the game's soundtrack, but it's nice to hear music that tries to be a little different.

Once you've grown weary of playing the seven campaigns you can jump into the game's most impressive aspect, its Xbox Live mode.  An online mode is nothing new to the Kingdom Under Fire series, the Crusaders featured an extremely limiting mode that showed signs of promise but came up a bit short in its delivery.  Heroes, on the other hand, delivers in a big way.  Instead of simply being one-on-one like the 2004 game, this new Kingdom Under Fire is all about the three-on-three action.  Now you can battle in a three-on-three melee, a leader combat variation (that features you fighting with only your leaders), and a three player invasion mode that has you battling against computer-controlled enemies.  This last game is by far my favorite, a game I've been addicted to for quite some time.  The great thing about Heroes is just how much variety its online mode has, when you've grown tired of doing one type of thing you can switch it up and still have a lot of fun. 

Don't have an Xbox Live account?  Don't worry; you can try out these modes by setting up a custom game in the main menu. This is also a great way to train yourself for the real deal, especially since most of the people currently playing online are cutthroat.  If you do have an Xbox Live account not only will you be able to play with your friends (and strangers), but you will also be able to download new content.  As of this writing no new downloadable content has shown up, but at least that door is open for a time when somebody might have something new to offer the hopeless addicts.

Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes doesn't make it easy on you, it's a game that requires you to do a lot of experimenting on your own before you get the handle on how to play and what to do.  But once you've trained yourself the game quickly becomes one of the most unique and exciting games of the year.  Despite its similarities to other genres, Heroes manages to carve out a unique style that will have you coming back for more … just as long as you can get past the steep learning curve

Action packed gameplay? Check! Hardcore heavy metal soundtrack? Check! A great online mode that keeps you coming back for more? Check! A seriously steep learning curve? Check! Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes has a lot going for it, just as long as you have the patience to figure it all out.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

It's questionable how accurate this is, but this is all that's known about Cyril Lachel: A struggling writer by trade, Cyril has been living off a diet of bad games, and a highly suspect amount of propaganda. Highly cynical, Cyril has taken to question what companies say and do, falling ever further into a form of delusional madness. With the help of quality games, and some greener pastures on the horizon, this back-to-basics newsman has returned to provide news so early in the morning that only insomniacs are awake.
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