Once Upon a Knight (OUAK)
promises “100% fresh RTS/RPG gameplay,” but is only able to deliver an uninspired batch of either. Essentially, one segment of the story plays out in real-time strategy while a prelude is constructed as a role-playing venture. One story, two games. With its self-proclaimed tongue-in-cheek delivery of lackluster witticisms, the script veers from the serious but only achieves a blend of bland humor. In short, the designers are not terribly funny people—and it shows.
The opening story reeks of overbaked clichés: “Once upon a time in a distant land, long ago, there lived a prince. He was righteous and just, noble and honorable, courageous and wise. As you might expect, dark and treacherous powers were not fond of this prince and joined to not only spread evil throughout the land, but to banish the prince from the principality and the thoughts of the people. One day, one of the despicable lords cast a spell that sent the prince to another dimension. What it failed to do, however, was to purge his image from the hearts and minds of his subjects. Some years later, the good-hearted magician, Gallus, opened a portal between dimensions and returned the prince to his lands. Now, the prince must drive the evil lords from power and bring peace and order to the kingdom.” Sure, we’ve all heard this plotline before; but even Ben Stein could garner more storytelling panache while drugged on a handful of barbiturates.
Graphically, OUAK shines; there are some reasonably impressive details to feed your sweet tooth. Ground textures, flora and fauna, characters (albeit in painfully typical medieval faire), and structures are all beautifully detailed. Without a doubt, the clouds, shadows, billowing trees, water effects, and encircling birds all cast a winning vote toward this same end. Attention to detail is not what is lacking here: cleanly depicted and innovative drawing concepts are. The cowshed is a jumble of timber and thatch that is virtually indistinguishable from a hut which may be mistaken for barracks. The court, temple, and wizard’s tower sidestep this graphic blasé-blah, but they will account for only a small portion of your town-building schematic. You’ll be laying down some of the ugliest buildings you’ve seen since uncle Billy Bob finished that nifty hot tub addition to his outhouse. The characters are all dully dressed according to assigned stereotypes; even the blatantly underdressed Amazon Sorceress fails to titillate. Since the cows are such an integral element of comic relief (?), I guess it’s worth mentioning that they are lovely examples of their species. The cows all have names like Hilda and Gertrude and come with more visual variety than the military units.
If you absolutely love unadorned load screens then OUAK won’t disappoint. Beyond that, the baby-steps tutorial will give you a feel for the game without making you feel like you’re wasting time on a tutorial. Most of the game’s personality will be established within the first ten minutes. While the characters’ accents are all legitimately entertaining, even the most blue-blooded Brits would denounce the grammatically baffling ‘Ye Olde English’ dialogue. It’s not just Olde English: it’s bad Olde English. “Who art thou? And where art I?” should give you a suitable shudder during the first dialogue exchange with Gallus, an old consort you barely remember. By the time you stroll through the first village you’ll encounter a German-sounding woodsman, a Scottish beekeeper, three to four children with street English accents (Oy, gov’nuh!), and strangely muted cows. If the chewed-up-and-spit-out English is too difficult to grasp, then a dialogue window exists for you to peruse the script. Oddly, this option exists for the RTS side but is removed from the RPG side of the game. Another awkward feature for the RPG side is that it sounds suspiciously like the voice actors’ budget fell through. Prince John will speak out loud to other NPCs, but they will respond with written dialogue balloons. It’s like eavesdropping on a phone call when you can only hear one side of the conversation. Other than that, the (not so) clever quips that come from clicking on individual units gets old. Quick. How many times do you want to hear “My sword is jagged and notched, but I shall not yield,” before you regret ever having to click on Prince John again? “Also when I am wounded--I will not give up.” These are all very sweet sentiments, but whatever action you’re engaged in will probably be completed before he’s done talking. You might enjoy one inadvertent chuckle when Prince John yells out, “Chop them up and feed them to the wolves,” when you actually are fighting wolves in the first place. You might also catch an idle unit sniffing his armpits or scratching the back of his leg, but that’s it as far as comic relief goes.
Most of the envelope pushing comes from a milk-based economy. Whereas timber and gold may propel your adventures through Warcraft, liters of milk does it in OUAK. It is the only resource that gives the woodbutchers (your builders) the strength to construct those misshapen buildings. Milk also pays for many other things like building upgrades, knights, archers, and even more cows. A wizard’s tower may cost a whopping 400 liters of milk to make (however much a liter is—sorry, I’m American), there is no numeric indicator on your HUD telling you how much milk you currently produce. You’re simply left with a ‘barrel of milk’ graphic on the right-hand side of your screen that will invite your best guesses on the percentage you’ve used up. (Whoops; only have a quarter of a barrel left. Guess I’ll have to wait on that addition to the outhouse I was hoping on.) Milk must spoil quickly in game land as well, so you’re unable to stockpile this singular resource. That makes for some gruesomely slow construction times.
Your cast of characters range from a charming young lad known as a Cowherd (which should be cowherder), archers, woodbutchers, warriors, spearmen, knights, priests and priestesses, and wizards. A pretty run-of-the-mill lineup. But—oh, get this—you have a Mother-in-Law unit to conduct saboteur missions, and the flying unit in the game is a witch. I’m talking Wicked Witch of the West here. And the mother-in-law is armed with a rolling pin that apparently gets your woodbutchers working double-time. Ah. The sidesplitting humor is just too rich. Round up the usual suspects for enemies: skeletons, minotaurs, werebears, werewolves, and giants; enter Valtamond, the nerdy wizard that kidnapped Prince John in the first place; then add wolves and bears for enough bloody hack-n-slash to send P.E.T.A. in an uproar (the first chapter of the game should have been titled “Bad Shakespeare Versus the Unlimited Number of Wolves”.)
Rewind a little. The RPG side begins the moment the prince was banished and the evil lord Valtamand took control. “Knowing that only bad things lay ahead for the kingdom and its people, Gallus began to search all of the weird, wonderful, magical places and torturous voids to bring the prince back to where he truly belonged. His efforts did not go unnoticed. The dark forces responsible for the prince’s disappearance learned what [the] magician priest was up to and quickly put an end to his dealings by making him disappear as speedily as they had the prince. Witnesses to this deed protested loudly, calling for all true heroes and valiant warriors to find and rescue the magician. After all, he was a man known as a friend to the royal family, and the guardian of the faith, for hundreds of years. Only eight potential rescuers were found. All were entrusted with the task of finding and setting Gallus free.”
Here, your RPG hero selection lets you choose from the knight, barbarian, Amazon sorceress, spearman, sorcerer, archer, and priestess. Personalizing your character is limited to giving them a name and choosing the color of their loincloth. As you level up, you’ll be able to apply percentage and skill point bonuses to a handful of abilities.
The greatest tragedy of the RPG side is how empty and unmotivating the storyline leaves you. Sure, an RTS can survive with hack-n-slash dungeons, infrastructure destruction, and just good ol’ skirmishing. RPGs must have an engaging story element to propel events onward. Strangely, you’ll wander the landscape and find yourself not really caring what happens next. Not because the action is so riveting, but because the script gives you so little to go on. If the designers weren’t so intentionally vague with people, places, and events, then a player would be given a greater sense of inspiration. Merely moving across a nameless landscape to rid “the land” of “evil forces” just doesn’t give you much to fight for.
If misery loves company, then you may invite a friend for some multiplayer action on the RTS or RPG side. An editor also exists to give you artistic license in creating your own maps, RPG adventures, and RTS campaigns. This may be an attractive option if you grow tired of this game as quickly as I did. The in-game maps all lack any pizzazz and traveling through environments (hills to woodlands to riversides) seem to lack any coherency. You move along linear paths in a Randomly Generated Land, slaying randomly placed creatures, and running past unmanned and seemingly pointless monuments.
OUAK does have a decent AI in operation. A heavily wounded enemy will often retreat to (supposedly) lick their wounds—although this is hit or miss at times. Just as often as an enemy retreats, they’ll charge right back into the fray with no health regained--but will have a sudden resurgence in morale. On a strong note, if you’re attacked by several enemies and your chosen target retreats, you won’t run after the wounded unit while the other enemies are shoving swords in your back. You’ll stand your ground and face the more immediate threat—a significant improvement over several other RTSs.
OUAK’s surprising high point comes in the form of its soundtrack. Well-composed, hauntingly beautiful melodies and vocals are a welcome addition; but again, they don’t interplay with the failed comedic stabs the writer’s were aiming for. No, commissioning Weird Al Yankovic would probably not be my first solution to that contradiction. The battle ‘mood music’ that matches pace with the onscreen action may come off a bit jaunty at times, but I like it. It sets the mood somewhere between Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Then (just as you thought I might end this tirade on a positive note) you’ll find yourself leaning in to your speakers or jumping back as the vocals, soundtrack, and sound effects all fight a losing battle against each other. Not one conversation will pass without annoying variations on the volume, and that hauntingly beautiful soundtrack I mentioned will undoubtedly muffle key points of dialogue.
I am naturally going to be suspicious of a game with split modes of play. One that seamlessly incorporates multiple gameplay options is one thing, but with Once Upon a Knight you’re given two painfully undistinguished RTS and RPG approaches. Plots are thin, characters are generic, and overall I’m just unconvinced of any need to play the game through from beginning to end.
Atari takes a dangerous gamble by promoting a comedy-based RTS and RPG. In doing so, they created a product with appeal to a very narrow marketâ€”and then fail to deliver to that same selected audience.