Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Games Wii Forgot: Little King's Story


Developer: Cing
Publisher: Rising Star Games/Xseed
Released: April 09
Sales: ~240k worldwide

The two games featured so far in the Games Wii Forgot feature, which looks back at the best overlooked Wii games ahead of the E3 reveal of the console's successor Project Café, have both shown how motion controls need not be a pariah among traditional gaming experiences. Little King's Story doesn't use motion controls at all, yet is in a very different way a natural fit for its host console. It proves how deceptive appearances can be.

From the cover or any screenshot, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between this and the countless cutesy, disposable shovelware aimed at a market of parents with too little knowledge of the medium to know better than to put up the cash in the hope of keeping their little one quiet for another ten minutes. But beneath the bright colours and twee art style lies as game as hardcore in the purest sense of the word as any on any of this generation's consoles. It's a thirty-hour experience of battling to conquer a stunningly imaginative world whose inhabitants' bold designs defy their thuggish brutality and the tactical management of your troops is key to success. It's imperial conquest in pastel colours and definitely not one for tired mothers to put in front of their little darlings.
The game starts you off as a boy who has stolen a crown and taken control of a resoundingly unimpressive kingdom called Alpolko, where is employment is 100% and the locals only just outnumber the scant livestock. Your palace barely qualifies as a shack. With the help of your recklessly ambitious second-in-command Howser, complete with a fabulous military moustache, you rally your indolent subjects into scraping together a few pieces of treasure and building training centres to convert your citizenry into a fearsome(ish) fighting outfit. Within an hour, the town's looking better and you've assembled an army of sorts. Already, you've proven to be a ruler your people can be proud of. But as you look out over your kingdom and at the troops who have proven their worth in laying the smackdown on any creatures foolish enough to cross their path, an itch sets in. An itch that can only be scratched by venturing beyond the borders of your tiny domain. An itch for... more.

Looked at from a certain point of view, there's a sinister element to the game that never goes answered. What have these rival kings, whose lands you seek to take by murderous force, done to deserve the wrath you unleash upon them and their people? (They're a ragtag, mad bunch for sure, but that's hardly reason for invasion. How would the Dutch have survived if it were?). The only signs of oppression come from within your own kingdom, where citizens are ruthlessly converted into the cogs for a machine designed with the sole purpose of eradicating every and all trace of life outside its immediate frontiers. No wonder everything wants to attack you on sight.

The dichotomy between the game's ruthless politics and its colourful, happy-go-lucky aesthetics is deliberately played for great comedic and atmospheric effect. Without stating it directly, the game leaves you in little doubt of what you are doing. In particular, the people of the first kingdom you conquer bears a slightly unnerving resemblance to old golliwog dolls: hard to believe, given the game's subject, that this was a mistake. The suggestion box where citizens can leave their thoughts and opinions on your kingship, in addition to suggesting optional sidequests whose challenges can yield great dividends, is often littered with complaints and grumbles. As you conquer greater swathes of land, your polygamous practice of bringing back a princess from each  deposed king is seen with contempt. To your face, subjects are obedient and servile, but less shy at revealing their disgruntlement in paper form. Those Bowser-like tendencies of yours hardly go uncommented upon.

Even as they moan behind your back, it's hard not to develop an attachment for the strange folk you lead into battle. Even as your kingdom grows more affluent and cosmopolitan, the same agrestic superstitions and fears remain entrenched in their psyche, no moreso than with the appearance of an odd religion dedicated to the worship of soup (prayers, naturally, end with 'Ramen!') run by a preacher named Kampbell. They're a funny old bunch, each with their own name and characteristics in battle, that add much colour to the game. There's a quiet delight to helping them pair up and populate the next generation of Alpolkons, even if the children too must inevitably become a tool in your kingly lust for power and riches.

Much as it adds to the pleasure of being part of the game's world, there's a flipside to the fondness you develop for these people, which the game cruelly holds back until a few hours in. Early on, it is stated that troops defeated in battle will wash up the following morning on the aptly named Resurrection Beach. It's a neat trick to encourage the cavalier spirit needed to push forward into ever bigger battles even when your army is not yet as big or fearsome as you'd like. Yet one day, after returning home triumphant from another bloody fight that brought home great riches, a message appears on your screen that one of your men has suffered an injury too far and not washed up on the Beach. He has a name, this man, and suddenly you remember seeing him on your troop list and the truth hammers down that he will never be there again. The name becomes attached to a person, whose blood is on your hands. 

Worse still, as you walk amongst your people later that day, you see the relatives and friends he left behind, dressed in black and attending a funeral. It is rare that a game is either clever or brave enough to convey the devastating effects of a death on a community, on an individual, or to the player. It's the darkest of touches,  all the more powerful for the knowledge that the next day, the sun will be shining, the grass still a perfect green and the world as colourful and happy as it had been when your lost soldier still inhabited it. 

Once again though, you will rally your troops for a fresh campaign with no greater reasoning than the continued existence of unconquered land. But you will fight with more care to avoid getting that ominous message again, remembering the last rites of that first man fallen under your command. It's the game telling you to up your performance for the challenges ahead. No crude signposting, just a beautifully executed emotional coup to get the player moving in the right direction. It is game design by suggestion rather than instruction, showing the sophistication that underpins Little King's Story's garish exterior.

The game isn't only merciless in its treatment of its populace. Great demands are made of the player too, not least in omitting the safety net of a quicksave system. If you are defeated, it's back to the title screen with no option of restoring your progress since your last save. Chances are that you will learn this the hard way, losing at least an hour of play in a fell swoop. But once again, this is the game reinforcing the importance of thinking through your decisions, realising that your actions have consequences. It makes the fights more intense and the victories more thrilling. The game may brutally punish you for your failings, but they are failings all your own. This no-holds-barred mentality constantly forces you to be a better player than you were, and there's no more perfect definition of a 'hardcore' game than that, no matter the primary colours its worlds are painted in. Appearances, as you will come to learn, can be deceptive.



Silent Hunter said...

I remember seeing a review of this on a gaming show when it came out.

Thanks for the interesting article.

Xander Markham said...

It's well worth tracking down, Silent Hunter, one of the best games on the console in my opinion.

Thanks also for the shout-out on your blog, I tried to leave a comment but am not sure if it registered.

Everyone else, check here:

Lers said...

Wonderful write up of such a great game, I really loved it.

Actually, now that I think about it, I don't think I ever finished LKS. I got to the boss, but that fight is super hard. And I think our Wii is broken now, lol. It's just a fancy Gamecube.

Jason said...

I found this game to be a ton of fun. I figured it as a mixture of Pikmin and Warcraft. The controls weren't bad either.

I stopped playing after I had gone a few hours without saving and the game froze. I was too upset to go back and now it has been so long that I don't even remember what I was doing.