Kingdom: New Lands review impressions

Kingdom is the core idea of a strategy game, stripped down to its bare bones.

All the stuff that “should” be in a game about building up the eponymous kingdom is present: you grow your population, build a more complex economy, forge weapons, and fight off enemies. But the thing that makes it special is that it’s wrapped in a package that looks like anything but a Civilization or Crusader Kings. With gorgeous pixel art, pleasantly simple music, and no text or menus to speak of, Kingdom looks and feels like a Limbo-like indie throwback.

So here’s what you do. You play a ruler on horseback who basically gathers and dispenses coins on a two-dimensional, side-scrolling map. The only relevant buttons are moving left and right, galloping, and using coins. See a tree, drop a coin on it, and a builder citizen will walk over and chop it down. Find a camp with indigents, drop a coin on them, and they’ll join your army. Drop ten coins on your wooden home castle and watch it turn into a stone one, which allows the recruitment of knights, for price.

And yet within that, there’s a decently robust strategy game, something of a cross between a survival strategy game like RimWorld and a tower defense game. Every night, little demons come and attack — or big demons during the dangerous “blood moons.” If you don’t have your act together, you can lose the game, or find your budding kingdom crippled economically by the attacks.

There are two core choices you’re constantly making in Kingdom: how to spend the money your little citizens collect for you, and when to risk expanding. When you start a new game, it’s worthwhile to build a bunch of bows for your citizens: during the day, they’ll hunt rabbits, which turns into gold, and at night, they’ll fend off invaders. But rabbit gold only lasts so long — eventually it’ll be more efficient to build farms and buy farming equipment for your people, which has much more of an up-front cost.

Although, when I talk like this, I make it sound like Kingdom is a cold hard game of numbers, and at its center, it is. But that’s not what it seems like at first. You wander around a map, taking in the atmosphere. Here’s a random shrine that costs seven gold to activate — what does it do? There’s mystery and nuance here, and learning Kingdom is a process of trial-and-error.

Going back to chopping that tree down: when you put the gold piece on the tree, it gets an ‘X’ put on it. There’s no way to erase that mark — your worker will come and try to chop the tree down even if he’s totally exposed to demon attacks. And chopping the tree will change the map permanently as well. If it’s the last tree between your base and recruit camp, chopping it down gets rid of that camp forever.

Meanwhile, there are demon portals spewing enemies every night, and more and more come each time. If your ruler gets caught out in the wilderness at night, with an exhausted horse, you can lose the game almost immediately. If you want to make your lands safe — or win the game — you’ll have to risk sending your armies to attack the portals.

Again, all of this tense, strategic decision-making is wrapped in a charming, downright soothing package. You’ll be riding your horse back and forth a lot — perhaps too much — but hearing the music, watching the wildlife, and seeing your kingdom develop makes it just…pleasing. Kingdom can be brutal when it drops a blood moon on you in the middle of upgrading your defenses, but it almost always feels nice.

Although it’s being released on the Xbox One for the first time, the “New Lands” of the title is a free expansion for Kingdom for PC players. There are fun little additions, like weather effects (the snow is lovely) and magical new mounts, like a massive stag.

But New Lands marks a fundamental change in how the game works. Where once there was just a random new land, sometimes harder, sometimes easier, that you built and learned from in defeat, there’s now a slowly escalating campaign, where you build a ship and travel from land to land.

This campaign makes Kingdom more palatable — it’s possible, even fairly easy, to win initial scenarios, which was very much not the case in the original version. But some of the magic seems to be gone. Instead of playing the same simple start and slowly learning how to master the game, the mastery comes quicker, and defeat — which knocks you back to the first land — feels more arbitrary and painful. Kingdom is still a very good game, but it’s a little less demanding and obsession-developing than it once was.

In the end, it’s hard to find any kind of reason not to recommend Kingdom to anyone curious. Yes, it’s as charming as it looks, yes, the learning curve is as clever as it sounds, and yes, there’s a legitimate strategy game underneath the rustic charm.