Review: King of Dragon Pass (Steam Edition)

While more expensive than its original ancestor, King of Dragon Pass' Steam edition includes great improvements to both the engine and the game itself.  It works and looks much better on modern machines at a reasonable resolution, and there are a variety of new events, artefacts to gather, and more, that make the game more than worth the price of admission.  On its own, KODP a great game well-conceived that is a stand-out for its unique combination of mechanics and compelling story-telling based on player choice.

Review: King of Dragon Pass (Steam Edition)
Date published: Nov 6, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Editor's Note: This review of the Steam edition is written using a copy provided free of charge as a gift by a reader.

King of Dragon Pass is a sort of turn-based strategy game developed and published by A Sharp, with this new steam edition being published and maintained by HeroCraft, LLC.  The more attentive of my readers are probably wonder why I am revisiting this title when I already reviewed it a short time ago.  Well, the answer is that now on Steam we have a remastered and reworked edition, that includes changes to make the game much more workable on modern machines, including new higher-rest art, a better interface, and on top of that, a plethora of new game additions.  So it seemed appropriate to take a look at this new version of the game and see if it was a worthy successor to it's storied but underrated predecessor, or if they messed it up as many a "HD remake" seems to these days.  Well, 100+ hours into playing the Steam edition later, I can happily say that it definitely seems to be the former.  I don't think I've gotten this pulled into a game since the release of Saints Row 3.

The story-telling aspect has only been improved

Cornerstone to the original King of Dragon Pass' design was the visual-novel-style storytelling through the various events that befall the clan you are managing.  You are given a series of procedurally-generated choices over the course of the game, each one affecting the clan over the future.  From things as small as resolving clan disputes, to dealing with monstrous emissaries or catastrophic happenings, each of these give you a variety of choices, and it's up to you how to deal with them.  Most of them branch out in a variety of ways to give different results, some positive, others negative, and while your chosen circle of clan leaders can offer counsel, it's on you ultimately.

The unique selling point of King of Dragon Pass, at least to my mind, is those choices.  They offer a very organic way to account for player choice in the game's narrative, in remembering and branching paths as a result of the various choices the player makes through the course of managing their clan, and hopefully on the way to winning the game.  The Steam edition of the game offers quite a few new encounters as well, all of them as gorgeously-illustrated as the originals were and there wasn't a single one that wasn't interesting, though some more so than others.

Heroquests present a great way to communicate the lore

Ultimately, your goal with most of the management is to be able to perform what are called Heroquests - sorts of spiritual journeys in the realm of the Gods to retrace their footsteps.  Along with helping you unite the various clans into a tribe - your end game goal in a 'short' KODP game - these Heroquests can also be undertaken to rectify certain disastrous events, strengthen your ruling council, or bring you goods, treasures, or food, or reconcile problems internal or external - though which of these options are available depends upon the specific Heroquest in question.

I find the Heroquests really to be the apex of the narrative in some ways, because it's a perfect marriage of careful planning (management aspects), with the choice-based dialogue (narrative), and most of them are completely recoverable and doable with less than ideal paths.  Some are more dangerous than others mind, but there wasn't a time I failed one when I felt that the game was screwing me - I either used a non-appropriate companion (pairing followers of a certain God to that God's Heroquest(s) is ideal), or I did something wrong, or the quester wasn't strong enough to succeed, which reflects poor planning if you do.  And along the way, as you are going through these various Heroquests, the game is presenting you with interesting bits of the background lore of the setting to learn, and I found that aspect of it quite captivating.

Management aspects are both deep and essential

Management of the clan revolves around seasonal and yearly levels.  Each season you'll be able to tweak a couple of things (take a couple actions basically), and usually, have to make one (or more) of those narrative-driven decision points.  Then, at the beginning of each new year, you can allocate magic to different aspects of your livelihood - for example, crops, child-bearing, magic, war, and so forth.  There's a lot of different aspects to the management, and it does a spectacular job of both having a deep simulation of the various aspects whilst at the same time not being impenetrable to the lay-person.  That's not to say it is easy - though the learning curve has been somewhat smoothed over compared to the original - but it's not unduly hard, either.

Essentially, the management breaks down into a few core components: ensure your clan is happy, see that they're fed, manage defences for the clan's land (tula), explore the surrounding land, and cultivate magic to ultimately go on Heroquests.  While it'd be quite a length review to say the very least to go into each in great depth, let's touch on each of them in turn.

Happiness is probably the most nebulous of the goals in the management section, but it's not hard to grasp how you achieve it: your clan wants you making decisions in line with their origin story (which you chose for them), and they want things to be going well.  It can also cause strife if, for instance, you are consistently choosing the warriors over the farmers or vice versa, in your decisions.  It's fairly intuitive to grasp how to make people happy, but as hard decisions come and go, keeping them that way is the difficult thing.

Exploration is essentially a way for the player to invite all manner of different narrative choices on them and acts as a lever for a player to summon those events.  Which one appears depends upon the area you explore - anywhere from your own tula to the furthest reaches of Dragon Pass.  There's all manner of different things, peoples, and monsters to encounter out there, and I don't want to spoil, so let's just say that the exploration is one of the more rewarding parts of the game and essential to success - both, in terms of learning to understand the land you're settling in (it's another vehicle for the lore), and in getting powerful artefacts that give you big bonuses.

While the Heroquests are something we've already touched on, that's just the end goal of the magic system.  As mentioned prior, you have a certain lot of clan magic you can allocate yearly, but you also have the worship of the various gods during the seasons.  You can sacrifice goods or cows to them to gain all manner of blessings, or build shrines and temples to get one, two, or three blessings from them on a permanent basis, with an associated upkeep cost.  The progression here towards both discovering those blessings and discovering the Heroquests, is sacrificing for "secrets" - sacrificing those goods to have said Gods reveal the secrets of worship to you.  You start with secrets from the God you chose loyalty to in the creation, and usually one Heroquest involving that God, but the rest must be learned through secrets sacrifices.

Combat - a key element in the game - feels a wee uninvolved

Food and warriors are a little more hands-off in a way - while you can directly affect them in a manner by getting farmers and warriors more equipment and recruiting more of them or changing the numbers between the two (sending warriors to become farmers again, or training farmers as warriors, or having some farmers hunt) - both the actual combat and the harvest is fairly hands-off.  You get what you get with either, and you can just hope the yearly allocation of magic picks up the slack if you're flagging.  You do occasionally get the choice to make about specific events (a pivotal moment in a combat for example), but beyond that, the results are left to the ineffible mechanisations of the procedural generation.  While I don't particularly mind that in the farming, this leaves the combat - something that can have devastating effects on your clan if you lose - something you can't really control beyond that initial preparation of building defences and training warriors, and as such it feels like you are uninvolved in one of the more important aspects of the game.  You can trade for food or cattle in a pinch (along with many other items), but you can't easily replace burnt down houses or entire groups of warriors whom got wiped out.

Combat represents a point in the game where, other than the occasional special event in the combat, you are essentially left more to the preparation - and, to be fair to the game, there's plenty to be done here.  You have two types of warriors - unskilled skirmishers essentially taken from a percentage of your farmers, and dedicated warriors called weaponthanes.  You can train additional weaponthanes, but you need horses, since they are mounted warriors, which occasionally are born out of your existing lot, or you can trade for, and it's usually the latter if you're trying to recruit a large number of them.  Recruitment itself involves training so it's not a given, though you can specify to try to recruit out of the clan or give additional gifts to the recruits to help guarantee success, so rather than specifying a number and getting them, you specify a number (up to the additional amount of free horses you have), and then get up to that number.  You have to be careful though, if you are recruiting internally, not to take too many hands from the fields - and more weaponthanes about also means more expectation of you raiding opposing clans as well - warriors get restless in peacetime.

The combat system otherwise revolves around those raids.  Defensively you have a couple handfuls of structures you can build as fortifications that give you various bonuses in the event that you are attacked, and if you are, depending on whether you are determined to have seen the enemy in time, you get either a full or partial compliment of defenders.  On the offensive, you have two options - a cattle raid, where you send a small team in to steal cattle hopefully unnoticed, or a full-on-raid, where you can go to seize land (if they're neighbouring), burn steads, take captives, or just slaughter the enemy.  In either case, if and when combat is joined, you can offer sacrifices to Orlanth (all-Father god) or Humakt (god of War, basically) prior to the battle, which offers a risk of being overrun at a reward of stronger battle magic, and then you chose to skirmish (engage at range), maneuver (try to outflank the enemy), charge (directly engage), or evade (basically just survive).  Once those choices are made, the outcome is, as mentioned, left to the mechanisations of the procedural generation.  The combat tactic you chose is essentially a rock-paper-scissors with the enemy's, though there's no real way to get tells on what the enemy will chose.  That said, since things like your fortifications, or the enemy's, their leaders and yours, artifacts, and more come into play, there's still plenty of change a numerically-superior enemy will fall and an inferior enemy will be victorious.  It really can't be understated how much of the game comes down to careful preparation.

The King of Dragon Pass

All of these aspects coalesce together to the ultimate end aim of the clan in the game: using a combination of conquest and diplomacy to form a tribe consisting of many clans, and if you're playing the "long" game, unite the other tribes into a kingdom, to become the titular King or Queen of Dragon Pass.  Diplomacy is the one aspect of the game we haven't covered yet, so lets take a look at that.  There's basically two "levels" of diplomacy in the game, as you might imagine: the work-a-day clan diplomacy, and then, if your tribal King or Queen is a member of the clan, tribal diplomacy.

Clan diplomacy is a game of favours owing, favours owed, and gifts.  You can request any manner of resources or magic from clans that owe you a favour, and they may do the same for you if you owe them.  You can choose to tell a clan you owe them a favour in exchange for services in certain seasonal events, and sometimes if you are especially generous to them in their requests, they will do the same.  You can likewise send gifts to different clans if you want to nurture relations.  You can also attempt alliances with clans whom are close to you (or ones that aren't, if you're feeling ballsy and have a really good negotiator), and try to end feuds with clans that you have been warring with - both actions that involve deeper conversation pieces when you get to them, which basically comes down to choosing the right way to please the other clan to gain the achieved result.  It works pretty well, without getting overly-complicated or convoluted.  While there's various factors always at play, the general cause-and-effect relationships are easy enough to deduce that it's not difficult to suss out how to succeed with various clans.

Tribal diplomacy, on the other hand, is a maze of conflicts.  Other than occasional get-together type events, the Tribal King or Queen is consulted when two clans in the tribe cannot come to a decision about a conflict between them.  You're essentially usually given three choices - try to determine the legitimate case of the two of them, pander to the one that offers you the most reward, or tell them to bring it to the full tribal moot (ie, the next get together)  Each of these has costs and benefits, and you also have to consider keeping all of the clans happy with the tribe as well.  So on the meta-scale, it's a matter of managing the complex inter-clan relations that spring up in a tribe, given each will have specific commitments and desires they make clear when you initially approach them to form a tribe.

Winning the game in a "short" length game is a matter of forming that tribe through diplomacy and the Making of the Storm Tribe Heroquest, and then holding te position of Tribal King (or Queen) for 10 years.  In the "long" length game, there is essentially a series of events that come up, that you must succeed at, which, without spoiling over-much, unites both tribes and the other inhabitants of Dragon Pass into one strong kingdom under your rule.  The longer game is, as the name implies, fairly longer, and more difficult for the length, though I wouldn't say it's any more difficult for the events.  Altogether, the short victory is not hard to obtain, if you know the game well, though the longer one can be.  For veteran players, there's a 'hard' mode that makes the game much more difficult in terms of the proc-gen, and for players that struggle, there's now an easier mode as well.

Art design is quite gorgeous, as is the soundtrack

The cherry on top of everything that makes this game I've found myself sinking so much time in is the absolutely gorgeous watercolour (or watercolour-style) art, and strongly thematic art throughout.  The soundtrack in particular is one of a handful of two game soundtracks I'd legitimately listen to away from the game on my iPhone when I'm up and about, and there's only a few others on that list (Transistor comes to mind).

That panel art though, is really brilliant, and applied throughout the game.  Without it, King of Dragon Pass would come across probably as an overly-complex text adventure, but with it, it's a lushly-illustrated world.  From character portraits for ring members, to the panel art illustrating various events, to the map of Dragon Pass, and throughout, the art is of great quality throughout, some of which I'd even go so far as to say are masterpieces of fantasy art, and they really do breathe life into what would no doubt otherwise be a very dense game for many.

Accessibility Notes

  • Requires keyboard and mouse.
  • The game includes no windowed options or ability to choose what monitor it plays on.
  • The game includes no volume sliders.
  • Manual for game is included as an online resource, and information is not accessible in game.

While more expensive than its original ancestor, King of Dragon Pass' Steam edition includes great improvements to both the engine and the game itself.  It works and looks much better on modern machines at a reasonable resolution, and there are a variety of new events, artefacts to gather, and more, that make the game more than worth the price of admission.  On its own, KODP a great game well-conceived that is a stand-out for its unique combination of mechanics and compelling story-telling based on player choice.</p>