Little King’s Story ~ Memory Review

Memory reviews: A series of highly subjective weekly reviews of games I no longer own, arranged in the order in which I played them, starting with the most recent. These reviews are likely to be shorter than previous reviews, although not in this case and hopefully will capture the points, good and bad, that stood out and stuck with me about the games in question. 
For a more detailed description of this idea, click here. Previous entry: Pilotwings Resort

Released in 2009, Little King’s Story was one of the Wii’s best and most overlooked games. In it you play as a small child who becomes King (this was a pre-Game of Thrones world where such a concept seemed cute) of a small kingdom called Alpolko. When the kings of the neighboring seven kingdoms start badmouthing you and saying you ain’t all that you won’t stand for it. It’s up to you to lead the invasion into their lands and bring those heathens into line by crushing them under your child size imperialist boots and unite the continent under your glorious reign. The gameplay can be broadly divided into four sections: the castle, the town and annexed territories, foreign lands and boss fights.
The castle (or royal shack depending on how far you are in the game) is where you rest your weary head and make many of the decisions about the running of your kingdom. Later in the game you can attend to other weighty royal matters such as playing table tennis with a cow.
Upon sitting on the throne, your three advisors present you with options. Verde lets you save your game and provides you the option of feigning interest in the opinions of your subjects. Liam gives you information about the world and how the game works. Finally, Howser, your xenophobic, bloodthirsty but nonetheless effective second in command with a wonderful theme tune provides you with a range of tasks and options. He is the one to deliver the aforementioned royal smack talk and also presents you with letters from citizens asking you to solve a problem for them (generally through the medium of gang violence). Howser also presents you with the kingdom plan so you can decide how to invest the royal coffers. Investing in homes increases the number of citizens, investing in trade schools or shops lets your citizens learn valuable new skills (for example investing in a barracks unlocks soldiers). Another important part of the castle is the royal stump (my name not theirs), later the royal balcony from which you can summon a group of citizens to accompany you into the wider world. Adjoining the castle is the princess house/harem where the princesses of conquered lands live. It’s as strange as that description makes it sound.

Your kingdom starts small, at the beginning it is little more than a small village. If you haven’t recruited a royal entourage at the royal stump you can recruit passersby (which is apparently the plural form) to follow you as you explore your territory. If you imagine Captain Olimar in an ermine cape you’re most of the way there. If you want to train them so that you can use a new skill (for example miners can break rocks, chefs can destroy giant eggs) you send them into one of the trade schools and they’ll emerge fully qualified moments later with the appropriate equipment (in the case of the cyborg giga carpenters it’s best not to think about this process for too long). Taxes can be collected by firing members of your train into homes. Investing in fancier and more expensive homes means you can get more money in taxes. New homes aren’t the only way to grow the population however. Sometimes, often in the heat of battle, love blossoms between members of your entourage or between random citizens. By launching the lovebirds into Kampbell’s soup themed church you can make them get married (again as sinister as it sounds) and shortly after a newborn baby will fall from the sky (at least that’s what I think happens). Another attraction of your kingdom is [player name] beach (which I suspect is a coding error) where fallen allies wash up the next morning.

Once you’ve assembled what you believe to be a good team you’re ready to venture out into unconquered territory. The time you spent assembling a team and leading them over the bridge and out into the world carries a certain sense of occasion which gives the game part of it’s charm.
In contrast to the conventional rustic kingdom dotted with fantastic moments of oddness (such as the cow print cannon that facilitates fast travel) each of the rival kingdoms has it’s own distinct theme. The personality of the kingdom’s ruler shines through in their kingdom (perhaps explaining why Alpolko is comparitively bland). For example the rotund foodie King Shiskababoo’s Ripe Kingdom is a colourful land/dessert cart with a suitably indulgent soundtrack. Hostile territories are filled with obstacles to overcome and caches of gold to discover as well as enemies to fight. It’s on this latter point that the game sometimes falters. Combat consists of sending your troops forward to attack enemies and recalling them when needed with the “b” button, hence the Pikmin comparison. However, positioning the cursor is quite tricky, needlessly so when the Wii-mote could have handled that function (as it does quite well in New Ways to Play Pikmin). The very streamlined controls generally make coordinating your troops quite irritating.

With proper planning and coordination your siege force will arrive at the stronghold of your rivals. This route itself can be far from conventional (I recall a hedge maze in one). With the exception of the rather tame earlier ones each boss fight is a surreal experience. In one a man hiding in an egg quizes you about the game. In another, a person with a television for a face, who appears to live in a television takes you to a giant war room style map and drops bombs on you (I think). One fight consists of scaling a mountain that is draped in the beard of the king. Merely writing these down feels more like describing some sort of fever dream rather than a videogame but there you are. However, with all this variety and deviation from the standard gameplay comes rough edges. The Shiskababoo fight (in which you knock the circular king around a pinball table to burn calories) is an assualt on the senses, the king is bouncing around, the music‘s still going strong, there’s constant motion, your men are getting crushed rather than actually sending the king in the right direction and there’s little in the way of clear feedback. Losing troops then losing entirely is a common occurrence in these fights. In some games this is fine. After you’re defeated you swear loudly for a moment1 take a breath and restart hopefully with some new insights gained from the previous attempts. In such a game a difficult boss is a test of skill and knowledge and upon beating the challenge there’s a feeling of having achieved something. In Little King’s Story victory only brings a tired sense of relief and the knowledge that you won’t have to do that bit again. By the time you’ve beaten the boss, the initial novelty has worn off and frustration at the actual fight itself has set in.

This brings me along nicely to the “big serious man making a fancy point thing” that I wanted to discuss: how much does the “game” bit in the “challenging reaction based action” sense2 of the word matter when assessing a game’s quality? I finished Psychonauts a little while ago and I thought about this kind of thing as I wrote my very in depth review. In the case of both games what could be called the core or at least most obvious gameplay was somewhat flawed. However once again in both games I felt that the art direction, music and general charm made up for these shortcomings. So in effect am I saying that I enjoyed these games more as films or television programmes? For example I’ve never heard of a game be slammed as bad just for an uninspired soundtrack.

Listen, I spent what could have been two hours of my life cutting out that picture of Tom Jones for the Gunpoint banner, so I wasn't going to pull the stops out on this one.
Listen, I spent what could have been two hours of my life cutting out that picture of Tom Jones for the Gunpoint banner, so I wasn’t going to pull the stops out on this one.
The hotly anticipated King Lear prequel!
The hotly anticipated King Lear prequel!
OK that's probably enough of this.
OK that’s probably enough of this.

The point I eventually arrived on in this confusing argument with myself is that segregating gameplay from these other components  like this ignores the sense of exploration that brings all of these pieces together. Would Psychonaut’s journey into the (in one case literally) twisted minds of those around you have the same impact if you were just watching someone do it rather than navigating those worlds yourself? Would tracking down the source of some absolutely appalling singing, recruiting him to your gang and then realising you don’t know how to make it stop be as funny if you watching some other schmuck try to tear out his ear drums? Would you still to this day remember the time you found these bizzare giant pink lips on the ground and nervously sent some of your men in to investigate it if it had been Martin Sheen with his finger anxiously hovering over the recall button for five minutes4 in case things got ugly? I would say no, no and probably not although granted he’s a fine actor. The hackneyed point I’m trying to make is that in spite of some shortcomings both games present well realised fascinating worlds and have a style to them that compels you to spend time playing them and to sustain through the occasional low points.

To conclude, Little King’s Story is a fine game in much need of some attention from the public. The Wii version can still be found in some stores (at least in my experience). A PSVita version exists which unfortunately I’ve never played so perhaps it might be worth reading up on that. If my constant linking to it hasn’t made it clear the soundtrack’s a wonderful collection of arrangements of classical tunes and some original pieces (see this interview). I hope that I’ve conveyed some of the bizzare humour and quirks of the game throughout the course of this review.

And now the quotes from site mascot the guy we put on the front of the website, Miister X.

“Wait a minute,” you say “what’s this guff?”. Here’s a quick refresher on the concept.

“How did you get my private number? I thought I made it clear to you nerds that my involvement begins and ends with you giving me money so you can put my face on your crap. My agent warned me about you, you’re blocked”

Insightful stuff.

1: Incidentally, this is why I wasn’t allowed play games when my Granny came over.

2: In no way am I saying that only games with “challenging reaction based action” elements can be called games. People who are far less dependent on quotation marks and run-on sentences than I have discussed how games both new and encompass a wide array of activities and styles. It’s just that in this case the “game” elements of Little Kings Story and Psychonauts3 are real time strategy and platformer  respectively.

3: Which if you’re reading these in the order they come up in the main text rather than just at the end hasn’t been mentioned yet.

4: Five minutes is a guess. It could have been more, it could have been less I was too busy chain smoking to steady my nerves to keep track of time5.

5: This is a joke. Don’t smoke kids.

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