The land of Brittania in the age of Arthur and Merlin is a strange one, various Sir’s, Ladies, Knights and Kings travelling around various provinces with footmen, bowmen and other-worldly creatures in their retinue. It is a world where Scotland is but a note in a Chronicle, a place where the mystical Bedegraine forest guards hidden secrets.
King Arthur: The Role-playing Game to give it its full title is a grand strategy game reminiscent of the Total War series. The action takes place in Brittania where you follow a series of quests based loosely on the legend of King Arthur and Merlin. While King Arthur takes place on a smaller scale than what you see in the Total War games, it works to its advantage as places a tight focus on the events in Brittania following a story based on an amalgamation of traditional Arthurian legend and a healthy dose of re-imagining from the developers NeoCore.
Although Arthur’s name is in the title of the game, he is a figure who doesn’t appear in the game in any way other than as a portrait on his Roundtable or when mentioned in the Chronicle which fills you in on the background of the game. The events of the game surround various Knights, provincial Kings and Sirs who occupy your Roundtable, these are the figures who will lead you to glory, or to abject failure.
Brittania is split into numerous provinces, each of which is home to a town, a mine or in some cases a Stronghold. You must own each of these places in a province in order to take control and reap the tax from the peasants. Different towns or outposts provide bonuses to your armies while some allow you to recruit new units to fill your ranks. Recruiting is based on the seasons, each turn in the game takes you through one season, depending on the number of units you recruit you may find yourself waiting one turn or maybe three. While your units are being recruited your army will be camped down unable to move, however opposing armies can still attack, careful timing is essential.
An important part of the seasons comes in winter, in this frozen month no armies are able to move, but this is when your units and Knights will level up. You can invest in your Knight’s leadership, combat skills and suchlike and also improve and learn new spells. Winter is also the time to research new units and change the laws of your land, though you are only able to do this once have conquered a Stronghold.
As you move around the map you will come across little scrolls indicating a quest which you can take part in, these let you advance through the four chapters of the game and they expand on the mythology of the game through a mixture of cut-scenes and text pop-ups. The best thing about this system? The first chapter acts as a tutorial introducing you to the various mechanics of the game, but importantly it never mollycoddles you.
Quests unravel in a variety of ways, some throw you straight into battle, others present you with a little text adventure which lets you explore different options, you may chose to bribe someone to avoid a fight, lay an ambush on some guards and slice their throats when they tell you what you want to know or help out some monks. Your decision in certain quests affects which later quests will appear and your choices in the text adventure affect your morality and religious leanings.
The morality is a great part of the game, you can move towards being Rightful or a Tyrant as shown on the y-axis of a graph or on the x-axis you see how you lean towards the Old Faith or Christianity. Your positioning on this graph affects how your troops will react when you recruit a new hero of a certain persuasion, you must be careful not to ruin your morale by recruiting someone with an army of Giants and Bandits if you have a host of Crusaders in your midst. As your alignment changes you will find new units you can recruit and new laws you can enact. It is a great way of adding replayability to the game, things will play out differently if you play one game as Old Faith allied with Merlin and the Welsh and another as Christian turning your back on Merlin.
Of course the campaign map is only one half of the game, the battles are the other, though in my mind they are the weaker part of the game. They lack the level of control that you find in Total War and victories can be earned seemingly at random. Battle can be won by defeating all of the enemy or by reducing their morale to nothing. You can knock their morale down by a combination of having a larger force, defeating individual units and capturing Victory Locations. These are strategic points on the map which may provide a bonus to your army or just a single unit, what makes the battles slightly strange is that you can win with a smaller and weaker force just by controlling the Victory Locations and avoiding heavy losses.
Battles are a bit shaky at best, but they are often the safer approach than trying to auto-resolve, the AI controlled battles often lead to defeat or heavy losses unless you have by far the stronger force.
King Arthur: The Role-playing Game is a really impressive game, it may not have the polish you would expect, there are inconsistencies in what the voice-over says and what the text says in quests and the battles are fun but lacking in depth. The morality system and unique take on the seasons is very well done and the lore and mythology is enjoyable.