Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is not to be confused with Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, the latter is a slightly odd hack and slash RPG, notable for its use of the Fallout S.P.E.C.I.A.L system and very little else. The former is Neocore’s follow up to last year’s King Arthur: The Role Playing game, that they’ve chosen a title so similar to Legacy of the Crusader, is probably evidence that I was the only person foolish enough to actually buy it.
Kings’ Crusade takes the King Arthur approach to warfare and transplants it to the 12th century middle-east. As either Richard the Lionheart or Saladin, your job is to conquer or liberate the Holy Lands in the name of god and country. You’ll do this through the two different campaigns, one for Crusaders, where you’ll lead the armies of Richard the Lionheart as he stomps around the Middle-East and one for the Saracens, where playing as Saladin you’ll liberate the lands from the infidel oppressors. The two campaigns diverge slightly from each other in terms of mechanics. Playing as the Crusaders you’ll have various factions to appease in order to unlock bonuses for your army, powerful faction specific units and heroes to lead your forces into battle. Pleasing the factions is a case of favouring their battle plan before a mission starts, or interacting with one of the role-playing events that periodically appear on the campaign map. For the Saracens you’ll earn research points, which can be combined with Ducats (the games currency) to purchase upgrades via a traditional tech tree. The differences are largely superficial, allowing a steady drip-feed of upgrades to the make-up of your army no matter which campaign you choose. The Saracen campaign follows on from the Crusader one, so you get the joy of undoing all the hard work you’ve done previously. Playing the campaigns in order is highly recommended, with the Saracens offering a challenge that even a battle-hardened veteran of the Crusades will find difficult.
The Crusades setting is an iconic one and it works well as the backdrop for a game of this nature. Films like Kingdom of Heaven have shown us the political complexity of crusading and though you can earn fame with the different factions, it’s somewhat disappointing that diplomacy and political manoeuvrings amount only to working your way through an unlock tree. Having said that, it makes sense in the context of what Neocore are trying to do with Lionheart, which is make a game that sees you taking a fledgling Crusader or Saracen army and build them into a force for the ages to remember. Besides, at least with Lionheart we don’t have to watch Orlando Bloom doing his best impression of a gurning muppet recently escaped from Jim Henson’s workshop as he flounces around the Middle-East. Though the talents of Mr Bloom are not on offer, Lionheart does force you to endure some pretty poor performances in terms of voice-acting.
Generally in games of a historical nature, English actors are employed for ‘authenticity’, while obviously the idea that everyone spoke in English back in the olden days is nonsense, it’s something we by now come to expect and accept. What we don’t expect is American accents, by actors who have no idea how to deal with these old world pronunciations. It may be a minor point, but listening to Saladin pronounced ‘Sulardin’ by someone who sounds as though he believes history was invented in the 18th century does not a good introduction make. The voices for the Saracen campaign are mildly better, where at least an attempt towards authenticity is made and mercifully voice acting is scarce throughout the game.
The issues don’t end there however, the biggest problems come during the battle phase of the game. On the surface and zoomed out things look fairly pleasant, with 3d models representing your units and detailed environments, it’s only when you zoom in to see a battle play-out that it becomes evident that Neocore don’t have the resources available to the likes of Creative Assembly. Units stagger around drunkenly in battle, for the most part completely missing each other with the pointy things that are presumably supposed to spilling their enemies guts into the sand. Eventually some of the units appear to get a bit dizzy and fall over before disappearing, presumably eaten by dreaded sand monsters. The action is best enjoyed zoomed out and these issues are for the most part easily ignored, the lack of permanent corpses is a slight disappointment though, one of the joys of the Total War series is surveying the carnage you’ve wrought with corpses littering the ground in testament to your tactical prowess.
Despite these niggling issues, for the most part the battle portion of the game is very accomplished and it can be highly satisfying when you pull off a victory against the odds. The order of the day here is not just victory but self-preservation. Your units are not simply the fodder of war, sent callously to their deaths to hold onto a hill of minor importance, they are the lynchpin upon which your success and failure will hinge. As such you’d be wise to do your best to keep them alive; generally stronger than your foe, but lacking in numbers, your units stay with you throughout the campaign. Growing from raw recruits fresh off the boat into battle hardened veterans, each unit has their own strengths and weaknesses following a relatively easy to follow rock, paper, scissors formula. Spearmen kill cavalry, cavalry kill archers and light infantry, heavy infantry beats spearmen and so on, it’s not exactly rocket science but the challenge comes from manoeuvring them and positioning them to break down and destroy your foe. Battles can range from sieges, to ambushes, to holding strategic points and often you’ll be able to utilise deployable weaponry such as trebuchets, ballista, oil traps and cavalry-deterring stakes. One thing of note is that by default all your ranged units will auto-fire and attack nearby enemies, when said enemies are in a close quarters melee battle with your own units, this can lead to friendly fire accidents that will have a resounding effect on your overall campaign. In short, units are very precious, but they are also very stupid, you’ll need to micromanage them with precision to avoid catastrophe.
Between battles you’re confronted with the campaign map, not only is this where you’ll choose your next conquest, but it’s also where you’ll deal with army management, faction relations and unit equipment. This is where the RPG aspect of the game is managed and it’s surprisingly in depth, with individual units able to equip weapons, relics, armour or potions looted from the battle-field, level up and choose between a number of powerful skills. You’ll quickly find yourself becoming attached to veteran units and rely on them to make the difference in close fought battles. You’ll also find yourself horribly frustrated when a misguided catapult operator sends a giant ball of stone into your valuable cavalry, leaving them all but destroyed. Units do regain some lost troops between missions (especially if you’ve hired a healer) but for half-dead units you’ll have to rest them between missions. As the campaign progresses you’ll find yourself engaged in a balancing act between using half-strength veteran units mixed with raw and rubbish new recruits, giving those most direly in need the chance for rest as your treasury empties rapidly.
Lionheart really does require the heart of a ferocious member of the Felidae family to be successful, because even on the lower difficulties it can be a brutal and unforgiving game, requiring you to constantly be aware of all the events unfolding on the battlefield. It’s a game of using superior units and hopefully superior tactics to destroy a foe whose number exceed yours, often by the hundreds. As such it can be extremely engrossing and enjoyable as well as table thumpingly frustrating. Although lacking in polish, Lionheart succeeds by punishing you and your pixelated allies, until you grow into a caring yet often abusive relationship with one another.