Review: Kingdom: New Lands

Kingdom: New Lands, an expansion of pixel-beauty Kingdom, is a minimalist strategy game where you must build a small settlement and keep your people, and more importantly, your crown, safe from increasingly large hordes of evil critters, who at night spawn from multiple portals to test your defenses. It’s been nearly a year since the first game was released, and now the developers are bringing an updated, expanded version to both Steam and the Xbox One, free for owners of the original game – but what exactly does change?

The first thing that needs to be said is that this game looks and sounds superb. Everything’s slick and clean, the pixel graphics carefully animated, from rain dripping on a river to the gentle blowing of branches, with appropriate sounds to match: not just the mechanical sound of your mount’s hooves clattering against the ground or your builders chipping away at a tree, but the background sounds of a bustling medieval city that play when you walk into your settlement. The soundtrack leaves none to desire, either, with a mix of piano and synth that at times blends to give you an impression of hopefulness and at others of dread and danger. You can listen to the original game’s soundtrack here, and to some of the expansion’s new tracks here.

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The seasons in particular add a new layer of dynamicity to Kingdom: New Lands, both visually and gameplay-wise.

As a large part of the enjoyment I had in Kingdom: New Lands was from discovering new things and finding out what this or that did, even if often discovering said things involved giving away coins in a gamble I was not sure would pay off, I will avoid spoiling much of the game in that sense. You play as an elegant, randomly-generated monarch (skin color, sex and banner sigil/colors), draped in a cloak matching your banner, and are given a very small set of tools to interact with the world: you can spur your steed to ride faster and drop coins. The coins you collect are used to hire villagers, craft them tools and weapons, build structures – from farmhouses to walls and archer towers – and other uses I’ll leave to your discovery.

This makes for seemingly simple gameplay, but when you start getting defeated by the hosts of evil by the twenty-fifth or thirtieth day, during a particularly devilish blood moon – a night where your enemies come in increased amounts and doubled fury – you’ll learn that resource management in Kingdom isn’t as simple as it seems. You’ll have to balance where you spend your coins, how far you expand your settlement and what tools you give to your recruited villagers, and it’s this balancing act that will dictate how successful you are: having an excess of farmers and gold will be all for naught if you skipped on improving your defenses and get overwhelmed; similarly, recruit too many archers and don’t invest in alternate ways of making coins and when winter comes – and here a Stark’s motto will be true sooner than you think – the lack of game will mean you’ll not have a source of income large enough to replenish your tools and villagers once your foes start bringing boulder-throwing ogres and flying fellbeasts that will snatch your men away from within your defenses.

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The English have nothin’ on my archers. Nothin’.

Despite the apparent, outward simplicity, there is a lot of detail in every interaction and mechanic in Kingdom: New Lands: there isn’t a UI to give you the time of the day,  coin counter that tells you when you’ll reach the maximum amount, a stamina bar for your horse or the remaining health on a wall – instead, every bit of information is given in an organic, visual way. Tire your horse too much and he’ll start to huff and puff, until he can sprint no more; the sun and moon hover over the sky from left to right, their disappearance marking the beginning of the next cycle; structures lose bits and pieces as they’re smashed by goblins and ogres; your coin bag fills up with coins until it starts spilling, among other visual elements that give you information without cluttering your view.

While some are evident, others will take you a while to notice – without spoiling too many of them, some of the most noteworthy are, for instance, the fact that if you allow your horse to graze for a bit before setting him on a sprint, he’ll last longer, or that if you have tools ready for a villager you’ve recruited, he’ll jog toward the settlement instead of walk, leaving him less exposed to the terrors of the night. Most of what I said was present in the first game, but there are some crucial differences in the expansion. For starters, Kingdom: New Lands mends a design mistake in the first game that was quite frustrating: rather than a single land, where a lack of foreknowledge will lead to your demise in the middle of the game, Kingdom: New Lands is comprised of multiple lands you’ll travel to, each of increasing difficulty.

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To the new, harsher lands I take a handful of archers and builders, along with a full purse. Will it be enough?

On my first playthrough I found out my lack of investment in long-term sources of gold meant loss was less than a fortnight away, but with the ease of the first land – there was only one portal from which the enemies spawned – I still managed to build my boat and venture to the second land, where I was able to use what I learned previously to have a better, more stable settlement. With each successive land I improved my settlement-building and resource-spending, all without having to go through the dullness of starting over due to a poor mistake.

This didn’t make me death-proof, however, and I did end up losing my crown at the last land, but having to start over only once – with the accumulated knowledge of several different, successful settlements – was much less frustrating than the constant affair with death I had in the original game. Not only that, but now that the game doesn’t revolve around destroying all portals, you won’t reach that plateau of boredom present in the first game, where your defenses are tip-top and all you do is run around gathering your coins and recruiting followers, ad nauseam – unless you’re aiming for achievements, you can easily complete each land in a few weeks.

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A bear, a bear! My kingdom for a bear!

It also capitalizes on what made the first game interesting – the sense of discovery. From the new mounts to the different NPCs and seasons, Kingdom: New Lands adds novelty to each land you go to, keeping things interesting and diminishing the late-game sameness that inevitably occurred in the game’s first iteration. You’re still doing much of the same – establishing an economy, sending a detachment of knights to destroy a portal, garrisoning your defenses and setting out with your monarch to explore the lands to the East and West of your budding empire – but with more things to find and to keep you entertained.

Kingdom: New Lands is a direct improvement of the original game: it doesn’t change the core gameplay or aesthetics, but it does add to both and build on what was already there. There are seasons that’ll make your trees bare and cover the ground in snow, elks to ride and bears to tame, and new lands to chart and expand your Kingdom to. It does away with the frustration of loss by implementing the new lands, where you can venture to and start anew – without the mistakes your previous, uninformed self did – and adds more things to keep you interested in the long-run.

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