Xbox 360 – A Kingdom For Keflings Review
So Microsoft has just released the famed NXE patch (shameless plug: see my review on it) and the first game they release that includes full avatar support is…A Kingdom For Keflings? What the heck is a Kefling? Worry not good sirs, although it has a rather odd title this new release from veteran Xbox Live Arcade developer, Ninjabee (Cloning Cloyd, Band of Bugs, Outpost Kaloki X), hits all the right notes while making the avatar inclusion more than an afterthought.
First off, A Kingdom for Keflings is not a title that is going to light the world on fire, especially those trigger happy first-person shooter diehards, but it has a charming appeal for those looking for a more thoughtful strategic experience. The game takes elements from past resource gathering / city planning games such as Black and White, Sim City and just about every RTS (real time strategy), like Starcraft and Command and Conquer.
The basic premise seems ripped out of your generic Disney fairytale. You play a gentle giant that attempts to help the local Kefling, basically another word for human, community build and expand their town. To do so you need to collect four basic raw materials: rock, crystal, wool and lumber. By picking up a Kefling you can then assign them to harvest any of these materials and subsequently guide them to their respective drop off structure such as a lumber mill or stonecutter. From there you can assign another Kelfing the task of transporting the finished goods to the local carpenter or other advanced industries like brick makers. Thus you begin to accumulate a stock of building materials that you then use to construct more advanced buildings such as castles or factories.
Along the way the local Kefling mayor will assign you certain quests that basically just ask you to create a set number of a particular building material. At first you might scoff at these menial tasks but the rewards the mayor gives out are actually necessary such as belts that make your giant carry more materials or others that make you move faster. Now and then the mayor will give out a heart that is necessary for attracting more settlers to your town. The more settlers the bigger your workforce you have working in the industries thus your output increases.
There are also items that are hidden on the map that reveal themselves after you harvest a particular resource. These too enhance your giant or aid in constructing certain buildings giving an extra incentive for players to walk around the whole map in order to search for them.
At the start of the game you make a choice of which giant to use from a small group of characters. There is nothing wrong with these pre-made giants but the majority of players will not opt for any of them and instead choose to play as their own avatar. What is surprising but delightful is that your avatar actually looks and feels like it belongs in the game’s design aesthetic. Whether by design or not, developer Ninjabee has created a whimsical fairy tale art style that makes your newly created avatar feel right at home. It’s actually rewarding to see “yourself” running around town helping the local population grow and expand. Not to mention, if they get a bit rowdy, or if you are feeling like laying down the law, you can order your avatar to kick a Kefling around to straighten them up. Now this is not to say you can bludgeon them to death nor can you kill them in any way. After all, Microsoft wants avatars to only be used in family type games.
What makes the game work is actually a striped away level of stress you usually find in other games of this ilk. Unlike, say an RTS like Starcraft, there is no tension created by threats to a player. There are no enemy forces to combat nor are there even environmental disasters like those found in Sim City such as the earthquake or alien attacks. A Kingdom for Keflings focuses all its attention on building and expanding your town and it leaves the pace of progress entirely up to the player. While that might sound tediously mundane the simple joys of the game are found in how you manage your building placements properly in order to maximize the creation of building materials while decreasing the amount of wasted time spent carting them around.
For instance, early in the game it’s easy to plan where to build certain structures. You can order a few Keflings to mine lumber near the town’s starting point and then direct them to move the harvested wood to the nearby lumber mill. This simple setup makes the initial section of the game seem a tad easy but things can get hectic as you continue to build new structures. If you don’t manage building placement well you might find that deeper in the game your Keflings are walking half the map in order to move the lumber from the mill to the advanced building that creates crafted wood. This inevitably is a mismanagement of time and leads to bottlenecks in your building process.
Other games might punish the player for lousy placement but this game does not. In keeping with the relaxed atmosphere you can easily rip apart existing buildings by basically punching them three times. This breaks the building up into its component parts that are easily moved to where you want on the map. This is a huge plus as other games would probably let you do so but apply hefty restrictions and resource fines on you if you messed up.
Controls in the game are intuitive and the developers make the prudent choice of streamlining the interface thankfully removing layers of menus and options. With the click of a button you can pull up a blueprint overlay on the screen showing the current building you are constructing and its component parts. Assigning or reassigning Keflings to certain buildings and tasks is also easy as pie. Once a new Kefling shows up they just wander around the board occasionally waving at you so you notice them. All you need to do is have your giant pick them up and move them where you want them to work. If you want them mining rock just drop them on top of a rock pile and they begin to hack away at it. By picking them up another time and depositing them on the stonecutter building you easily setup a simple path whereby your Kefling will automatically walk mined stone to the cutter. If a particular building requires one Kefling to run all you need to do is drop an unassigned Kefling right on top of it and the game AI automatically will allocate it to run the structure.
Reassigning Keflings is just as simple. After you give a Kefling a job a hat will appear over their heads denoting the particular task they are currently employed in. All you have to do is have your giant pick them up and take off their hat, in effect making them jobless. Now you just place them where you want and assign them a new job.
The game is not without its faults the biggest being a rather jerky frame rate. I would expect a lower rate when the map is filled with a plethora of buildings and moving Keflings but even at the start of the game it’s incredibly rough. I don’t have the equipment to accurately measure it but it’s definitely far below the standard 30fps. If I ventured a guess it would be in the lower twenties. This is not so bad if the game is played in short thirty-minute sessions but after spending 2-3 hours in a row my eyes were feeling stressed out.
This reduced frame rate is constant throughout the game no matter what is occurring on screen but really takes a dive when the seasons change in the game. Although it is a decent visual treat to see autumn turn to winter I’ve had many experiences where the frame rate nose-dived and in some cases the game actually paused for around a second. Not exactly deal breaking but it makes you wonder if the game could have been further optimized for another month or so to iron out the kinks.
The other issue is the constantly looping musical soundtrack that plays the same song over and over ad infinitum. At first it’s nondescript melody doesn’t intrude but 2-3 hours later you are bound to get just a bit irritated that Ninjabee didn’t include more tracks. My advice, just turn it off and play your own tunes.
Perhaps the greatest issue with the game stems from the denouement. Simply put, when you finish building everything possible there’s nothing really left to do except either start a new game or continue honing your current layout until you are completely satisfied with your building management. It doesn’t help that there’s only one included map and that there’s no way to run out of resources. Hopefully, Ninjabee will release some add-on scenarios or at least new maps in order to spice things up. Still, it took me around 6-8 hours of gaming till I reached the end which is longer than I’ve spent on most Xbox Live Arcade titles.
It is regrettable that A Kingdom for Keflings might not reach a huge audience but those who invest their time and energy in it will find one of the services better entertainment values. Fans of resource gathering and building management flow games will have a blast and be charmed by its cheery non-violent atmosphere.
Note: The game also contains a co-operative multiplayer mode where up to four players can work on building the town at the same time. However, for this review I was not able to try this feature. I’m assuming the building process and resource gathering would work at an accelerated pace but I’m not sure if the frame rate holds up or just how much more fun it would be even with three of your mates. I can imagine a nightmare scenario whereby someone you don’t know just shows up in your game to wreck or re-arrange all your buildings.
*** out of ****
Release Date US: November 19, 2008
ESRB Rating: 10+
© 2008 The Galactic Pillow