Time is a funny thing. As it passes, the present becomes our reality—if only for a fleeting moment—while we look back at our past, sometimes fondly for what it was. Time breathes life into our memories and desires, with nostalgia becoming the ether to our past selves. It was that same sense of intoxicating nostalgia I felt when the announcement of a game long faded in my memory was announced for a port: Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders.
That light feeling felt, however, cannot compete with time. Time is ever marching, and our present is ever evolving. Here, with Kingdom Under Fire, we have a hardcore, Warhammer meets Dynasty Warriors amalgam of ideas that played to my teenage sensibilities of fantastical brutality. Memories of late nights hacking and slashing across half-naked elves, heavy guitar riffs filling my ears as blood spurts across the screen flood my thoughts once more—a buried memory until recently. The mid 2000s was the tail end of my adolescence, the cusp of manhood firmly in sight yet not quite within my grasp.
Hindsight shows me this now, but at 17, the world was my oyster, and my tastes were of a particular kind that made games like Kingdom Under Fire stand out. Games too, were going through their own growing pains. The Crusaders is no exception to that awkward period most titles found themselves in. The advent of 3-D was streamlined, but like that awkward teenager I once was, the mishmash of ideas that felt edgy and counterculture in 2004 are now quainter and more ridiculous in 2020.
Kingdom Under Fire - Fighting the Controls
A lot of the failings of The Crusaders boils down to simple design decisions that have aged poorly. At its heart, The Crusaders is a light strategy game that mixes in action-based combat. Each mission relies on strategy to achieve objectives over brute force, so picking and equipping your squads of troops becomes important to most of the game's design.
There is actually a lot of thought put into this part of The Crusaders. Savvy players can use the elevation of the terrain to their advantage, use the sun to blind enemies in the right positions, and even the wind and rain to help manipulate fire and lightning. All of these are small details that give The Crusaders some bite to its strategy, and even with the limited field space and unit sizes, every little advantage like this enhances the experience by providing synergy with your tactics.
What harms the synergy is the movement controls. Likely to compensate for the lack of good RTS-style titles, original developer Phantagram locked the camera to a fixed position behind each squad. This makes cycling between them easier but camera and squad maneuvering difficult due to the fixed location. Measuring distance, assigning attacks, and even simple movements to face the right direction are an exercise of constantly wrestling with the camera, which always pivots to face behind your units unless you manually move them yourself.
This fixed view has not aged well. Many console based RTS titles have since perfected things with overhead modes and more robust camera control. This becomes even more apparent when your hero characters become the focus in the squad-based melees, with the button-mashing action becoming the focus, twisting the camera based on your heroes' moves.
Kingdom Under Fire - 2000's Edge
Beyond camera controls and movement, the design decisions in The Crusaders have also poorly aged. The main characters are basically edgy stock clichés, from musclebound loudmouths wielding a massive hammer to white-haired, sexy dark elves wearing nothing but a chainmail bikini. Even the poster boy of The Crusaders, the generically named Gerald, has frosted-tipped blonde hair and a gravelly, no-nonsense voice coming out of his sneering face.
Such a visual style is OK if it's done well. Dragon's Crown, despite the flack it received for being a throwback to escher poses and impossible waistlines, played with the hyper-sexualized artwork and made it aesthetically pleasing. It was stylized on purpose to be a conscious throwback to classic high-fantasy sidescrollers. The Crusaders, however, plays it straight, grimacing throughout at how dark and cool everything looks. It is an adolescent's dream in terms of art design, fitting right into the derivative nature of high fantasy and taking it seriously over chiding the excess.
It's clear through this was a conscious choice, considering how Phantagram was a Korean developer that was looking to emulate western fantasy. The Kingdom Under Fire series has always been an 'outsiders looking in' franchise aesthetically, comfortably being the outsider’s perspective that has been slotted to more successful games such as Dragon's Dogma and Dark Souls. Here though, the flashiness of Eastern-styled spectacle is muted completely, with The Crusaders lacking any sort of panache found in a Dynasty Warriors hack and slash. The action combat is incredibly shallow, playing as an exercise of button mashing without much in the way of fluid combos or strategic attacks.
It’s actually kind of disappointing how shallow most of The Crusaders is. The strategy portion is there but bare bones; there are a few troop types to keep in mind, each which can be leveled up with equipment and upgrades for the battlefield. Some are much more powerful than others, but overall the strengths and weaknesses of each troop type are straightforward. Players can also level up their troops with equipment, new skills from their squad leaders, and even hire mercenaries to join your army.
This seems like a ton of depth, but ultimately it is shallow when you compare it to even contemporary games of the day. While not on the level of hardcore RTS titles like Rise of Nations, The Crusaders was mostly functional because of its console limitations—a limitation that has been perfected and experimented on since then. Perhaps that is why The Crusaders was well-received; a functional RTS game on a console is rarity that helped it stand out amongst the competition in 2004. Couple this with the right mix of cheese, The Crusaders sticks out as an awkward but functional product.
Kingdom Under Fire - An Aging Crusade
Rightfully so it deserves its cult status, but Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, at the end of the day, is a game that has not aged well. The port by developer Blueside is a pure one, with little upgrades attached to it other than providing controller support and widescreen HD, which harm the visuals more than it enhances. Everything else, from the out-of-place guitar riffs to its try-hard design, feels trapped by its awkward roots.
Still, it is hard for me to even fully reject Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders as being a title to avoid. While it no longer really interests me, for some it may become another nostalgia trip that gives us another quick rush before we forget its existence once more. For others, it may be a nice entry point for themselves. Perhaps the current generation of fresh-faced, tech-savvy teens may find the strait-laced tropes and awkward controls more to their speed, hitting that sweet spot like all those who played it in 2004. Time is a funny thing, after all.