As the old saying goes, you gotta do what you gotta do. Sometimes, that involves heading to the shops for some supplies. At other times, you need to walk the dog because it's your turn and he's giving you the puppy-dog eyes. Occasionally, your duty is to hunt down the armies of Death and stop him from opening gates into the real world, destroying all you hold dear with an army of undead monstrosities. You know how it is, and so does Kingdom of the Dead, a new horror FPS from Dirigo Games.
On paper (which, given its art style, is where it's most at home), Kingdom of the Dead sounds great. It's a mixture of pulpy graphic novel storytelling, straightforward shooter gameplay, and exploration. As anyone who's ever had to run an actual kingdom will tell you, though, it's all in the execution, and in this area, sadly, Kingdom of the Dead can't quite maintain the promise of its aesthetic. The design goals and ambition here are admirable, but there are a number of major issues holding Kingdom of the Dead back from true greatness.
Kingdom Of The Dead Offers Simple, Straightforward Shooting
As a shooter, Kingdom of the Dead's nearest ancestors is sixth-generation games like Darkwatch or Area 51, albeit wrapped up in that pretty pen-and-ink graphic novel aesthetic. You are Agent Chamberlain, a secret government agent whose newfound role is to battle back the forces of Death and save the world. Don't worry too much about the plot, though; it's absent for large swathes of the experience, bookending Kingdom of the Dead's stages. For the most part, Kingdom puts its emphasis on gameplay, which is wise, because the core loop is where most of its strengths lie.
At its core, Kingdom of the Dead is a very simple shooter. You have access to eight different weapons, all of which are pretty standard; melee weapon, pistol, shotgun, rocket launcher, et cetera. There aren't any twists on the classic lineup here, so you won't find any quirky alternate firing modes or rifles that shoot lightning. It's just you, hordes of the undead, and a range of standard weaponry to blast them away. That means the shooting has to feel good, and luckily, Kingdom of the Dead acquits itself pretty well in this department, if not perfectly.
Precision over sheer strength...makes each shot feel satisfying and weighty.
Although Kingdom might look like a "boomer shooter" from the outside, it favors precision over sheer strength. Clearing enemy hordes by head shotting each enemy meticulously usually yield better results than running screaming into the fray with your sword upraised. This makes each shot feel satisfying and weighty; you can't afford to waste bullets here. Sometimes, Kingdom also gives you a horde-clearing weapon and lets you loose, and in these moments, it feels great to tear through legions of enemies, each of them splitting apart with a satisfying crunch as you unload clip after clip into them.
The Level Design In Kingdom Of The Dead Is Surprisingly Varied
Since the core shooting is so simple in Kingdom of the Dead, the level design has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and it's surprisingly effective in this regard. Despite the monotone aesthetic, Kingdom manages to make each of its levels feel distinct. Exploring a quiet forest full of lurking terrors has a totally different feel to wandering through the corridors of a cultist mansion. There are even a few clever quirks and ambitious reaches in the level design. Later on, you'll be tasked with crossing a field while snipers draw a bead on you, forcing you to find cover organically and use those moments of respite to take stock.
Kingdom of the Dead manages to make the most of its limited control scheme. Just like the shooting, movement in Kingdom is simple and stripped back. You can run, jump, and shoot (or swing your sword), and that's pretty much it. Nevertheless, you'll need to exercise your platforming nous occasionally, and using elevation to get an advantage over your enemy is also a good idea. The level design and core gameplay work in tandem to create a sense of exciting variety that made Kingdom hard to put down after I'd finished a level. This isn't a long game, and the varied levels essentially made me want to clear the whole thing in a single sitting.
Unfortunately, there's very little to actually find within those levels, so there isn't much reason to wander off the beaten path. Higher difficulty levels add an additional objective, which is invariably a fetch quest to find an object appropriate to the level in question's theme. These objects don't do anything other than add an extra objective, so they don't feel rewarding to find. Outside of those objectives, you'll only find health bonuses, which aren't particularly useful, or extra ammo, which often isn't necessary if you have high accuracy. There's very little reason not to just run from point A to point B in most of the stages, usually via point C as you divert to find another boring fetch quest item.
Kingdom Of The Dead Simply Isn't Challenging Enough
In order for Kingdom of the Dead's horror elements to succeed, it needs to be decently challenging, or there's no sense of threat. Unfortunately, Dirigo's game utterly falls down in this regard. Kingdom of the Dead is an absolute walk in the park on two of its three difficulty modes. The undead hordes never overwhelm you in numbers sufficient enough to require real tactical thinking, and barring the occasional moment of inspiration like the aforementioned sniper field, I pretty much never died in combat. Although the core gameplay is fun, there's never a moment where it feels like you're triumphing over adversity thanks to your superior skill.
If you're looking for challenge, you won't find it in the boss battles.
Dirigo makes a big deal of what it describes as "old school bosses", but in truth, the bosses are a joke. I managed to kill every single one of them by unloading a Gatling gun clip into it and not moving from a single spot. Even the final boss went down with basically no resistance, so if you're looking for a challenge, you won't find it in the boss battles either. The bosses are suitably varied and impressive from a design standpoint, albeit a little cliched; they're mostly horror monster tropes, with one or two interesting surprises thrown in. They just don't do anything that warrants this varied design. Whether it's a giant snake or a massive undead abomination, all the bosses ever actually do is lumber slowly towards you while you destroy them with no effort.
Kingdom of the Dead does offer three different difficulty modes. They're roughly analogous to easy, normal, and hard modes, but with an extra twist: each adds a new objective. In the first, you simply need to reach the end of the stage. The second ups enemy density and gives you an extra detour, and the third asks you to complete the level with no civilian casualties. This third difficulty mode is immensely frustrating, and there's really no reason to choose it. Civilian characters are dotted throughout the stages, and saving them is relatively simple, but they can easily die to an environmental hazard or a stray enemy bullet you had no way of predicting. This extra objective is irritating and mostly luck-based, so if you have any sanity or sense of self-preservation, you'll play on the middle difficulty.
The Most Harrowing Kingdom Of The Dead Enemy? A Legion Of Bugs
There's a forest level partway through Kingdom of the Dead in which you're beset by hordes of spiders and their monstrous children. This level is a pretty good analogy for the game as a whole. To put it simply, Kingdom of the Dead is riddled with bugs. Some of them are innocuous; I saw enemies clipping through surfaces on more than one occasion and had some enemies simply disappear without a trace. Others are more irksome, like enemies that hide within walls and shoot you with complete impunity. You don't need to clear the whole level of enemies to succeed, though, so although these bugs are frustrating, they can largely be ignored or bypassed.
The worst and most egregious bug I had was at a later level. Partway through the stage, you'll suddenly be sprinting for your life through a rapidly deteriorating environment (again, without wishing to spoil). Slipping and falling means instant death. There's a checkpoint right before this section, but a bug meant that as soon as I died and respawned, I was simply falling through nothingness, dying repeatedly and having no chance to right myself. This essentially meant that death necessitated a restart of the stage each time. This bug happened no matter which of the level's checkpoints I visited or how I died. Luckily, it was the only bug of its kind I experienced during my playthrough, but it soured me on an experience that was already growing repetitive thanks to a lack of challenge or meaningful objectives.
Another major issue with Kingdom of the Dead is in the performance department. I'm running a decently powerful PC, and although my graphics card isn't absolutely brand spanking new, it should be able to handle a game like this. Sadly, in most levels, performance randomly dipped, with the frame rate tanking at seemingly unpredictable intervals. There are basically no graphical settings within Kingdom of the Dead's options menu, and switching off anti-aliasing did me no favors in this department. When I changed the resolution to its lowest possible setting, the problem persisted, so I have a feeling it's an issue on Kingdom's end and not mine. Even if you're running high-end hardware, you're almost certainly going to experience serious performance issues. They're not so bad that you can't persist, but they're irritating nonetheless.
Kingdom of the Dead | Final Thoughts
There are a few areas in which Kingdom of the Dead is an unqualified success. Its sketch-style graphic novel aesthetic is beautiful, and the core combat feels weighty and satisfying. Unfortunately, Kingdom can't muster a challenge to match the combat's potential. Enemy hordes and bosses go down with nary a complaint, which makes the interesting and varied level design feel wasted. A litany of bugs and performance issues also make Kingdom of the Dead hard to recommend in its current state. If you have any nostalgia for PS2-era shooters like Darkwatch or Project Snowblind, then Kingdom of the Dead is worth a look, but despite its developer's boasts of replayability, it's not likely to last you very long.
TechRaptor reviewed Kingdom of the Dead on PC via Steam using a code provided by the publisher.
- Beautiful Pen-And-Ink Aesthetic
- Satisfying Gunplay
- Varied Level Design
- Total Lack Of Challenge
- Gets Repetitive Quickly
- Serious Technical Issues