No publisher would have Battle Worlds: Kronos. King Art Games shopped it around, but no one was willing to take a risk on a turn-based strategy game that purported to take the genre back to its roots. While other turn-based strategy games were experimenting with ways to bring the genre up-to-speed and in line with the business of developing a game in today’s industry, King Art was making a game that was steeped in genre archetypes. In developer diaries it was heralded as a return to the days of old, when turn-based strategy titles weren’t littered with the dirty fingerprints of microtransactions, and the design principles that were the game’s foundation weren’t laid with accessibility in mind. It was supposed to be a return to the cold, harsh, uncompromising and unforgiving turn-based strategy game. But, does Battle Worlds: Kronos succeed at what it set out to do? Is it the glorious return of turn-based strategy as it once was, or is it another nail in the coffin of a niche genre that is struggling to find its place in the industry?
The answer is a bit of both. There’s a tough single-player campaign (which is unfortunately marred with some of worst writing in all of turn-based strategy) and a multiplayer component that is still getting its legs off the ground. It is a very traditionalist approach to a genre swarming with modernists who would seek to add a microtransaction here, an auto-management system there. King Art is making a game for people who love the challenge of the classic turn-based strategy genre. They are making a game for me. Not since Shattered Union, Advanced Wars: Dual Strike, and Dai Senryaky VII: Modern Military Tactics have I felt the core of the turn-based strategy genre expressed in a modern context.
But what does it mean to say “traditional turn-based strategy” or “the challenge of the turn-based strategy genre”? For me, it means a challenging tactical experience; it means a smart and unforgiving AI that is able to react to the player in such a way that the tactical element of the genre is emergent; it means trial and error, not so that the player may find the only strategy for victory, but so that they may find one of several ways to victory. Above all, it means presenting the player with all the information they need to know to make informed decisions. In these regards, Battle World: Kronos struggles to provide an experience that is representative of the genre at its best.
First, let me say that the mechanical foundations of the game are sound. King Art clearly understands things like unit composition, and how action and movement points can be used to influence the pacing of a battle. Like a game of chess, they know what pieces one needs to play the game, it cannot be denied. Where the game begins to falter is in the question of difficulty or challenge. How well does the AI react to players’ decision? Does it understand unit composition and resource management? Can it match the player tactically and challenge them to bring their best to the battlefield?
Honestly, it is hard to tell. The AI is often given a unit advantage and access to units (defensive units such as turrets) that you yourself do not have access to. I had a hard time gauging whether or not the unit advantage was King Art’s interpretation of the “challenging” aspect of turn-based strategy games, or if it is simply compensating for an AI that isn’t up to snuff. At times, it feels a bit cheap.
Equally as frustrating is the manner in which certain elements of gameplay and information are presented to the player. Come ready to read and poke through menus with short descriptions of everything from units to more abstract things like movement and action points, and supply lines. This information is presented to the player in a Civlopedia-esque way. However, whereas Civilization includes a compendium of information to enhance a player’s understanding of certain aspects of gameplay, Kronos leans on and relies on such a compendium to explain some of the game’s core mechanics and gameplay elements. It’s not a very user-friendly, streamlined way of presenting the player information about things they need to know. As much as King Art wants it to be 1990, it’s not. More time should have been spent on improving this particular aspect of the game.
Multiplayer fares a bit better. Removing the AI from the equation creates a situation where the tactical ebb and flow of a battle is how it should be, with each player jockeying units around, trying to find a weak spot they can exploit to gain the upper hand. The manner in which you accomplish your goals is more tactically emergent in multiplayer because you aren’t constrained by the same mission parameters set by the single-player. Multiplayer battles unfold in that beautiful way they often did in some of the Advanced Wars games. However, your fun will be short lived as another of the game’s faults rears its ugly head.
Perhaps Battle World: Kronos’ biggest problem is its lack of content. If one levels the criticism against a game that it displays a lack of content, one must provide some context as to why that is. The lack of playable factions, the limited number of units you will see over and over again, and the almost unfinished and certainly unpolished nature of the UI are all problems that make themselves known to the player at some point. At $35, it is a tough value proposition, especially if you compare it to similarly priced games in the genre. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the game’s foundations were more solid, but with questionable AI and a tactical element marred by the single-player’s trial-and-error style of gameplay, the sense that there just really isn’t all that much in the way of content to keep you coming back is exacerbated.
Now, a note about the lack of factions and unit variety. There are no factions, and while the game does its best to pace itself and unlocks more units as you work your way through the campaign, you eventually hit a spot where you have everything you’re ever going to get. This ends up hurting the multiplayer. Eventually, you reach a point of familiarity with the units and because everyone is playing from the same sandbox with exactly the same shovels and pails, all you end up with is a sandbox full of identical, uninspiring sandcastles. The maps offered are a mere handful. The game seeks to remedy this problem by offering a map editor, which is a nice solution; but, I’d prefer it didn’t feel like a compromise for the otherwise lacking multiplayer maps.
I absolutely love the fact that Battle Worlds: Kronos is trying to bring the genre back to its roots. In some cases it succeeds, and in others it fails. By virtue of not trying to innovate, the traditional design principles that were put in place had to demonstrate a deep understanding of not only what makes a “traditional” turn-based strategy game, but what makes those traditional elements, in a sense, timeless. In that regard, I think Kronos misses the mark.