‘King Arthur: Knight’s Tale’ review: a deep, but colourless tactics game

Knights of the brown table

king Arthur: Knight’s Tale asks an interesting question: what if Mordred, sworn enemy and slayer of the once and future King, had to save Avalon from a fate worse than himself? Unfortunately, it follows this up with a bunch of much stupider questions, like ‘what if Mordred was an incoherent dullard who couldn’t get his steel-plated foot out of his mouth?’ and ‘what if his adventure took place in the greyest fantasy realm ever devised?’

There is a half-decent tactics game at the heart of Knight’s Tale, one with detailed character progression and some satisfyingly tense combat. But you need a lot of patience to see the best of it. NeocoreGames‘ dark twist on Arthurian Legend is clumsy and awkward, the kind of twist that usually results in an unpleasant tearing noise and a trip to Accident and Emergency.

The game begins after Mordred and King Arthur kill one another at the Battle of Camlann. Only, in the retelling of Knight’s Tale, neither warrior truly dies. Through the machinations of the Lady of the Lake, the souls of both Mordred and Arthur are preserved. But Arthur’s spirit is horribly corrupted in the process, turning him into a malevolent demigod while blighting his former Kingdom. Mordred, meanwhile, awakens in Camelot largely unscathed, vowing to kill Arthur once and for all and either save Avalon or subjugate it to his will.

King Arthur: Knight's Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.
King Arthur: Knight’s Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.

It’s an exciting premise, but Neocore simply doesn’t have the narrative chops to tell the story of these legendary characters in the way it clearly wants to. Mordred, for example, either can be played as a true and noble knight, or the hateful bastard he always has been. There’s a complex morality system built around this, one that affects the loyalty of other characters based upon their own ethics. But Mordred’s character fails to convince along either narrative branch. As a goody-two-shoes he’s terribly bland, with dialogue choices that never seem to acknowledge the redemptive arc he’s on. As a villain, Neocore can’t decide what kind of baddie he is, and consequently he hops from stoic brute to sneering narcissist to cackling fruitcake with every other dialogue choice.

This problem isn’t exclusive to Mordred either. Take the Lady of the Lake, who acts as the game’s narrator and is supposed to come across as mysterious and scheming. Instead, she seems like she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing, constantly lamenting Mordred’s decisions when she brought him back in the first place. Those characters who Neocore do understand, by comparison, don’t so much wear their personalities on their sleeves, as have them tattooed on their foreheads. Nobody demonstrates this better than Sir Yvain, a roguish adventure and womaniser who spends his whole introductory mission reiterating about how much he likes adventures and womanising. It’s a nightmare combination of impossible to take seriously and too witless to be funny.

Once Mordred has cleared Camelot of any guards still loyal to Arthur, he sets his sights on rebuilding the fallen castle, and re-recruiting the Knights of the Round Table. As with most tactics games, there are two layers to this. The world map is where you select missions and manage Camelot. Here, you can tinker with the skills and equipment of your knights and utilise Camelot’s various amenities (which includes a clinic for healing wounded knights, and a training room for levelling them up outside of missions). You can also upgrade those amenities, which provide bonuses to both your knights and Camelot itself. None of this is wildly original, but it all works fine.

King Arthur: Knight's Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.
King Arthur: Knight’s Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.

Then there are the missions themselves, which combine free exploration with turn-based tactical combat. The former largely involves moving between bouts of the latter, which is overwhelmingly Knight’s Tale‘s strongest asset. The core of combat derives heavily from the template established by 2012’s XCOM. Characters have a set number of action points, which they use to move around the map, attack enemies, perform special abilities, or try to anticipate enemy moves with the now-ubiquitous Overwatch ability.

Unlike most tactics games, there’s little in the way of cover for your units to hide behind. Instead, your knights must rely on their armour to protect them. Frontal attacks on your knights initially do no damage, either being deflected entirely or chipping away at your armour rating. Once that’s depleted, attacks will damage a unit’s health, and once that’s depleted, they’ll eat away at your Vitality, causing injuries and ultimately death.

Managing your armour is crucial to victory in most battles. Knights can sustain a huge amount of damage so long as they’re facing the enemy attacking them. Hence, it’s important to position them in ways that minimise flanking, and always face them toward encroaching enemies before you finish a turn. Ranged units like archers and mages have minimal armour, and therefore must be kept either away from enemies or behind your knights. Many enemies are armoured too, so you want to either try to get in behind them, or use knights with two-handed weapons like Sir Kay to batter through their defences.

King Arthur: Knight's Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.
King Arthur: Knight’s Tale. Credit: NeocoreGames.

It’s a cool representation of the effectiveness of plate armour, complemented by the general feel of combat. Your knights’ swords and axes thud into enemies in a satisfying fashion, while spells hurled from your arcanist’s hands have a tangible sense of impact. Best of all are arrows, which whistle through the air at incredible speed before smacking into enemy bodies. Neocore could probably make a rocking bow-and-arrow game if it wanted to.

Sadly, this is the only element of the game’s presentation that I enjoy. Aesthetically, Knight’s Tale is phenomenally drab. The entire colour palette seems to comprise of browns, greys, and sickly greens. I understand Knight’s Tale wants to present Avalon as a dark and dilapidated world, but you can do this without it being dreary. Look at Bloodborne, for example, or Velen from The Witcher 3. Two of the grimmest fantasy games ever made, yet their worlds are dazzling places you never want to leave.

Meanwhile, the armour system, while novel, also leads to what is arguably Knight’s Tale‘s biggest problem. Pacing. Because your characters are such tanks, missions are built as endurance tests to balance the game for challenge. Neocore’s approach to designing these is to make you complete the exact same objective three times over. This might be less of an issue if there was more variance in combat encounters, but the enemy roster is stretched way too thin to support this. Your first ten to twenty hours are spent fighting either bandits or zombies. It is woefully uninspired.

Mercifully, the game does improve. New enemies are slowly introduced, including pictish warriors, giant troll-things and weirder creatures still. And while the game never becomes vibrant, the later game breaks up the endless grey swamps and ruins with some more interesting locations. But getting to this stage is a slog, and you’d be entirely justified if you binned the game off based on its opening hours and cringeworthy dialogue. Stick with it though, and there are moderate rewards. Just don’t expect it to ever reach the heights of XCOM.

King Arthur: Knight’s Tale is available to play on PC. 

The Verdict

King Arthur: Knight’s Tale scrapes a pass with its decent tactical combat. If it doesn’t improve on its art and spelling, however, it’ll need to see me in my office.

Pros

  • Robust tactics engine
  • Satisfying combat
  • Good character progression systems

Cons

  • Dreadful writing
  • Ugly world
  • Takes a long time to reveal its quality
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