Kingdom of the Dead is really dark. I don’t mean thematically, although it is all about demons and the occult and the like. I mean literally, as in can’t see where you’re going half the time. On the first stage I kept trying to figure out how to access my character’s torch, but apparently, he’d left it at home.
This old-school FPS plays out in sketched black and white, you see (barring splashes of blood and the weapons and ammo you pick up), and let’s just say the contrast is excessive. Floodlit exteriors give way instantly to pitch black chambers, some of them dead ends that exist purely to have you fumble about. There’s an option to soften the palette, but that almost bleaches surroundings instead, like a holy purification, which seems antithetical to a world packed with horrors.
Then again, the lighter option does feel consistent with a lot of Kingdom’s design, which sacrifices form for function. When looking at its hand-drawn monochrome textures it’s hard not to recall last year’s Mundaun, which achieved much more with a similar art style thanks to softer, smudgier pencils, bringing forth the gravity of ancient rituals and rendering the everyday strange. Perhaps the blur wouldn’t suit a speedy FPS, but maybe it’s worth it for a little atmosphere. Kingdom’s sharp edges are too reliably clinical by comparison.
More than anything I think that’s because it’s less concerned with evoking the history of its period setting (I’d guess late 19th century, judging by the locations) than evoking the history of gaming, specifically 1990s FPS and especially Doom. Although Kingdom can stand next to IDs classic in terms of speed, control and violence, it’s not as brimming with personality. And while sharp edges were good for military bases and research facilities, they don’t translate well to old stone crypts and wood-framed barns.
It’s a shame because the ingredients are there in the premise. You’re an agent in a secret US government organisation fighting an endless war with Death and his army of, er, dead, and, I think, some of the inhabitants of hell, including a bunch of huge demonic animals. You have a magic talking sword and a pistol and enter each stage to destroy a portal that’s tucked away in a tricky to reach spot, with plenty of bad things standing in the way.
What might be palpably Lovecraftian or Gothic, however, or at least gloriously hammy, falls a little flat. In its rush to get to the action, Kingdom shrugs up lore that seems assembled at random from a grab-bag of supernatural bastardry. Between the armed undead and occult wizards and bullish demons and harpy things, then giant worms and stags, other than evil I’m not sure what they have in common. Well, except that each regular enemy is a direct counterpart to one of Doom’s (there’s even a bulbous, fire-spewing Cacodemon-alike), as if Death handpicked them for that very reason.
It’s a similar story with the architecture – impressively varied and sturdily built, from a grand old mansion to a factory, a skyscraper and an ocean liner. But they only ever feel like movie sets, constructed to stage your encounters. There’s no detail to suggest that people have lived or worked here before, more that they’re waiting to move in and need you to evict the squatters first.
Maybe the protagonist – I didn’t catch his name – could add a little more context and character? Since he’s not a silent non-entity like old-school Doomguy, his presence is made to matter, but our window into the apparently strained relationship he has with his sword is limited to brief exchanges at the start of each level. What could have made for a fun buddy movie story arc is sadly left hanging.
With that, the only aspect of the game that adds texture is its audio track. The synth, almost chip-tune backing music swings brilliantly from ominous to impish, while cursed groans and goatish bellows ring out through the murk, implying you’re surrounded, even when you aren’t. That’s also very Doom, of course, but it helps pile on a spooky cooky vibe that’s missing elsewhere.
Still, if Kingdom has focused heavily on the nuts and bolts of FPS play, they are at least pretty well aligned and properly tightened. Sure, it’s all a little rough and ready, as you might expect from a budget production, and I’ve seen a few enemies getting stuck in walls and things like that. But it runs smoothly and absolutely benefits from its simplicity, sticking to a literal handful of peripheral key controls – run, jump, duck, switch weapon – to let you concentrate on movement and aim.
The actual combat, the thing you’re mainly here for, is good too. Yes, it feels lightweight at the point of use, as if you’re wielding a fairground air-rifle, but at the receiving end Kingdom reveals a strong knowledge of the genre’s visceral pleasures. Your sword might lop off a zombie’s gun arm, for example, amusingly leaving it unsure how to proceed (or maybe that just shows the limits of the AI), and there’s a psychopathic glee in seeing splats of red on colourless flooring as your foes collapse. Plus of course, it’s always alarmingly gratifying to charge about with a double-barrelled shotgun, and there’s a devastating click-clack bolt-action rifle that gives it a run for its money.
The flow of the fight will be familiar – shotgun in tight spaces, rifle for distance or a single mid-range wallop, chain gun for crowd control, pistol to conserve valuable ammo against small fry. Kingdom keeps you cycling these options by switching from cramped interiors to cavernous theatres and the great outdoors, often with notable verticality. To its credit, and as linear as it is, this is far less of a corridor shooter than Doom ever was. There’s even the occasional tactical element that gives pause to your procession of cranial executions, not least because certain monsters don’t have a head to speak of. Some must be shot in the torso, some the eye, some the gob.
There are standout moments scattered among its 10 levels as well, especially the later ones, when it lets itself off the leash more frequently. A scene when you’re running along a rail track and, ‘Wait, is that a train coming?’ is as surprising for the injection of reality into the world as it is for the sudden threat. Another, more conventional, highlight is the open-air rooftop battle on the skyscraper level, which has you jumping between buildings, and climaxes rather appropriately in a fight with a giant gorilla.
Yet such moments also stand out because much of what’s in between is rather one-paced. Advance, shoot, scavenge ammo, repeat, with the army of the dead well-regimented to emerge at polite intervals. Occasionally, a few pop up from the earth or hide in gloomy alcoves to ambush you – again, like Doom – but mostly they line up or run towards you head on, like a lively shooting gallery.
To a great extent, each level is repeating a sequence. First you’re accosted by sword zombies, then shotgun zombies, then the fireball monks and so on, until the bigger threats show up fashionably late. In tandem, weapon acquisitions form their own orderly queue, as you start back with your basic loadout each time then find shotgun, rifle and the odd stick of dynamite evenly spaced and often in that order, with a chain gun and maybe a rocket launcher waiting nearer the boss.
Also, I was a little disappointed by the tepid implementation of GoldenEye style difficulty levels, where higher settings not only throw more bodies at you but add extra mission objectives. In practice, this merely adds a collectible objective slightly off the beaten path and some prisoners to rescue. You do have to be careful not to let the prisoners get killed, as they’re chained up in various in-the-way places, but that’s rarely the interesting challenge it might be.
Kingdom of the Dead is rarely ever bad, then, but even as it kept me moderately entertained with giant bats and demonic ditties, its assets felt underexploited. The retro FPS is almost a sub-genre of its own these days and I wanted Kingdom to add more context in its locations, character and enemies, to say something, which it never quite does. At a mechanical level, it makes a good fist of resurrecting that old FPS black magic, but little more. Perhaps that’s why it’s so dark. As competent an homage to Doom as this is, it doesn’t quite escape from the master’s shadow.
There’s plenty of life in Kingdom of the Dead as it fills the brief of an action-packed retro FPS with competence. There’s considerably less genuine personality, however, to make the most of its premise and stand out from the crowd.
- Slick FPS action with a little tactical depth
- Varied and intricate level design
- Some great spooky music and sound effects
- Doesn’t make enough of its lore or characters
- The art style feels like a missed opportunity
- Most levels follow the same pattern