A retro-inspired shooter with an eye catching hand drawn art style, KINGDOM of the DEAD is tense and thrilling, but just a little rough around the edges. The Finger Guns Review.
Normally, when a game has an abnormal title styling, I start a review by pointing it out by poking fun at it. For example, I went around calling the original Watch_Dogs “Watch Underscore Dogs” for a few weeks after it was announced because of how prevalent and pushy the style guide was in the press releases. I’m an asshole like that. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s a little daft. I’m not going to do that with KINGDOM of the DEAD. Not only do I enjoy the thought of everyone having to shout the KINGDOM and DEAD in the title because they’re in all caps, this is a game that’s all about style. This title oozes panache and macabre charm, so much so that I’m going to respect that style here by capitalising the title as the designers intended.
A retro inspired first person shooter, KINGDOM of the DEAD is the latest title from Dirigo Games (whose titles you might have played in the Dread X games) and the debut game from the brand new publisher HOOK. Recreating the challenge of the shooters from the 90’s and playing how you remember them (just nowhere near as clunky as those games actually were), can KINGDOM of the DEAD slash its way to a place among the likes of Dusk, Amid Evil and Ion Fury? Well, almost…
The Quick and The DEAD
The battle between the living and the dead has been raging since time immemorial. Lead by Death itself, the zombies and monsters of the underworld repeatedly attempt to invade our world. They breakthrough via portals and attempt to conquer the land of the living. In KINGDOM of the DEAD, you play as a gun-toting operative of the Gatekeepers, an age old agency that prevents that from happening. Led by a talking sword that has an eye ball in its cross-guard, this agent is tasked with heading on 8 self-contained missions across the American East coast. There, he’ll have to blast his way through the army of the dead and close the portal they’re pouring through.
It’s a no-nonsense premise that sets up KINGDOM of the DEAD. We’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. We’ve got to kill the bad guys. Get it done. It has an old school approach to storytelling too. Each mission has a short introduction as the protagonist and his loquacious weapon chat about the upcoming battle. Some of the missions have a similar conversations afterwards too. The narrative isn’t a strong point in this title. It doesn’t have to be either. There’s no need for reams of lore in a game like this. Sure, it would have been cool to have a depth beyond “go here, kill this” but what is here leaves plenty to the imagination and acts as a decent enough framing to the action.
KINGDOM of the DEAD’s strengths lie elsewhere…
The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword
The game’s greatest strength is its aesthetic. KINGDOM of the DEAD features a hand drawn, black and white art style that’s gorgeous to look at. There’s an astonishing attention to detail that’s been pencilled into each texture that strikes an excellent balance between realism and the abstract. For example, in the Downtown level you’ll make your way through buildings where the hand drawn artwork is on par with most retro inspired shooters that use pixel art, creating a convincing environment to transverse. Outside though, you’ll find yourself under a swirling sky that looks like it jumped off the pages of a morbid children’s book.
The textures of KINGDOM of the DEAD are complemented by the excellent use of lighting. Or lack thereof. Much of this game is dark. Really dark. Spookily dark. Unsurprisingly, the monstrous minions of Death like to hid out in unlit places. Go figure. In some levels, you’ll find yourself moving through black open spaces that are suddenly lit up by a crack of lightning. Sticking to the illuminated spots along a path becomes a valid strategy for survival.
That’s because a number of the enemies in KINGDOM of the DEAD seamlessly blend in with the darkness. The ghoulish sword wielding foot solider of the underworld, for example, are a mess of pen lines in a humanoid shape that creeps along the ground. In some parts of this game, the only give away that these enemies are even there are their glowing white eyes that you’ll see bobbing through the blackness.
As you progress through the game, the rogues gallery of enemies you face grows larger, more deadly and more numerous. The ghoulish swordsman are joined by the likes of undead cowboys, zombie snipers, skeletal dogs, goat-like behemoths, necromancers, a pair of enemies that look like gothic twists of DOOM’s Cacodemon & Hellhound and spiders that make many, many more smaller spiders. Some of these enemies are ripped directly from my nightmares while others are inventive takes on genre staples. Visually at least, the enemies of KINGDOM of the DEAD are excellent.
KINGDOM of the brain DEAD
This is the part of the review where I would normally tell you that, despite the visual terror they conjure, the enemy AI threat in KINGDOM of the DEAD is poor. On paper, that’s true. Sure, they can absorb a lot of punishment to anywhere other than the head but none of the enemies in this game have an ounce of tactical nounce. Enemies with melee weapons charge directly at you trying to get close enough to take a swing, even if this means getting snagged on the environment. Ranged enemies will shoot at you should you enter their line of sight, but won’t dodge fire heading their way. Flying enemies will circle around you waiting for a chance to shoot or close in and strike, but they do so according to a rigid trajectory. Enemies won’t take cover or do anything strategic.
But, dear reader, in KINGDOM of the DEAD, that doesn’t really matter. Circumventing the relative simplistic AI is a consistently imaginative use of the enemies in set piece and structured fights. Undead enemies will crash out of doors around you. Waves of enemies will spawn out of nowhere as as you jump onto certain surfaces. In a cylindrical pit where you jump from balcony to balcony to reach the bottom, ranged foes spawn every so often in strategic positions to keep you on your toes. Sure, there’s plenty of kill corridors for you to slash your way down but this title mixes them up with inventive enemy placement so you have to watch your back.
This is made possible by some high quality level design. Every level in KINGDOM of the DEAD is packed with notable features that tie into the theme of the area. In the Forest level for example, foliage lines the winding valley walls which make it tough to spot ranged enemies from distance until they’ve already taken a pot shot at you. In the Mill level, you start in a factory with large open spaces and conveyor belts but make your way out to a dock and later, a whale grave yard. The unique art style, coupled with the lighting and level structure guide your eye through the level expertly while setting you up for those inventive enemy ambushes. I won’t spoil it but I genuinely said “Oh f**k off, that’s really good” out loud to myself when a particular level feature was unveiled, revealing an incredible design aspect I’d not previously noted. Let’s just say it turns the game on its head. Literally.
Tying into the design is the weaponry of KINGDOW of the DEAD. While you start each level armed with nothing but your revolver and the talkative sword, new, meatier weapons can be picked up around each level. There’s 8 weapons in total, each of which has a particular strength. As is standard for the genre, the shotgun is most effective in close range while a rifle is best used accurately at long range. The weapons are placed throughout each level to match the incoming threats so you rarely feel overpowered. For example, before you head into an area with ranged enemies that’ll be bearing down on you from a distance, you’ll always find a rifle so that you can reply in kind. It’s yet another example of smart design.
DEAD and Buried
Waiting at the end of each of the 8 levels, and often numerous times part way through them too, are bosses. The generals of Death, these giant monsters are undoubtedly the most visually impressive enemies in the entire game. They’re bigger, badder and some of them look like they’re just popped off the page of a Spawn comic book.
It’s a shame then that a few of them don’t feel threatening in action. If you keep moving and use the environment to keep your distance, some of these bosses can be strafe shot into submission very easily. To try and circumvent this, many of the bosses come accompanied by a never ending wave of minions. As I’ve already mentioned though, the AI can be easily gamed so they don’t cause much of an issue. A few dud boss battles are the most disappointing part of this game. It’s a bit of a let down to come face to face with a giant bat, for example, only to wipe the floor within it in under a minute.
There’s a few small bugs in KINGDOM of the Dead too. In a few of the levels, enemies will spawn behind walls, essentially getting themselves stuck inside structures. A hand full of times during my time with this game, I’ve cleared out a room only to find myself shot in the back by an enemy that’s poking out through the wall textures, invulnerable from my attacks. The music can get a tad glitchy too. The soundtrack to KINGDOM of the DEAD is frankly brilliant, weaving spooky melodies with pumping beats to drive you forward while also filling you with apprehension. It’s jarring then when the music simply stops playing. This game really benefits from the soundtrack and ambient noises, so much so that the moments of silence that reside in some sections of the game, as if the needle just jumped off the vinyl, feel jarring.
Till KINGDOM Come
The few rough edges in KINGDOM of the DEAD are just that though. The edges. The core to this game is solid, recreating the feel of a late 90’s shooter but with a captivating hand drawn art style that’s a real rarity in this genre. It’s an ambitious game that makes the most of its strengths and does an excellent job of covering over its weaknesses.
Even though I’ve bested the game on the normal difficulty settings, I fully expect to be playing this game for weeks to come. There are three difficulty settings in the game, each a significant step up in challenge. It took me 7 or so hours to best the game on Normal. I’ve failed to reach the second boss numerous times when stepping up the difficulty level – but thanks to the well structured checkpoint system in the game, I’ve gotten closer each time. There’s secondary objectives in each level too. These are collectables that all just off the golden path through a level and often trigger another fight that you might want to otherwise avoid. Despite its foibles, I’ve no doubt that I’ll still be plodding away at those tougher difficulties tomorrow, next week and maybe a month from now.
Retro inspired first person shooters don’t come any more stylish than KINGDOM of the DEAD. A fantastic soundtrack is matched by a macabre hand drawn art style to create an atmosphere that feels unique to this game. It has a few bugs and some anticlimactic boss battles but there’s a lot to love about this game beyond those rough edges.
KINGDOM of the DEAD is launching on PC on February 10th, 2022.
Developer: Dirigo Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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