Old school shooters are certainly in vogue at the moment. A generation of designers who grew up playing Doom and Quake are channelling their nostalgia into new takes on the classic format. Some of these attempts aim for as authentic a retro feel as possible whilst others branch out to create an entirely new experience. One of the clearest ways in which a title can differentiate itself is through the setting and graphical style chosen. I’m a sucker for a unique and distinctive artstyle and will often put up with all sorts of niggles and gameplay issues if the aesthetic of a game appeals. Kingdom of the Dead certainly delivers on that front, with the one person developer Dirigo Games creating a title with a genuine blend of familiar FPS gameplay and novel graphics.
The pen and ink style graphics of Kingdom of the Dead are its most obvious unique selling point. Taking such a monochromatic approach to a genre so often filled with colour (albeit sometimes mainly browns and reds) gives everything a totally new feel, and goes a long way to paper over some performance and pacing issues. While the default colour scheme is strictly black and white (with red for gore) there are numerous alternative filters available through the game’s menu. This is particularly useful as my monitor setup was perhaps too heavy on the blacks and everything was cloaked in shadow. Tinkering with the filters was far more effective than either cranking up the gamma or messing with my monitor’s settings.
Aside from the colour choices, Kingdom of the Dead’s look is heavily inspired by retro horror comics, and the various foes that you will face are nicely designed and distinctive. It’s a shame that there aren’t many different types though and most of your time is spent fighting the same mix of four or five foes. Boss battles are more interesting and offer up some of the most memorable design features visually. The music is nicely judged too, with a synth soundtrack that reminded me of classic horror films.
Gameplay is pretty predictable stuff, with the focus on gunplay and landing headshots. You are also equipped with a sentient sword who helps to deliver the exposition and is required to close the portals in each level through which the undead and demons are entering the world. Melee combat is quite simplistic, however, and is mainly there as a last resort aside from a couple of narrative moments. The different guns on offer are familiar types too, with a revolver, a shotgun, a rifle and a chaingun. These weapons are unlocked anew in each level so you start every time with just your pistol and sword. This makes the levels feel unconnected to each other and takes away any true sense of progress – as well as making much of the ammunition collected completely unnecessary.
Your health is represented by on-screen hearts, with hidden powerups adding to your total when found. Unless you continue playing through the game in the same session, however, these added hearts disappear and you start each level with three once again. Hopefully this will be patched out as it seems an unnecessary punishment for players who are not able or willing to play the whole game in one sitting. Some of the levels can take 30 minutes or more until you know your way around, although there is clear potential to cut this time down significantly.
The story for the game is rudimentary, as you play an agent responsible for fighting the forces of darkness. In effect this has little real purpose other than to act as setting – an unconscious nod to the narrative of titles like Doom perhaps. Each level has 3 difficulty settings with the 2 harder ones requiring you to fight off more enemies and complete a secondary objective in each level. These are pretty much all just a case of finding an item that is off the main path and don’t add an awful lot to the experience. The ultimate end result is a somewhat half-baked feel that doesn’t the artstyle justice.
While the game is being regularly updated at present, there are still performance issues that require some attention. The artstyle and approach should make for a relatively undemanding title but there are still some framerate and crash issues. As it’s a solo developer some allowance must be made for that. For example, my first run through a late level on a ship had a bug where dying left me respawning under water requiring a complete level restart. An update a couple of days ago fixed this so it is clear that Dirigo Games are at least responding to players’ reports, and hopefully more inmprovments will be incoming.