(PlayStation Vita Review) New Little King’s Story

Developer: AQ Interactive
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Kingdom-Building Sim / Action-Strategy
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 5.5 = Average

The life of a king is fraught with peril—just ask King Corobo. In the blink of an eye, his quaint, quiet kingdom is thrown into turmoil after an invasion force under the command of the Devil King overran his forces and sent him into exile. Down but not out, the young monarch sets about marshaling his resources in a backwater territory to rebuild his forces and take back his throne. As the omnipotent puppet master, you will guide the king as he recruits forces, dispatches monsters, expands his fledgling town, and amasses the experience and riches he will need for the final showdown.

As a reimagined take on the 2009 Wii release Little King’s Story, New Little King’s Story attempts to update the XSeed-published original with PS Vita-exclusive features and controls. But while the Wii version was something of a novel take on the kingdom-building sim, adding in some basic hack-and-slash action with minimal tactical-level combat, its handheld counterpart is more of a frustrating reminder that newer isn’t always better.

To take a step back for a minute, let’s talk about what New Little King’s Story actually is. The storyline is not a continuation from the original’s narrative, though they do share some of the same characters. Now, instead of being surrounded by predatorial rivals, the game begins with you being unceremoniously booted off the throne—Corboro apparently has terrible security—and sent on a quest to not just expand your dilapidated realm but to find and rescue several princesses that have been imprisoned in pillars of light. After saving and befriending each in turn, and in various degrees, you will be able to call upon them to use their various spells and abilities to aid in combat as you battle the Devil King’s minions. The aim isn’t merely to take, but to reclaim.

However, this new tale is something of a paradox. In many ways, New Little King’s Story is refreshing. In a game about expanding a kingdom, battling monsters, gathering loot, and creating an army and a civil service from scratch, there are many ways in which you could be overwhelmed in the minutiae of advancement and administration. Instead, this is where the game shines, by having the citizens go about their business without need of guidance and by providing a clear progression path that includes just the right amount of grinding. The setup goes like this: citizens suggest tasks for you to undertake in the Suggestion Box, which, after taking down a few oni and ornery snails, will eventually lead to a boss battle. After defeating the boss, the area’s previously respawning monsters will vanish, and the area will be open to expansion. The acquired land will be transformed into a new district that will host buildings that allow for you to train new and upgraded units. These new units will then be used to gain access to areas that were previously closed off by obstacles that can now be cleared, and those infested areas can then be cleared and re-cleared to gather enough loot and money to fund more structures to host more citizens. It’s a simple cycle that’s easy to jump in and out of, allowing you to head out at any time on optional sidequests and treasure-hunting excursions.

Citizens go about their business as carefree denizens until they are scouted and called upon to take up a tool as a worker or a weapon as a soldier. There are a variety of jobs and grades within each sphere, from archers to miners and chefs. The more specialized professionals cost more to train but allow you to chop up larger logs and break apart larger rocks to access those new areas necessary to expand. It’s very easy to get lost in the rhythm of progression as you bounce between subquests to gather money and major quests to save the princesses and further the story. The only real difficulty is in remembering where the last object was that couldn’t be destroyed, as that’s most likely the area where the next boss lies in wait.

Now the paradox: the further along you get in your journey and the more the game opens up, the more enjoyable it should be—but that’s not what happens. In many ways, the game gets worse. This strange turn of events is because of the game engine’s inverse response to progression: the more you unlock and build, the worse the game performs. The very rewards that you fight so hard to attain—more, better units and structures—strain the engine to the point where slowdown becomes common and objects frequently appear out of thin air. The trees that can be felled for wood, onion monsters destroyed for their roots, and barrels of hay torn apart for the equipment stored inside are birthed into the world whenever you enter an area with a poof. Even buildings just … poof. About the only thing that stays the same is the terrain, namely the elevated plateaus and random cracks in the ground that represent dig spots. Aside from the reassurance that the world itself isn’t an illusion, you will get jarring reminders that everything else just might be.

As you expand your realm, you will attain new items from a traveling salesman and upgrade your command abilities to expand your Royal Guard. The Guard is a squad of units that accompany you when summoned and do your bidding when commanded. Despite what the name might imply, this entourage isn’t purely for combat but is composed of all chosen citizens; the fighters battle monsters while the workers clear the way and uncover resources. As this guard expands, it not only becomes increasingly motley with the strange assortment of weapons and gear they can be kitted out with (gas masks, ninja costumes, giant pillows, and even a dried squid), but it also becomes a serious drain on the system. If you take out into the wilds with even a handful of guard units, which is often necessary in order to avoid backtracking due to the increasingly difficult enemies and varied obstacles, you will experience even worse slowdown, with the game turning into a slog if you head out with anywhere near the max. While the technical issues are by far the game’s biggest problem, it doesn’t help that poor documentation, cumbersome controls, and a stilted translation do their utmost to befuddle Corboro in his time of need.

For as much as can be done in the game, it’s surprising what’s left unsaid. One of the biggest omissions is any detail as to how to manage the Royal Guard. The ability to badge and rebadge—the process of marking out scouted citizens as members of the guard—is just there, with the game taking for granted that you know how it all works. From your regal rostrum, you can call the Guard together, dismiss it, assign groups as specially named squads, and summon template squads that focus on building, fighting, etc. But this is up to you to find out, which isn’t always easy given the vaguely worded options. I could not find proper definitions or instructions in either the game or manual to figure out what was what; instead, I had to tinker around and find out through trial and error, which seems counterintuitive for one who is king—kings do not tinker, they command. Alchemy actually fares worse, with little in-game explanation, no mention in the manual, and an online component that’s underused by players; as a result, the feature is so thoroughly underwhelming that I have a hard time imagining its absence even mattering.

Just because you have your guard properly outfitted and sorted doesn’t mean you’re in the clear, either. The controls are often flaky, which makes commanding the troops a trying affair. An optional targeting line is available for better accuracy when sending your units charging forward, and it is absolutely essential if you plan on using the face buttons to command and maintain any semblance of order. The Guard follows you in one of three formations: a snaking single-file line, in rows of two to five abreast, or as an orbiting shield of flesh and steel. The targeting line will show where the next unit in line will be commanded to go, which is, in theory, a sound system. In practice, however, things often go awry. If you’re too close to an object, the troops will inexplicably smack against it as if hitting an invisible forcefield. Even if you’re the proper distance away, they might start on the task, whether that is attacking an enemy or digging a hole, and then up and quit back to the ranks for no discernible reason. Sometimes they veer off target and end up a foot or so to the side of the objective, completely bewildered as to what to do. In all of these cases, they must be re-ordered to do the same task, with the hope being that something eventually clicks so that they remain to fulfill their duty. And while the touchscreen offers much better results, there will still be moments when you’re left tap-tap-tapping like mad to get them to return to the rampaging enemy in the hopes that they don’t get confused as to what to do with their giant axe after they’ve gone astray and are left befuddled at not finding their target at that exact spot.

In addition to all of this, you’re fighting an inconsistent and often downright stubborn camera. The most useful angle—a trailing shot that follows the royal entourage—is randomly unavailable. At other times, the absolute worst angles are your only options because the game decides to limit swivel range, such as when you enter into a narrow gully and are immediately faced with your squad running into a wall of rock.

Fortunately, there are a few options that help to alleviate some of the control-related problems. Scattered throughout the lands are building foundations for cow-skinned cannons, which will fire your entire squad between set spots on the map. There is also the ability to quickly teleport back to the castle when not in combat, allowing you to quickly return and deposit any accumulated loot. The main map, while a little strange to control at times (changes depending on zoom level), includes a fair bit of information: current position, locations of developed areas, including the units that can be built (though only on a per-location basis), and any open quests and their difficulty rating. Some units can also perform double duty, with archers tossing their bows for shovels and builders helping to break apart rocks. As you might have gathered, though, the game can be a bit awkward even when it’s trying to be helpful.

The core of New Little King’s Story skirts a fine line. Its disparate elements lack the sort of depth that would put it on firm footing against any dedicated city-building or management sim or a robust strategy title, but it often does just enough, and with just enough charm, to make it stand out. It might be memories of the hordes of Lego-axe-toting ninjas talking here, but the game does do a good job of utilizing its wackiness to augment what it lacks in other respects. There are also elements that go beyond what’s necessary to give a satisfying illusion of a more involved experience, such as the ability to marry citizens, whose offspring can be sent to school, or collect taxes. Even though I was never in so dire of straits to find the payoff of such busy work worth the extra effort, the inclusion of such options does offer the more hands-on players the chance to feel more involved. The town-wide celebrations after a successful boss fight also add some flair, though they do little else than add a bit of jubilation to the attack-expand-upgrade cycle.

Of course, all of the niceties and forethought can’t compensate for a shaky foundation, and New Little King’s Story seems to have been built on a mound of sand and pudding. The upside is that a patch could smooth a lot of these problems out, and I do hope that one is forthcoming; it would be a shame to let the game linger in its current unpolished state.

Whether it’s the rough translation, with its stilted and sometimes misaligned text, slowdown, pop-up, poorly documented features, or finicky camera, much of New Little King’s Story‘s charm is undermined by poor execution. The core strengths of the original have been carried over into the handheld version, with its lighthearted take on kingdom building and whack-a-mole combat, but the game is a solid patch away from being near the caliber of its predecessor.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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