This review is a bit premature, because as of this writing, I have not yet beaten it. However, I can’t resist the urge to write about it any longer, but please keep this in mind as you read this.
Every so often I decide to gamble and buy a game that I’ve never heard of before. Sometimes this pays off (Soul Reaver was worth every penny of the $15 I spent for it) other times, not so much (Mistmare, how were you ever approved for sale?) but sometimes, sometimes I gamble and I find something truly unique.
King of Dragon Pass falls into this latter category. There is literally nothing like it anywhere.
King of Dragon Pass is an eclectic mixture of simulation, visual novel, strategy games, and RPGs where you control a clan fighting for dominance of Dragon Pass. Assisted by your Clan Ring (your advisors, some with specialized roles) your job is to keep your clan happy while fostering good relationships with neighbouring clans so that you can eventually form a tribe, and eventually a kingdom (or a queendom).
You start KoDP with a simple questionnaire about the history of your clan: do you take thralls or adopt outsiders as family? Are you a warlike or peaceful clan? Who is your patron deity? When you first came to Dragon Pass, how much land did you clear for your stead? All of these things determine your initial setup. (Clearing lots of land at the start gives you lots of room to grow but makes you more vulnerable to raids, for instance.)
Time in KoDP is measured by the seasons, at the beginning of every year, you enter Sacred Time, which is the time that the clan uses to perform various rituals that strengthen certain areas (ie, crops, herds, or warfare) a good tip is to leave at least one point of clan magic in case of an emergency. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the seasons, as winter can make exploration difficult and your warriors may not fight during the harvest because all hands are needed on the farm.
The second most important element of gameplay is the Clan Ring. They are represented as portraits at the bottom of the screen. One of the most important roles is the Chief, who is always the portrait who is first in line going from left to right. You will have an easier time if your chief worships your clan’s patron deity. (You can reorganize your clan ring by clicking “Reorganize” on the “Clan” screen.) The manual will inform you that its important to have a “balanced” ring by making sure your members have different patron deities, and this also makes heroquesting much easier. (More on this in a second.) Your clan ring is basically your eyes, ears, and hands. You can send them on diplomatic missions, send them to explore the immediate area, or designate one as war leader in the event of a raid.
The ring’s other important function (arguably the most important) is to offer you advice. Let’s say you want to know more about your crops and farmers. You can click on the “Crops” icon (represented by a cow) which will give you an overview of how much livestock you have, the ratio of pasture to farmlands and wildlands, and how many farmers you currently have. Your clan ring will also give you farming related advice such as “We don’t have a whole lot of cattle.” or “Consider slaughtering animals to feed the clan.” Your clan members all have their own agendas, and some of them will specialize in certain areas. Your Warleader might not have a lot to say about crops, but they probably can advise you on matters involving your warriors.
Your clan ring can also advise you during the game’s random events (which number in the hundreds). During these events, a problem will be presented to you, and your clan ring will offer advice based on what they believe to be the best course of action (their choice will be highlighted in blue). Again, your clan ring will have their own agendas, and you usually can’t please everyone. Sometimes, particular members of your clan ring can offer unique solutions to problems. If you have a worshiper of Chalana Arroy, goddess of healing, you may have the option to heal your plague stricken clan members yourself instead of hiring shamans to do it, which can be costly.
You also need to manage your farmers and your weaponthanes (professional warriors). The game uses them to gauge your entire clans mood. You can keep them happy by giving them gifts, throwing feasts, not letting them starve, and giving them work to do. You also have crafters, who make goods (which you can sacrifice to the gods, trade, or give as gifts), and hunters, who hunt for food. You can check the overall mood of your farmers and weaponthanes on the “Clan” screen.
Let’s talk about cows, shall we?
Cows are very important.
Cows are not only your currency, they are a measure of wealth. If you think of the Orlanthi as Celto-Norse, this makes a whole lot of sense. You can get more cows by going on a cattle raid, trading for cattle with other clans, sacrificing to the goddess
Auðumbla Uralda, or by doing Uralda’s heroquest, which can give you a herd of cows. The one thing you don’t want to do is sacrifice ALL THE CATTLE ALL THE TIME.
Speaking of sacrifice, you will spend a lot of time sacrificing to the various deities. You can sacrifice to learn Mysteries, which may be a portion of a myth or a blessing which can give you certain benefits for a season (ie. Uralda’s “Calf Blessing” increases the fertility of the clan’s cows). You can sacrifice cattle, goods, or thralls (if applicable), although some deities do not approve of human sacrifice, so be careful with thralls.
Besides sacrifice, you can also go on heroquests. Heroquests are special events where your quester (a member of your clan ring) enters the realm of the gods in order to reenact a myth. Successful reenactments will give your clan particular benefits, as well as increasing your renown among other clans. To even attempt a heroquest, though, you need to know parts of the myth you want to reenact, you can do this by sacrificing to learn Mysteries.
Yes, the game requires you to know its own lore to pull this off.
A bunch of conditions govern whether or not you can successfully complete a heroquest: having people who worship different deities in your clan ring, the presence of a Trickster, whether or not your quester worships the deity whose myth they are trying to reenact, whether or not you have other clans assisting you, and how many quests you’ve attempted recently. Even if you satisfy all of these conditions, however, you can still massively fail quests, and your questers can die from injuries they sustain during quests. (Your clan ring can also die from old age or during random events.)
Your end goal is to create a tribe by joining your clan and two rival clans together. As of this writing, I have not yet managed to do this (see below), but one path involves completing the heroquest “The Making of the Storm Tribe”. (I’m not sure if taking Orlanth as your patron deity will allow you to learn this myth right off the bat, but it will help) and being very kind and generous to your neighbours, who will then approach you with offers to form a tribe.
Since pretty much the entirety of the game is spent reading text and navigating menus, visuals are very important, and KoDP’s visuals are very nice, perhaps not as clear and crisp as they could be, but this game was made in the 90s, so yeah. Occasionally you will get a close up of a very unattractive face in a random event though, which is just bad design, if you ask me. The soundtrack is composed almost entirely of ear worms. At first, I found the music grating, and then I found myself humming the tracks after I put the game down.
Damn ear worms….
Okay, so, I mentioned I haven’t completed the game yet, and that is because this game is deceptively difficult. You may think “LOL there’s no way this text-based game could be THAT difficult.”
If you underestimate this game, it will destroy you.
Part of the reason for this difficulty is the random nature of the game (this is also one of it’s greatest flaws). Even if you’ve done everything to ensure success in a heroquest, you can STILL fail because there’s always the chance that the “right” answer (the one that matches the deity’s action in the myth) will fail. This randomness is one of the most bugfuck annoying aspects of the game.
The other most bugfuck annoying thing about this game is your clan’s Trickster.
Oh, Tricksters, I could go on all day about them.
Early on in the game, your clan will recommend that you add a Trickster to your clan ring. These individuals worship the god
Loki Eurmal, who is the Trickster, the Fool, and the Scapegoat. Having a Trickster in your clan ring greatly increases your chances of success during a heroquest. Occasionally, you will also have the option to have your Trickster use their special brand of magic to steal shiny objects or curse rival clans.
However, the thing you need to understand about Tricksters is that they are divinely ordained to be as bugfuck annoying as possible.
When offering advice, your Trickster will occasionally offer random “advice” that has absolutely NOTHING to do with your situation. Tricksters also have special random events which may include the following:
Giving a rival clan 30 cows because they “looked funny”.
Fashioning a crude effigy made of mud and sticks and leaving it in the earth goddess’ shrine (pissing her off)
Insulting the chief of a rival clan (leaving you susceptible to a raid)
and possibly other things.
Oh sure, the cows may eventually turn out to be cursed and trying to move the effigy will royally piss off Eurmal (who will curse your clan) but the fact remains that despite their amazing benefits, Tricksters will occasionally be the source of much annoyance (if not outright rage) on your part. (Note: You can outlaw your Trickster, it won’t stick, but it might make you feel better.)
One thing I will say is that, in spite of the difficulty and in spite of the fact that I keep failing miserably, I am enjoying the heck out of this game. True, the game does throw a lot of information at you, so reading the manual (or at least the section for people who don’t read manuals) is essential, and it seems like I’ve covered a lot here, the game really isn’t that hard to play. It pretty much boils down to “you make choices”, sometimes those choices are good, other times they can have unintended consequences, and sometimes an option that works in one playthrough won’t work in another.
Overall, King of Dragon Pass is something different. There’s really nothing like it out there, and it’s deceptively deep and difficult.
It’s also $2.99 on GOG.com right now. Here’s the link to its store page.