Online Chess Kingdoms (PSP) review
"Sometimes you play your best and the computer does the same and when all is said and done, you’ve won. The congratulatory screen comes and goes like it should. Then the next match is another inexplicable stalemate, or the disc freezes again. You just never know with this game, which is frustrating because of all the things does right."
Imagine that you and a buddy are playing a friendly game of chess. You’ve been going at it for awhile, each planning your moves carefully, trying to stay three or four turns ahead of the other but never quite doing as well at it as you would like. You take a rook, he takes a knight. You take a bishop, he takes your queen. Back and forth, you’re trading pieces until it gets down to a few tense moments. Finally, you see victory within your grasp. You move a pawn into position and ask for your queen.
“Stalemate,” your friend says smugly, without making a move to return your piece.
There’s no good reason for the stalemate. You have your friend cornered in the top three rows, on the very right side. If he goes up one row, he’s in line with your rook. If he goes down one row, he’s in line with a second rook. When your pawn turns into a queen, you only need to move her down one row and you’ve won the game. It’s not a question of whether or not you’ll emerge the victor. It’s not even a question of how long. You just need one more turn. It’s obvious.
“Stalemate,” your friend says, and his smile widens into an infuriating grin. “Game over. Stalemate. You lose.”
Online Chess Kingdoms is kind of like that, only your opponent is a UMD disc instead of a grinning idiot. Your match can end right before you win and you don’t even get the satisfaction of slapping someone around a bit. Sometimes, you even get the “Stalemate” message when you’ve already won. The game pauses, you hear the disc spinning and then you get the familiar message, even though it’s clear from the position of the pieces on the screen that you just managed a checkmate. Other times, things just go black and you don’t see any text at all. You have to reset your PSP and start from scratch.
The thing is, sometimes everything goes just fine. Sometimes you play your best and the computer does the same and when all is said and done, you’ve won. The congratulatory screen comes and goes like it should. Then the next match is another inexplicable stalemate, or the disc freezes again. You just never know with this game, which is frustrating because of all the things does right.
Take the themed boards and playing pieces, for example. You’ll get to watch your pieces hammer one another to bits in arenas crafted out of stone and timber, asphalt and metal. Stylized pawns march glumly across the board, then swing scythes wildly at hulking dragons. Queens fire ray guns from a distance before swooping in for the kill. What you’ll see isn’t much better than an original Playstation game, but the style works well enough that you aren’t likely to care. If you can’t get used to what each figurine signifies while you’re planning your next move, you can also highlight the questionable member among your ranks and a little icon will show a more familiar representation of the piece in question.
Because of the extremely visual approach, there are times when you’ll almost feel like you’re on an active battlefield, ordering your troops to charge one another like a proper brigade. There’s even an option to play that way; selecting ‘battle mode’ exposes you to a real-time version of chess where you can highlight any of your pieces and move them into position, sometimes taking several turns in a row. That’s fun for all of about two matches, until you realize that all you really must do in order to win is grab the queen piece and hack your way across the board, felling knights and castles alike with a few quick button presses. It’s kind of like a brawler, only without decent controls.
There’s more to Online Chess Kingdoms than just the straight-up matches, too. The game actually has a plot and a story campaign, one that will find you playing all sorts of chess matches if you want to work your way through it. You’ll be taken to a world map that’s broken up into a grid. You and your enemy are given turns, kind of like in a tactical game such as Advance Wars. Cities and other items of interest surround you, and you’ll have to move to claim them for your kingdom. Each city in your possession gives you a point on the next turn that can be used to generate more troops or to delay your enemies’ approach. Sometimes, you’ll have to defend your towns and sometimes you’ll have to be the aggressor. All disputes are settled by a round of chess.
Of course, you already know how the chess matches go. Just because you’re trying to rule the world doesn’t mean the game will dependably allow you to finish the matches you start. The game practically forces you to save regularly, just so you don’t win three matches and then find your progress halted by glitch. Fortunately, you can always come back later to continue from wherever you last saved. It’s just a hassle.
So is taking the game online, for that matter. I was anxious to give it a shot, so I chose the appropriate option from the menu. Instead of finding people to play against, though, I found a few load screens and the promise of matches, followed by a disconnect message. Apparently, the game doesn’t want me playing over the Internet any more than it wants me winning matches. Given how many matches end prematurely without the complications that would arise from a network interface, it’s probably for the best.
Ultimately, trying to decide what to make of Online Chess Kingdoms is difficult. On the one hand, it’s obvious that some serious effort went into making this one of the best chess games ever created. Watching pieces battle it out is good fun, and there’s definite appeal to the tactical side of things when playing through the story campaign. On the other hand, the action-packed ‘battle mode’ isn’t particularly compelling and the near-certainty that a match will end prematurely does no one any favors. Mix the good and the bad together and you really won’t be sure what you’re playing. Let’s call it a stalemate.
Staff review by Jason Venter (December 04, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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