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King of Dragon Pass (PC) artwork

King of Dragon Pass (PC) review

"Playing a saga of your own making, albeit plagued by random chance."

This review refers to the original game and is strictly about it, without comparing it to the remastered version, on any platform, since I didnít play that and didnít care to. The fact that I only managed to get myself to write this review now, shortly before a full year passed since I finally finished it, does mean that some details arenít that fresh in my mind anymore, but at least I started over at that point, needing about a month and a half for that successful playthrough of a long game, so anything forgotten from the previous attempts doesnít matter. But I will state that I bought the game back in 2012, might have poked around in it a little at the time, actually attempted to seriously play it but failed miserably in 2014, tried again but eventually abandoned it when I was clearly heading for another failure in 2015, and then kept meaning to have another go at it but needed just under seven years to actually do so. On the one hand, that shows that it can be hard to push through it, but on the other, it should also show that itís a memorable game, leaving a strong impression and a desire to experience it despite the difficulties and frustration. Or at least thatís how it was for me.

Actually, Iíd say that ďexperienceĒ really is the appropriate term, because itís much better if seen as a work of art. The pictures, the music, the extensive lore and background information, including the manual, the clanís saga, even the UI, all of it is so fitting and Iíd dare say even beautiful. And the developers were well aware of that, making it easy to toggle all the other elements on and off by pressing the space bar, to allow the pictures to be viewed in full, setting aside a section for the lore, which you really need to read and learn and actually understand, and not merely recording the clanís saga in the game, but even making it accessible outside the game, in a plain text file generated alongside each save, and also at the end of a game, whether with victory or defeat. And that feature may actually be smart in another way as well, because itíll obviously only record the outcomes accepted by the player, possibly enhancing the memories of the good times, retroactively, while diminishing those of the failures, and of the frustration. Either way, if anyoneís curious, I uploaded mine. The one from the successful attempt, of course.
Sure, it is a game and by playing it you create that saga, but it feels the other way around, that you play a saga of your own making, more or less. And such a feeling of immersion is difficult to create only through text and still images, more so when the story isnít fixed, the developers canít really know or fully control it, and even more so when the player isnít actually included, thereís no actual player character. Yet they nevertheless managed it, making King of Dragon Pass an early and successful example of using the medium for art and even beauty.
As such, all Iíll say here about the gameplay is that it keeps you playing. It can also be quite satisfying when things fall into place and the clan develops in the desired direction, but as long as youíre not heading for disaster, or at least remain blissfully unaware of it, youíll be looking forward to your next move, the next event, the next season, the next year, the next opportunities and steps towards the next goal you set for the clan, and of course towards the final victory. You can do it all at your own pace and in however many sessions you desire, but youíll probably lose track of time pretty often, going through all the available options and trying to decide what the best or most helpful one would be at that point. Of course, that may also happen while reading more of the lore or looking at some new pictures, but I already covered thatÖ

However, while there are winning and losing strategies overall, random chance will often ruin your plans, and the experience, dictating not only the challenges and opportunities set before you, but also the outcomes of your decisions. In this game, doing the exact same thing and expecting different results is not at all a definition of insanity. Plus that much happens under the hood and thereís no way to see the calculations or the odds, so plenty of events that arenít actually random will still feel like they are. As a result, you probably wonít get very far without saving and reloading until you get what you desire or avoid or solve a problem you canít accept.
This applies to nearly every aspect of the game, and there are times when youíll be more or less in the dark even regarding the potential outcomes, but the plague of random chance hits particularly hard when it comes to the heroquests. Couple an action that may lead to potentially great rewards in case of success but also great, and at times perhaps even greater, harm befalling the clan in case of failure with the fact that youíll still be in the dark regarding plenty of necessary details even after reading the lore, which also leaves something to be desired in terms of the quality of the writing, and with the knowledge that random chance can and sometimes will lead to wildly different outcomes even if youíll make the exact same choices, and the result is a crucial aspect of the game that can only really be played by ďabusingĒ saves. Not that Iíd really have a problem with doing so in itself, in a game you should be able to retry whatever you want until you get it right, my problem being with those that disallow or even just discourage the practice, but itís also a problem when youíre pretty much forced into it because random chance plays far too much of a role in determining the outcome and youíre not even provided with the necessary information to calculate your chances or really determine the best strategy.
But on top of the fact itself, what makes it worse in such a game is that it breaks that immersion that its appeal relies on. One moment youíll be playing, creating and at some level even living the clanís saga, the next youíll be reminded that itís just a game and thrown back to ďrealityĒ by the realization that you need to save before an important moment and possibly reload, maybe multiple times, until something works, or at the very least until it doesnít fail in an unacceptable way, and that sometimes you can go through that entire range of outcomes without even changing any of your choices.
And Iíll actually leave it at that. There are other problems, and I also noticed some little bugs and know that more and far more important ones exist, some also playing a part in the unpredictable outcomes, but this plague of random chance coupled with knowing too little about what goes on under the hood pretty much overshadows any other complaints. You might be tempted to say that the time that passed and the potential effects of the clanís saga on the playerís memory also made the other complaints fade from my mind, but the fact is that my notes, written while playing, only included a couple of very small other issues, such as wanting to be able to see how I allocated magic at sacred time, and maybe also the tula screen, at any point, and finding the font used for the names that appear under portraits hard to read.

Frankly, Iím not pleased with this review, the game deserving far more than one of the least detailed ones I ever wrote, making it sound like a visual novel when, despite being played through text, choosing options and sliders, often reacting to the situations it decides to throw at you, itís obviously a strategy game, featuring combat, diplomacy, resource and population management, exploration, trading, base building and more. But I also find myself quite content, not only because I finally managed to write it, after all this time, but also because it does cover what matters most, at least in my opinion. Picking apart each gameplay aspect of King of Dragon Pass would be not only difficult, but possibly even wrong, because itís more than the sum of its parts and much better in terms of how it feels, the impression and memories it leaves, as well as in its artistic aspects. Itís frustrating that so much is determined by random chance and even some of whatís not actually random still feels that way because of the lack of information, and the saving and reloading that youíll inevitably need to resort to because of it does break the immersion, but the overall feeling of playing a saga of your own making remains, and thatís what matters and what itís really about. And that very saga may also improve those lingering impressions, and enhance the feeling of nostalgia youíll get when remembering the game.

Cavalary's avatar
Community review by Cavalary (August 15, 2023)

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Cavalary posted August 16, 2023:

Edited to add to the first sentence of the final paragraph, to clarify that the game is much more than what the review otherwise makes it seem.

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