Developer: Dirigo Games
Available on: Steam
Played on Steam
Copy provided by publisher
Old school FPSes are having a bit of a renaissance right now. Possibly due to the 30-year nostalgia cycle, a bunch of indie developers are releasing fast-paced shooters where reloading doesn’t exist, your character is able to carry an absurd arsenal on their back and every enemy rushes you in a desperate attempt to gnaw your face off.
But the thing with most of these titles is their insistence on not just taking Doom and Quake’s gameplay style but also their aesthetics, with moody castles and industrial hellscapes being the norm for this particular subgenre.
Kingdom of the Dead dares to take this formula somewhere entirely different, with a unique art style and tone unlike many others in the genre. If Doom is the moody industrial sci-fi of the Alien movies, Kingdom of the Dead is a Robert Rodriguez movie, full of Western imagery and hyperviolence. All rendered in a pen-and-ink style that commands attention.
Set in late 19th century America, you play as Chamberlain, an army general recruited into a secret government programme for tackling the rising armies of the dead. The game centres on an office hub area where Chamberlain selects missions from case files plonked on his desk. Locations are typical of the setting, with mills, mansions and graveyards hosting all manner of demons and monsters. Each level is a self-contained area where you are tasked with battling through the hordes to find a demonic gate that you need to close with the help of your very sarcastic enchanted sword.
And the game’s vibes are excellent. While the entire game is black and white (with splashes of bright red blood, of course), the team managed to produce a series of levels that feel drastically different from one another. The mansion level is full of multi-level rooms and a theatre of chaos, along with lot of hidden spaces in a bunch of side rooms. The graveyard is a vast underground crypt of winding passages. And the mill is full of machinery and wood piles to hide behind, and a dock area that increases the tension with the ever-present threat of jumping in the water by mistake.
And the shooting feels satisfying. Each weapon is typical but has a cool 19th century flair, from the cowboy revolver to the hunting rifle to the old school gatling gun in place of an assault rifle. Grenades are replaced by dynamite, and of course, you have the aforementioned sword to slice your way through enemies when necessary. Shots are weighty and powerful, and while the melee combat is rudimentary, it does a great job scything through enemies.
It’s such a shame that the game has numerous flaws that prevent the game from feeling truly special. Enemy encounters have some wonky difficulty, with increased difficulty settings seemingly doing little more than assaulting you with greater numbers of the same enemies. Individual enemies pose little challenge, apart from the types that do, such as the four-legged, one-eyed beasts that show up in later levels. And this sudden leap in difficulty between enemies is jarring and makes levels feel uneven. Boss encounters contribute to this as they often hit you with one-hit kills, a vast difficulty spike from the often slow and wimpy zombies you frequently encounter outside of them.
Enemy placements often feel weird too, with numerous battles in tight corridors leading to wide open arenas with nothing in them. It often feels like these hordes are supposed to be in those arenas, but spawned early and stalked me into the passages on the way instead. This seemed to be across difficulty levels too, where the numbers increased, but these weird spawn positions didn’t.
Those difficulty levels were strange too. On the menu, there’s an implication that it employs a Perfect Dark style difficulty, where each level changes slightly to provide additional objectives. It’s even on the game’s Steam page, where it promises this level of replay value, which I found very exciting. In reality, those additional objectives are in all difficulties, but the level merely determines how mandatory it is to find a single secret collectible per area and if you should rescue the generic civilians dotted around the level. It’s disappointing, since it seemed to promise so much more than what it offered.
It also had some serious technical issues, and those technical issues contributed to me being unable to play the game beyond its first few levels. While I initially had some issues with using an Xbox controller, I was still able to use keyboard and mouse, so this was a minor problem that would have been a minor footnote in the review.
But the point where I had to stop playing was down to quite possibly the weirdest control glitch I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t able to move with WASD, only the controller’s left stick, but I could only look around with the mouse, and could only switch weapons with the keyboard. The game arbitrarily created an unworkable hybrid system that required three hands to operate and I had no idea why.
The options for controls were also too limited to try and fix this in-game. There was full control re-mapping available, which is good, but despite the options recognising WASD for movement, it refused to do so in actual gameplay. Bizarre and frustrating in equal measure.
All of these issues combined had me double checking the Steam page to see if this was an Early Access release or not. It is not, which I found surprising. This isn’t to say Kingdom of the Dead is a bad game, far from it, but it’s so rough around the edges that it feels like it could do with a few more months of balancing and polishing. Because what we currently have is a game that feels like a superb proof of concept for something that’ll be amazing once it’s done.
There is a lot to love with Kingdom of the Dead. It’s got some delightfully creaky horror vibes and the actual mechanics are a lot of fun when the controls don’t weirdly break. But its flaws are too distracting and make it hard to recommend. A few patches and adjustments and there’s a chance this will be excellent, but in its current state, I’d argue the need for caution if you’re thinking of picking this up.