From the get-go, the genre is set. A retro-inspired start screen with a soundtrack that cues thoughts of your favorite arcade shooter. Much of what you see on this start screen will carry throughout the rest of Kingdom of the Dead: a striking art style glazed over the rails of a traditional FPS. The game has its quirky beats, and it's full of potential, but it's hard to avoid the rough edges.
We begin in a dark office, quiet and largely empty. Outside, the war on the dead rages on. We assume the role of Agent Chamberlain, a professor turned army general, who has sworn to defeat the undead army. Before we have time to take note of our surroundings, a file is slipped underneath the office door. Upon collecting it, we pick up our pistol and trusty talking sword and lay the documents out on the table. Here, players are prompted to choose from a selection of leads, the first of which is The Manor. Each level comes with a choice of difficulty (Agentis, Speciali Agente, Princeps Agente) and an additional objective. In the case of The Manor: find and destroy the gate, recover the estate deed, and avoid civilian casualties. Opting for the regular difficulty, we dive in.
We approach the gates on horseback, our talking sword companion giving us a bit of establishing commentary on the task ahead. It's a playful chat, but offers little more than loose narrative context. Before long, we find ourselves at the gates of The Manor, ready to shoot our way through the hordes of undead. The controls are simple, and lean on a player’s intuition to figure out which button does what, though a quick glance at the control menu doesn’t hurt. Armed with only a pistol at first, we begin our cleanse.
With hand-drawn visuals set to a black and white palette, Kingdom of the Dead immediately makes you feel like you’ve been sucked into a graphic novel. The game’s style is surprisingly intricate and adds a fair amount of depth to its environments. We only manage a few steps before we encounter our first undead creature - a common enemy who you’ll be seeing plenty of, equipped with a sword and shuffling (or sometimes crouching) towards you. While no threat in small numbers, too many can quickly become a problem. Luckily, the game lets you even things out. Shoot off a few limbs to slow them down, and a well-placed headshot will see them drop for good.
There’s a decent variety of enemies to encounter throughout the game’s levels, from gunslinging zombies to strange bipedal beasts. There’s room to strategize with how best to take them out with the array of weapons available to be collected throughout the level. But we’re given limited guidance, and that has its pros and cons. Players are free, and encouraged, to reevaluate their strategy upon death. When faced with a horde, is it better to use the shotgun? When targeted by harpies, can you afford to linger in place for long? Checkpoints are frequent, so you’re likely never too far off from where you died, but you will have to make do with a base amount of ammo upon resurrection regardless of how much you amassed.
As for the cons, limited guidance can become a problem when there are very few alternative signifiers to help you along. The odd light source is used to nudge you in the right direction, but that’s not always a given. The game’s stylized, monochromatic color palette certainly sets the tone and looks great, but it can quickly become a hindrance when trying to keep an eye on enemies that so easily blend into the background. There’s no option to change the in-game brightness, so you'll often find yourself lost in the dark.
The game’s world isn’t devoid of color, though. Rather, it’s reserved for items and blood. A welcome relief when searching for a smidgeon of medical care when you’re down to your last heart. The game makes sure not to provide health all that readily, either, ensuring that there are just enough barriers to stop you breezing through.
Kingdom of the Dead doesn’t lock you to the black and white style, however, allowing players to choose from a range of color themes to best suit you. I was more a fan of the coffee palette, offering an aged look to the artistic environments, though the same issues with brightness persisted.
The length of each level feels appropriate — long enough to feel like you’ve had to work your way to the end, short enough to not feel like a chore on a second playthrough. Midway through The Manor, we encounter the Conqueror Worm, providing our first look at the game’s boss fights. This one takes place in a small courtyard, with a handful of the common undead enemies nipping at your heels. The Conqueror Worm is exactly what you’d expect: a giant, writhing worm with a face that opens up. The trick with this boss is to keep moving and shooting, because the second you stop he’ll smash his pointy face straight down, killing you instantly.
The insta-death, particularly with this worm, is something I had a bit of trouble with. It’s the main element that slows down this pick-up-and-play game. The death screen takes a surprisingly long time, making it even more frustrating after that one-hit kill. Our protagonist has a slightly janky hitbox, too. When the worm attacks, you might think you’re standing far enough away — you’re not.
Kingdom of the Dead's gameplay is certainly compelling, but a few extra features could liven things up. A perk or upgrade system would really go a long way to make the game that much more dynamic. As it stands, each level plays mostly the same: You begin with your pistol and need to collect other weapons along the way from point A to point B. Upon clearing one, you move onto the next, needing to collect roughly the same pool of weapons all over again. The story seems less important than the gameplay, which is fine. But without much else pulling you from one level to the next, it doesn't take long for the monotony to drag. It’s important to note that the game has a bit of a frame rate problem. Not only does it interfere with the speed of the game, but it can be a difficult hurdle to clear to even continue playing.
Kingdom of the Dead is an FPS first, survival horror game second. Its eye-catching visuals are intriguing, and great at establishing an atmosphere, but the stakes never feel high enough to truly fill players with dread. You never feel unprepared or in serious danger, and your survival only hinges on how well you can place your shots. As a self-proclaimed wuss when it comes to a lot of horror games, it’s amazing how quickly my fears melted away once armed with a shotgun and a healthy supply of ammunition. This isn’t necessarily detrimental to the game, either. It’s a lot of fun and easy to get into the swing of, but finds its merits as a shooter more often than it does a survival horror.
Brought to you by DIRIGO Games and HOOK, Kingdom of the Dead is available now on PC via Steam for $14.99.