“Revenge is profitable,” Edward Gibbon famously wrote book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That could very well sum up the life of Ollivean, the sole surviving heir to a once powerful noble dynasty, who sells his family ring and decides to endure the life of a travelling merchant, aiming to climb back to the top of the social (read: financial) ladder, and avenge his kinsmen’s death. Unlucky for him, his wheeling and dealing is controlled by you, the average hardcore gamer, in Forever Entertainment’s Merchants of Kaidan. And unless you’re willing to put in hours of grinding, swearing, and frustrating map-cross-referencing, his family’s enemies are almost certainly going to have the last laugh.
Kaidan is a trading simulation game (which you may be familiar with if you’ve played Sid Meier’s Pirates, or the Patrician series), where the fundamental game mechanic is buy low and sell high. Kaidan tries, and only sometimes succeeds, in spicing up the genre by adding a couple of different elements to the game. You can finish quests to boost your income (all of which are the basically just different variations of “Pick me up in this city and take me to another!”), explore ruins and abandoned buildings, make investments by founding massage parlors, monasteries and other establishments, and hire different crew-members for your caravan of trade-wagons. And then there are the random events.
Oh random events: drunken crew-members, weird old women, snakes… You have a “luck” score (which for me, tended to hover around the negative 0.5 mark, as much as I tried making offering to the “Blind God.”), which presumably determines how bad your random events are going to be. Most of them tend to rob your hard-earned money or goods. Especially in the early parts of the game, I was incredibly frustrated by micro-catastrophes Kaidan kept throwing at me: cart breakdowns (really, do they make ‘em out of eggshells?), thieving highwaymen, over-zealous tax-collectors, and bizarrely, gnomes trapped in treasure chests. Yes, all these events add flavor, and randomness keeps things from getting stale, but for a strategy game, it seemed a little over-salted with random events that threw off the player (for an excellent discussion on randomness vs. variation in games, check out this great blog post).
Unfortunately, it’s “strategy” where Kaidan is found lacking. Like I said, the core mechanic is about buying goods for low prices, and selling them for higher ones. To make good strategic choices, you have to be able to discern patterns and trends, and Kaidani makes that pretty difficult. Yeah, there’re some seasonal changes, and a couple of goods follow the rule-of-thumb of “buy in villages, sell in cities”, but even those weren’t guaranteed, and price fluctuations felt essentially arbitrary. Sometimes, your log may say things like “Feast in Town X! Price of olive oil is high!” but by the time your lowly horse-drawn cart finds its way there (after you spend what seems like a century trying to locate the city on your map… would a “search” function have killed the developers?), the deal’s over and you’re left with an excess of expensive cargo. On top of that, you spend most of the first part of the game trading only furs and food, which are bulky (taking up valuable space in your carts) and have slim profit margins, meaning you have a ton of grinding to do before you have enough money to rank up, and be deemed socially acceptable enough to buy lightweight luxuries such as spices and jewelry. You kinda forget the whole “I will avenge my father!” storyline as you wearily travel back and forth between towns, desperately trying to find a good buyer for that 600 kg of food you thought was a steal. After a couple of hours of play, I was getting thoroughly annoyed by the whole thing.
Merchants of Kaidan gets some points for nice artwork, a decent musical score and with a couple of interesting gameplay features. Unfortunately, the core of the game feels unbalanced and underdeveloped. For a strategy title, unlike an adventure game, for example, where a good story can carry the game forward, that amounts to a cardinal sin. I wanted to feel like a powerful, capitalist, magnate, trading luxuries between the far corners of the world, raking in profits, and not like a petty pawnbroker, scraping the bottom of the barrel with scavenged goods.
Is it Hardcore?
A few neat gameplay features do little to save the grinding-heavy and frustrating core mechanic.