These days your first exposure to Conan likely came from television or the movies. The original tales that introduced the cunning barbarian to the world are hard to find in a printed form. While subsequent versions of the character might have altered various traits of the hero, they’ve generally kept true to the highly embellished depiction of the ancient world known as Hyperboria that Conan’s creator had imagined. Certain liberties were taken in Road of Kings and it’s not truly set in that fictional realm, but it’s a close enough analog. The world is a dangerous place; wild animals and fantastic creatures roam the countryside. When sheltered behind the high walls of a city the danger simply changes. Tyrannical rulers and brutal mercenaries abound. The game dumps you into this harsh world, alone and poorly supplied with the goal of accumulating enough gold or renown to claim the throne of your barbarian clan.
The gameplay is reminiscent of older adventure games with a simplistic interface and a fair amount of text to read. The game is open ended and allows you in certain ways to craft your own tale. The map is completely visible from the start of the game but there’s no room to aimlessly explore. You have a hundred days to complete your objective and return to a port city and each turn amounts to a day. There are essentially only three resources to manage: your time remaining, your gold and your food, which can be hunted for in certain areas. In many ways the title feels akin to the classic Oregon Trail. No two games are alike; a series of random events unfold as you move through the game. You’re always presented with a choice of how to proceed, even if you simply choose to ignore that evil cult about to sacrifice an innocent woman to their dark god. There’s no karma meter, but there can be repercussions for your actions further down the road both good and bad.
Due to the random nature of the game it can be punishingly difficult. Even combat is unpredictable; one moment you deliver a crushing blow and the next you barely scratch your opponent. The only method to tip the scales in your favor is to hire or recruit companions. Even then that’s no guarantee of success, particularly when you emerge from a combat bloodied yet victorious only to be set upon again in your next turn. This is not a game you’re going to win in the first few tries. The restrictive time limit makes you consider every move carefully. The first time I was close to winning I had more than enough gold and was one turn short of reaching the city I needed to set sail from to win. Other times I was killed just short of victory. The first time I won the throne it was almost by accident. I rescued two separate individuals who turned out to be separated lovers and their gift to me was valuable enough that I won a few turns later.
I don’t want to give the impression that this game is entirely without skill; careful play is encouraged and knowing when not to take a risk can mean the difference between roaring success and dismal failure. Sure, that treasure map you found on a corpse in a swamp might seem tempting, but the promise of a dragon at the end of that search should warn you away if you’re alone and hurt.
Still, it’s not all glory and wenches in faux-Hyperboria. The various events and set pieces of the game could use more variety. They’re random in their occurrence but certain ones pop up quite frequently and vary little if at all depending on your choices. After a few times playing through the game you’ll have figured out what each outcome is. It’d be far better if even the outcomes themselves were different, especially given the intentionally fluid nature of the overall experience. No two games might be exactly the same, but unfortunately they end up too similar for this kind of game.
Graphically the game is extremely minimalist and feels more like a digitized board game than a real video game. There’s a decent amount of detail put into the hand-drawn style of the various creatures and characters, though it would have been nice to see more models. Certain figures are used over and over for supposedly different character types which makes the experience feel more like an old video game made for systems with limited resources than it needs to. The sound effects are numerous and annoying enough that you’ll turn them off after only a few minutes of gameplay and the music, while stirring at first is similarly repetitive after an hour or so.
As most of the difficulty of the game comes from its randomness and your success largely attributed to the same factor I can’t help but think there could have been more thought given to the mechanics of the game. Some degree of character customization and an inventory system that allowed for more than one or two items to assist in combat would’ve made the game far more deep and satisfying. Kings would also benefit greatly from implementing more standard RPG tropes. As a warrior, why is there no option to obtain improved weapons or other protection? Why, no matter how many allies you have are you limited to carrying twenty units of food at a time? As it stands the game loses its luster after you’ve won a few times but with greater complexity there could have been substantial replay value. It won’t occupy you forever, but there’s a good few hours of fun to be had in this lovely world full of menace and adventure and the first time you achieve victory it’s hard not to roar with barbarian delight.
Exciting and unsympathetic to poor planning.