by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
I'm a sucker for anything turn-based. There, I said it. I like games that make me think rather than act on base instincts' reaction speed. The ability to sit back and fully absorb a situation before taking action adds a layer of depth real-time games simply cannot match. Assembled at Bulwark Studios, Crowntakers certainly fits the bill as a blend between turn-based strategy, Roguelike perma-death and a character progression system that could be described as RPG-light.
It's an intriguing mix that has kept me playing for longer than I had expected. If that sounds contradictory, then you should know that - my - dictionary lists "Roguelike" as synonyms for "Frustrating" and "Futile". I am in good company here, as Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results". I must admit, though, that Crowntakers brings a certain appeal to being insane.
A bastard son
Crowntakers puts you in the shoes of the bastard son of an imprisoned king, tasked with freeing his father. An untold number of half-brothers have failed and you are your father's last hope. That's all there is to the story, the rest you make up yourself on your journey to the jailor's castle.
The journey takes you through eight randomly generated maps that consist of hex-shaped tiles. When I say random, I mean... jumbled up. The variety of objects is fairly limited and ranges from grass, roads and trees, to hovels, inns and watch towers. It gets a little more creative than that, but not by much. Buildings and caves can be explored for loot, occasionally offering up a choice to proceed further - at your own risk - or get back onto the road.
Each map has an exit leading to the next that is invariably guarded by an end-boss, surrounded by whatever army he or she has been gathering. Ehm, gathering? Yes, you see, time is not your friend. As you tarry, explore and level-up, the clock is ticking and each day that passes enemy troops grow stronger. From my time spent with the game, I've found no obvious choice between making a mad dash for the exit and meticulously combing through each area of the map. What I can tell you is that you won't have time to backtrack too much lest the enemy grows disproportionately strong. There will be playthroughs where you are so unlucky with the loot and gear that you find that the quick route is the only viable route. Unfortunately, by the time you've figured that out, it's often too late and the enemy has grown too strong.
You gain experience through combat. Experience is divided between your hero and whatever mercenaries you have brought along for the ride. Fortunately, mercenaries are worth the effort of keeping them alive. Despite bordering on being simplistic, Crowntakers' turn-based combat offers a fair amount of strategic options. To make the most of them, it is best to employ a small army rather than going at it alone.
Much of the combat is "tactics 101". It pays to have a good mix of ranged and melee fighters, you need to use obstacles to your advantage, attack from behind whenever possible... that kind of stuff. But there are more subtle things that take a little while to master. One is manipulating attackers to move within melee range of multiple party members so that they can strike with "opportunity attacks". These occur whenever an enemy unit attacks someone while being flanked by someone else. Another is making optimum use of your mercenary's unique abilities, custom armour and weapon upgrades. If, for instance, an enemy has a high armour rating, it pays dividends to bash him on the head with an axe with a "double armour damage" rune inserted into it - before - having a go at it with the triple-shot longbow. Should your character make a kill, he gets an extra action point to spend too. It's not unheard of to kill 3 or even 4 enemies in a single turn with a single mercenary.
Fallen mercenaries can be revived, but losing the hero in combat means game over. When that happens, you will lose all your items and gear but your XP sticks along for the next round. You get to choose bonuses for each level as if you had just leveled up several times at once. With the added benefit of those, starting again feels a little less daunting and the chances are that you journey a little bit farther into the game this time around. Oh, and your old mercenary friends will be waiting for you at the inn, and they have kept their experience too.
Simple, frustrating, entertaining
As with any good Roguelike, you're as likely to end up entertained as frustrated. Permadeath is, well, permanent, and if you've just invested an hour into a game when it kicks you out, it hurts. I hate losing progress like that, which is why I usually avoid playing Roguelikes.
I took me some time to figure out why Crowntakers kept luring me back in. I am certain that it is a combination of the game's infinitely charming graphics and its "sticky experience". Knowing that you will at least be slightly better equipped on your next attempt, and even better on the one after that defuses some of the sense of futility found in other Roguelikes. And you know what, when you finally beat the game, you've proven yourself to be sane. Sort of...
Experience sticks even after permadeath, charming graphics.
Somewhat limited tileset.