Don’t let the beguiling art style of For The King fool you. It might look like a children’s book that’s been conjured to life, bathed in the soft autumnal light of a European fairy tale, but beneath the funny hats and cute character designs sits a roguelike RPG with teeth. Underestimate the challenge of its procedural maps and the turn-based battles contained therein, and you’ll get bitten, hard and often. But take the time to understand its co-operative charms and nuance of overworld exploration and the rewards are often great, satisfying and well earned.
Each new adventure starts with three adventurers, randomly-generated from a raft of potential classes and looks, who must head out into a kingdom where an evil primordial force known as Chaos is taking root. With the most famous wizard in the land conspicuously missing and the king himself slain, the queen tasks you with halting the spread of Chaos and seeking out the identity of the kingslayer. As a premise, it’s a little rote, but it’s how you embark on this adventure that really helps set this procedural RPG apart from its contemporaries on Switch.
Following a living tabletop aesthetic similar to the one employed in Armello (another great example of turn-based battles and tactical placement elevated by creative new ideas), For The King’s trio of would-be heroes traverse the map independently of one another. With plenty of random timed events appearing across the land, the idea is to split up and reform your squad periodically during their own turn, dealing with pockets of Chaos and battling all manner of monsters and bandits. Each character has a series of turns to move around the hexagonal grid, but so does ‘the enemy’ so being sure of your team’s positioning at the end of a turn is key. However, the shadow of permadeath looms over your party. Depending on the difficulty you choose, you could lose everything on a run if Lady Luck decides she doesn’t favour you.
Splitting character turns up might seem like an odd choice, but it plays directly into one of the best ways to enjoy For The King: cooperative play. While you don’t have to play any of its campaign and myriad DLC expansions – including a total of six full campaigns – with anyone else if you don’t want to, the entire game is playable solo, where you control each party member one after another. It’s in co-op that For The King really comes together as an RPG; whether you’re playing locally on the same screen or online, every aspect of the game becomes intrinsically tied to effective teamwork and communication.
As a group, one player can head off to a local town or village and collect some side-quests (which often net you new gear, weapons and gold), tasking you with reducing the local Chaos level, killing a certain enemy or simply finding and returning a certain item. Another might choose to visit a local statue or temple, imbuing your party with refilled focus. However, how far you might diverge, the world of For The King is a dangerous place and every battle is better when fought together. When combat is initiated – either through proximity to an enemy or through an ambush – only the party members present within a certain distance will be eligible to fight, so wayward players might scupper the entire team’s wider efforts. Chaos gradually increases in the region, so you're always having to seek out the nearest sources in order to stem its tide. This time pressure adds some welcome pace and removes any chance of complacency creeping in.
Combat itself really embraces some of the quirks of a tabletop game, with the effectiveness of each character’s action defined by a roll of dice. Each move can also be increased in its potential accuracy by adding focus, your constant source of additional energy. It’s a finite resource, but it can often help bolster a final attack when you need to wrap up a battle quickly. This mixture of player agency and chance makes each skirmish a tantalising prospect, as does swapping out weapon cards with your characters to find out how best to increase or decrease your stats. However, that reliance on chance and the ‘roll of the dice’ can often make battles more unpredictable than we’d like, which can be a potentially difficult element to include in a game built around the finality of permadeath.
The Nintendo Switch port benefits from all the DLC content released since the game first entered Early Access on Steam many years ago, which is a generous chunk when you consider how much of it is procedurally generated on each new run. The game is nicely optimised on Switch with no signs of slowdown or other technical issues. Moving characters across the hexagonal grid is quite clunky with an analog stick, and it seems strange that developer IronOak Games didn’t take full advantage of Switch’s touchscreen functionality. Being able to drag characters, or tap on-screen elements, would have made far more sense for a game such as this.
Turn-based RPGs of yesteryear and today owe a lot of their fine-tuned tactics to the legacy of tabletop board games, and For The King pays tribute to this legacy with a digital adventure where anything can happen. The fast-paced nature of its exploration and combat keeps everything feeling fresh and lively, but the considerable reliance on chance does take the shine of its otherwise competent combat. However, with adjustable difficulties (which amend the severity of each death) and a sizeable amount of expansive DLC, this is one roguelike RPG that really shines in co-op.