Something of a cult hit when it appeared on Steam, and more recently on XLBA, NOIO and Liquorice games' (published by Raw Fury) Kingdom: New Lands makes its way to Nintendo Switch. A 2D sidescrolling micromanagement simulator in a pixellated medieval landscape, it tests attention, patience and strategy in equal measure. A remarkably simple concept at its core, KNL is essentially a recurring tale of survival.
Day 1. You start out as the King or Queen of your new realm, guided only by a ghostly spirit providing minimal, direct orders. 'Come here' the ghost dictates. You ride on horseback and collect some gold coins. 'Stand here' the ghost says, leaving you standing in front of a rock with a circle above. Holding down 'A' will transfer a coin into said circle, and all of a sudden a wooden structure appears. This leaves you thinking along the lines of "hm, that's a thing". Then, riding left and then right, and probably left again, more circles appear over certain objects. Then the object of the game is explicitly revealed - 'build, expand, defend'. Fast forward a few in-game days, and you might be none the wiser as to what is actually going on.
Gather more coins, recruit peasants and craftsmen to develop your village. Maintaining this infrastructure is the core gameplay of Kingdom: New Lands, but it might take a while to actually figure out its intricacies. Aside from the explicit instructions that only clarify so much, the player is left to their own devices. The extremely limited four button control scheme (left, right, gallop and spend) notwithstanding, the hook of Kingdom is the gradual realisation of the consequences of your decisions. Spend or save? Build or recruit? Weapons or tools?
Eventually night falls. Venture too far from your dwellings and be prepared to get ambushed by the game's antagonists - demonic figures out to destroy what you've built, steal your cash and ultimately take your crown. Crown stolen - game over. Start from scratch again. Build, expand, defend.
Once again, generate cash to build structures and settlements, recruit warriors or craftsmen and generally oversee your realm to become self sufficient and protect itself from attack.
Truth be told, the first hours may be an intimidatingly confusing and monotonous affair for some. It can feel like a mix of Minecraft, the Sims and Groundhog Day - each time noticing very subtle visual or audio details in order to witness just enough productivity to maintain a sense of progression. Watching archers take down rabbits that generate cash or watching masons build structures becomes as much of a waiting game as a routine task, as new options will be noticed every time you go through a cycle. Despite the minimalistic nature in terms of explanation or narrative, the game will not play out the same way twice. Each time it can feel like a misguided struggle of trial and error, as day turns to night, structures develop, residents go about their business and so on. Whether it's a minor epiphany or a curious new landmark, Kingdom never really follows through on any kind of serious repercussions, other than flat out failure.
It could be argued that the game rewards determination. Replacing the 'what am I doing' rhetoric with 'what am I doing wrong' will keep committed players engaged. However, it is a very good example of a game that needs to 'click' with its audience. It's a cliche, but you will get out of Kingdom exactly what you put in, but whether it respects your time only you can be the judge. Aside from directing your character and spending cash, there is little direct contribution from the player, and events develop (or not) by themselves.
Despite the lack of input or obtuse learning curve, there is a sense of satisfaction watching your newly recruited minions construct a living, functioning civilisation in front of your eyes, but due to the leg work required to make progress (not to mention the amount of times you'll have to start over) the reward just won't be worth it to some. Experimenting after each failed attempt will build a better knowledge of the nuances regarding managing personnel and cash, but for many it will be a slow and sporadic journey. After a certain amount of hours, when your ecosystem functions much more autonomously, the gratification - as well as the risk of losing it all - increase in parallel.
Presented in a beautiful parallax style, Kingdom: New Lands is definitely one of the more detailed pixel art games available, especially on Switch. Lighting effects such as moonlight piercing through trees, camp fires flickering and reflecting in the water, and the animation of the protagonist and horse are especially pleasing, although the frame rate does stutter and NPC models have a more muted coloyr palette. The soundtrack is an elegant and ambient mix of piano and synth, generating an intriguing atmosphere. Delicate sound effects of your surroundings such as the clattering of tools, church bells or the rustling of leaves add to the whole package as a rustic, organic experience.
A deceptively simple idea that can become laboured and bewildering as well as oddly compelling, Kingdom: New Lands is certainly a curious take on the strategy genre. Its ambiguous, incredibly minimalistic nature will initially intrigue and could easily frustrate in equal measure. Fans of roguelikes or tower defence-style games may prefer more complexity, as the simple mechanics give you control over choices rather than actions and rely on astute observation and perseverance, rather than on skill or improvisation. There is a balance to learn and a set of rules to be discovered, but even with the admittedly gorgeous aesthetic - and progressing beyond the initial stages to where the dilemma of ambition over security ramps up - it may still not be enough of a pay off to reward your time. Definitely one to consider, albeit carefully.