It feels like the world of Runeterra has just entered the first stages of a great expansion. After being mostly confined to the MOBA for years, things like the new Arcane show, an impending MMO, and some spinoff games are starting to bring this rich universe to audiences that aren’t reached by the main title. Ruined King: A League of Legends Story, is one of those spinoff games, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some half-hearted throwaway advert to get more people to play League. Riot knew what it was doing when it handed this project to Airship Syndicate — of Battle Chasers: Nightwar fame — and we’re happy to report that Ruined King has turned out to be a tremendously well-designed RPG. Featuring a memorable cast of characters, incredibly deep gameplay and an attractive art style, this is perhaps one of the most surprising must-have releases of the year.

Ruined King features an ensemble cast of some popular League champions, primarily setting around a group of six protagonists that are ultimately led by Miss Fortune. The main narrative takes place in the nautical-themed city of Bilgewater, of which Miss Fortune has only just recently gained control. Things quickly go awry, however, when evil ghosts — brought in by a substance called Black Mist — begin wreaking havoc in the town, and the crew set out on a journey for the Shadow Isles to try to put a stop to it. Everyone on the team has a different reason for going to the Shadow Isles, and the interplay of their goals makes for some fascinating plot developments as the journey goes on.

We feel special mention needs to be made here that you need no knowledge of the League universe to connect with this story. All the characters are introduced in a way that makes sense for this story, and we encountered no confusing moments where it felt like there were important relationships or histories that weren’t being explained well enough. Perhaps most importantly, this cast of characters proves to be quite likeable and their differences make for some great team dynamics. Braum, for example, plays the affable and lovable brute, while Illaoi has a much more intimidating and serious demeanor. Seeing all these different types come together to form a brief, dysfunctional fellowship to overcome the horrors of the mist makes for some great storytelling, and one where the important character moments feel earned.

Gameplay follows the structure of a typical JRPG, as you collect party members, explore dungeons, and level up your characters across a twenty or so hour adventure. Some may scoff at that relatively short runtime considering the genre, but rest assured that Ruined King is a tightly paced experience that makes the most of every hour. Each setting is packed with detail and character, and there are plenty of little rabbit trails you can take off the beaten path that reward your exploration with new loot, sidequests, and enemy encounters. There are no random battles to impede your journey either, every enemy is displayed on the map and can be avoided or engaged at will. You can even get a first strike on them if you’re quick enough to slash them before they get to you, and the effects of this initiative attack will differ depending on who your party leader is.

Combat is turn-based and unfolds with every participant getting placed on a timeline according to their Haste stat, with a turn taking place (and pausing the action) as soon as any character’s icon crosses the line to the far left. Some actions can be made instantly and trigger right away, while the more powerful Lane abilities usually cost Mana to use and have a cast time that kicks the character’s icon farther down the line. Even more interesting, however, is the Lane system you can use to modify these Lane abilities. Each ability has a default setting, but you can choose to cast it in either the Speed Lane or the Power Lane to change its effectiveness. The Speed Lane will reduce the ability’s cast time, but also its overall effectiveness, while the Power Lane increases both the cast time and effectiveness.

In practice, this means that there’s a lot to consider even when selecting a single action for a single team member. Sometimes enemies will cast a passive buff that can only be deactivated by hitting them from a certain Lane, requiring you change your attack on the fly to disable a suicide bomb or evasion buff. Sometimes casting an ability in the Speed Lane may move your character up just enough that they’ll beat an enemy to the finish line and eliminate them before they can even act. Later, Lane changes will even result in abilities having unique effects, such as how one of Illaoi’s heals can also clear debuffs, but only when it’s cast in the Speed Lane. This Lane system thus manages to get a lot of mileage out of a relatively small pool of abilities. Even though each character only has a handful of actions they can cast, having so many ways to modify the speed, power, and properties of those few actions means that their arsenal is much deeper than it first appears.

Beyond this, there are also buff and debuff Zones that can massively change the tide of battle if you use them properly. Every fight will occasionally have marked out areas on the timeline that grant certain buffs or debuffs to any character’s icon that’s in that zone when it crosses the line, and these can do things like healing, raising crit chance, or inflicting poison. Enemies can take advantage of these, too, so battles often are as much about managing the timeline as they are about picking and executing the best actions. Sometimes it’s better to cast an ability that’ll do less damage, but push an enemy down the timeline and out of the upcoming Zone than to focus on raw damage. Sometimes it’s best to reduce the effectiveness of a much-needed heal so you can get your character’s icon to land in the next Zone.

Whatever actions you choose, it’s almost assured that most of your characters will be perpetually low on Mana, and this is where the smartly designed Overcharge system comes in. With this, basic instant attacks will usually net you a certain amount of Overcharge, which acts as a kind of conditional Mana that only lasts as long as the battle does. Overcharge is consumed before Mana points are, so it’s often best to take a few turns early on dealing basic damage and racking up that Overcharge so you can let loose without depleting your precious reserves too much. Mana is restored at rest points and you can purchase expensive consumables to top it up mid-dungeon if need be, but Overcharge usage remains a critical component of success as you move forward.

In case you haven’t gathered so far, there is a lot going on in a given combat encounter, even against basic mobs roaming the dungeons. It can almost feel overwhelming balancing Mana costs, Lane changes, and timeline management every single time you get a chance to act, but this also lends to a combat system that remains wonderfully engaging throughout the whole adventure. Ruined King’s combat is not the kind that you can be asleep at the wheel for, and this more technical focus adds a layer of strategy that’s quite rare to see in a turn-based RPG. Each character has a very specific role they fulfil and getting a well-kitted team to come together is extremely satisfying to watch.

Part of the charm of Ruined King’s combat also comes from how enormously different every character plays, as each of them has a completely unique way in which they engage with enemies. Illaoi, for instance, uses a ‘Tentacle’ system wherein a new tentacle is generated every few turns and additional ones can be generated by a percentage attached to some abilities. When her turn comes around, having more tentacles generally means her abilities are stronger, and they can be strategically spent on some actions to give them larger boosts. Yasuo, meanwhile, is built around building crit percentages. Every time he lands a critical hit, he’ll generate a stack of ‘Flow’, which acts as a health shield to offset his relatively low defense and health pools. Each character having such a distinctive playstyle thus makes for some nicely dynamic fights, as your party members feel like they’re all bringing something meaningful to the fight beyond just their raw stats and abilities.

In a similar sentiment to the in-depth combat, character growth is also fittingly strategic, and gives you plenty of ways to shape your characters on an even finer level. The Rune system, for example, acts as a split skill tree you can use to sort of give each character a sub-class. Illaoi, for example, can either be focused on a pure healer role or on a hybrid healer/tank role according to how you dole out the limited points you're given upon levelling up. Putting more points into one skill tree will unlock passive “Mastery” bonuses, too, which incentivizes you to invest more heavily in one tree. You can re-spec whenever you want, so experimentation is encouraged to see what works best for you.

In addition to this, you can individually level up each of the abilities a character can use, and this can be used as a kind of peripheral means of supporting the sub-class you’ve chosen for a character. Each ability has three tiers of upgrades, and each of these tiers offers you a choice between two upgrades for an ability. Again, you can change your choice at any time, but you can never have both the upgrades in a tier, so you need to put some thought into the kind of utility that you want out of each move. For instance, one of the upgrades for an ability Braum can use either increases how much that move will push an enemy down the timeline or lowers the threshold for getting a special status effect when you use that ability.

All upgrades to your characters feel like meaningful additions to their usefulness, which is part of why the imposed limitations of this system make it so interesting. You can never have a character fulfil all the roles they could, and this forces the player to plan out the team on a much more granular level than a typical RPG might. Having the ability to change any of your decisions when you want also takes off all the pressure associated with making these decisions, so the game becomes an ongoing trial and error as you slowly dial in a strategy that works for you. More importantly, this also adds quite a bit of replay value, as you can’t possibly roll with all the possible team compositions in one playthrough.

It would already be enough if the customization ended there, but there’s a whole separate dimension to this in the equipment and enchantment system. Characters can be equipped with a standard loadout, but things are made more interesting when you factor in how you can buff up equipment through enchanting it. You’ll come across various recipes as rewards for exploration and side quests, and these recipes can be used to either raise the rarity (and thus the stats) of a favorite piece of gear, or to throw on a buff like a flat stat increase or the chance to inflict poison on a hit. Enchantment is performed by using materials you collect from felled enemies or random treasure chests, and you can “Overflow” an item by using more materials than the recipe calls for to increase the effectiveness of the upgrade you’re making.

What’s nice about this crafting system is that it allows you to always have access to gear that supports your chosen build for any character. It can sometimes be a few hours before you come across a new, amazing piece of kit that you have to start using, and while you’re waiting for that next big drop, enchantment proves to fill that gap quite nicely. More importantly, it gives you even more leeway to ‘break’ your characters and push them to some truly ridiculous heights.

Much like the ridiculously good gameplay, the graphical presentation hits all the notes it needs to almost perfectly. While character models can look rather simplistic if you see them up close, most of the game has the camera pulled back to an isometric angle that showcases the environment in all its well-detailed glory. Character portraits for cutscenes are similarly distinctive, and we feel special attention needs to be paid to the numerous comic book-like cutscenes showcasing the stylish and memorable art direction of Joe Mad. Ruined King is far from a game that pushes the Switch to its limits, but this is a shining example of what a strong art direction can achieve.

Similarly, we feel special attention needs to be paid to the soundtrack and voice acting. Every main cutscene is fully voiced, and the actors walk that fine line between being too hammy and too serious as they deliver each line of dialogue with gusto. It’s quite clear how much the actors each enjoyed playing the roles they took on, and that passion adds a lot to the experience. Likewise, the soundtrack does a nice job of matching and setting the tone for each scene, and we especially liked the creepy dungeon tracks.

The only complaint we can really make against Ruined King is that it feels a little unstable in places. A lot of issues were cleared up with the most recent patch, but an earlier build featured some occasional issues with details like characters getting hung up on objects in the environments or the mini-map not properly syncing with your actual location. We read reports of other people who experienced crashing, too, but this issue never came up in our run. Although the bulk of these issues have been addressed in the most recent patch, one thing that has remained is relatively long load times. These are never egregious, but every time you step through a door to go from one map to another, there’s about a fifteen to twenty second wait. It’s not terrible, but there are times where you’re hopping between maps relatively frequently, and it can start to grate on you more.

Conclusion

Even if you don’t want anything to do with League, we would highly recommend that you give Ruined King a shot; this is a spectacular JRPG that consistently demonstrates mastery of all the ingredients needed to make a great entry in the genre. The core campaign is just long enough to feel satisfying, there are dizzying amounts of character customization, and the combat system is one of the finest we’ve encountered in a turn-based RPG in a long time. If you’re a fan of RPGs, you’d be doing yourself a great disservice to pass on Ruined King. Even if you’re a newcomer to the genre we’d still absolutely encourage you to give this a punt; it's an excellent effort.