I’m kind of a sucker for King’s Bounty games, at least if they’re on sale.  Armored Princess is an adorable, perfect little game. But the developer, 1C, has a way of making new games that recycle 75% of the content and don’t really change or update the gameplay.  Warriors of the North felt more like crank-it-out DLC than a new game, and I never finished it.

But I’m back for more with Dark Side. Switching from good to evil is just enough of a switch to make things interesting again; plus you can choose a female protagonist again… though the developers are apparently 13-year-old boys:

How you dress when you're evil

How you dress when you’re evil

As before, you wander a world map made of cute little islands, with various enemies wandering around.  When you engage one, you start a battle. Your character doesn’t fight– she is the general!  Rather, you have up to five units to engage the enemy, on a chessboard-like hex grid:

Fightin' in a coal mine goin' down down

Fightin’ in a coal mine goin’ down down

It’s like D&D: one unit at a time fights. Plus you can use spells once a turn, and when you accumulate ‘Rage’ (by hitting or being hit) you can call upon a powerful sub-demon to help. Units have different skills and abilities. One of my favorites is the Red Dragon, which can burn an entire rank of hexes. (The supply is limited, though, so I underplay them, afraid of losing them.) I’m also fond of the Scoffer Imps, who can through fireballs every few turns, and when that’s on cooldown, kick an enemy up to three hexes away without letting them counterattack. Cerberi are also fun: they can attack three hexes at once, and their special move is a gallop across the board, which saves time.

In the screenshot I have an extra unit provided by a spell, and one of the enemies has defected, as a result of a subdemon ability.

It’s addictive to fight these little battles– it’s a particular pleasure if you can defeat all the enemies without losing any units. The character animations are adorable, too: e.g. units do little taunts when they kill another unit. I also never get tired of watching an AI unit dash forward into a trap.

When you defeat an enemy it disappears from the world map. You work your way up to the island’s king, and replace him with your own candidate.

The major downside: someone apparently told 1C that the game should be more of an RPG, with quests and stuff. The dialogs (which are not voiced) have a folksy charm, and some of the quests are amusing little stories– e.g. to infilitrate one castle you have to dress up as an elf ambassador, and your initial attempts are completely unconvincing, so you have to find someone to apply makeup. But the quests mostly involve running back and forth between characters, and there’s often no clue which character you need. This part quickly becomes tedious and then frustrating, when it’s unclear what you have to do next. I’m a little stuck at the moment, in fact… there are some quests that are blocked for some reason, and islands I can’t get to. So it’s maybe too easy to fire up League of Legends instead.

In all the KB games units are limited: once a shop runs out of units, they’re gone. In Armored Princess this was nicely balanced: basically you had to take over each island with the units at hand, which meant you had to try them all. This would take you out of your comfort zone but provided a useful variety. In Dark Side you have a near-unlimited supply of whatever faction you start with– since I played the demoness, I have a plethora of demons. Other units are available, but the really good ones are in shorter supply. As a result I tend to keep the same units in my army. This does save some running around, at least.

Thematically, the game has an interesting, not entirely consistent take on good vs. evil. The setup is that Good has nearly taken over the planet– dispossessing all the demons, undead, and orcs. You’ve got elves taking over orc islands and humans banning the Dark from their kingdoms. So you have to fight back for the Dark, for simple justice and for balance.

Rather charmingly, agents of the Dark seem to be unfailingly polite. The Dark Lord himself is polite and supportive, and when you meet agents of the Dark in conquered realms, they’re almost pathetically grateful that you’ve shown up to help. So far this is a kind of territorial/ideological vision of the Dark: they’s people too and they have a right to live in peace. Or un-live, in the case of the undead.

You’re also supposed to find and corrupt the three happiest, purest, and loyallest people on the planet, and bring them back to the Dark Lord for use in dark rituals. This sounds more like traditional Evil, though it’s nothing to what the least Grand Theft Auto antihero does before breakfast. If you play a demoness, you make the loyallest dudes fall in love with you, and they become your companions. (All that means is that they add to your battle stats and give you more slots to apply special items like armor.)

My first reaction was that this was a wrong-headed vision of Evil, one that made Evil into a mere alternative side in a cosmic war, like the Commies during the Cold War. It’s like the alignments in D&D, which never made any sense to me as either philosophies or factions. But on reflection I think there’s something to it. Eeeevil empires or dark lords are a simple-minded distortion of the world, and when we look at human kingdoms as Eeeevil we both miss their own humanity, and threaten to go Eeeevil ourselves. The Commies did do evil, but then so did we– nowhere more so than when we propped up scumbag dictators around the world so their countries would stay on our side. ISIS today is about as close to Eeeevil as you can get, but it has its origins in misguided US attempts to raise up Islamic fighters to fight the evil commies, and in the spectactularly bungled US occupation of Iraq.

So the territorial/ideological model of Dark Side turns out to be a pretty good representation of how human affairs really work. Sinless elves vs. demonspawn orcs was always a lousy idea. Sometimes the elves are bastards and the orcs are the oppressed ones.

Anyway, should you get the game? If you’ve never played a KB game, then yes. Well, except then you should probably play Armored Princess instead. If you played one of the earlier games and it’s been awhile, then Dark Side will be fun.

Ah, one more weird thing: I was stuck for a bit on an island with only Deadly enemies. It was kind of frustrating, and I was playing on normal difficulty. It felt like I’d skipped an island of more moderate enemies. And in fact I had, only I didn’t have the map to get there. So, I just attacked the Deadly enemies… the victories were costly but I did whittle them down, and finally got the map to the island I’d missed. I could then whale through a bunch of Weak enemies… thus discovering that there’s an achievement for winning 25 battles without replenishing your armies.