When was the first time you realised you were getting old?
Living in a University town, I’m constantly reminded of my own mortality each time I pop into Sainsbury’s for a pint of milk. Down every aisle, swathes of fresh-faced students swag around in low-cut flares and other noughties atrocities, prompting a weary sigh as I reach for the semi-skimmed.
Existential crisis in the dairy aisle aside, sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of our youth. A few weeks ago, I reviewed The Kids We Were – a voxel adventure game set in 1980s Japan that explores the idea of nostalgia. Kingdom of the Dead is a retro-style FPS horror that’s also a blast from the past. The game took me back to the Laser Quest lobby on my 12th birthday, as we blasted Zombies on The House of the Dead 2 arcade machine.
While it’s not an on-rails affair, at it’s core, Kingdom of the Dead is an old school shooter with modern gaming sensibilities.
Kingdom of the Dead Review
In Kingdom of the Dead, you assume the role of Agent Chamberlain – a former Army General fresh out of the U.S Civil War – who now works for a secret government bureau dedicated to defeating Death and his undead army. When a stack of papers are mysteriously pushed under your office door, you discover several case files addressed to you. Each file briefs you on a potential sighting of an undead Gate in various locations, which you must close to quell the undead horde.
To begin with, you have a choice of 3 cases to undertake – a Mansion, a Crypt and the woods. With each mission, there are 3 difficulty levels: 1 star is the normal/default setting, 2 stars adds a secondary quest and 3 stars ramp up the enemy A.I to lethal proportions. For the purpose of this review, I played on the default difficulty setting, which is a solid choice for getting to grips with the game’s mechanics.
While the difficulty generally steps up as you progress, there are some encounters which feel a bit uneven. Let’s take the boss fights which occur at the end of each level – some took me mere seconds to defeat while others were rage-quit inducing with their one-shot-kill attacks. Adjusting the difficulty does make the easier bosses a bit more of a challenge, but it also makes the tougher ones as hard as nails.
A bit of the old Ultraviolence
Okay, let’s get to the good bit – the gunplay is pretty competent. Whether it’s the weighty blast of a shotgun, or the heavy thud of a rifle, each weapon has a distinct sound, feel and visceral response. Sure, it’s great fun spraying the Undead with lead from your machine gun, but it’s also incredibly satisfying popping off a Zombie head from miles away with a powerful rifle.
The level design is well thought out, too, and compliments the variety of weapons at your disposal. In ‘The Woods’ level, enemies tend towards ranged attacks from clearings in the forest canopy. This favours a more considered approach by picking them off with a rifle. In the crypt, however, you weave your way through the claustrophobic corridors, not knowing what will jump out around each corner. Here, you need a powerful, short-range weapon such as the shotgun to improve your chances of survival. By making you think strategically about your approach, the level design keeps most missions feeling fresh (although some do feel repetitive by the time you’ve played them all).
Aside from your loadout, the gore animation is excellent. Limbs burst from bodies, heads pop like grapes and blood gushes from every wound. While it’s nowhere near Doom levels of ultra-violence, there’s something powerful about the deep, red blood cast against the game’s all black-and-white art design.
Day and Night
Kingdom of the Dead is hand-drawn entirely from pen-and-ink. The black, hatched textures and bold straight lines create a moody, Gothic atmosphere full of threatening shadows and bright moonlight in an alluring chiaroscuro effect. The only colour present is the crimson of blood, an indelible marker of gore which pops against the two-tone background.
As atmospheric as the art design is, it can sometimes hamper gameplay by making enemies difficult to spot against the backdrop. Luckily, the game offers a colour tint setting which allows you to apply different filters to each level. I changed to the ‘Softer’ filter early on which improved visibility without compromising the tone.
Each mission is underscored by a pumping, retro-style soundtrack that does a good job of getting you in the mood for some Zombie bashing. Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose your groove due to some pretty bad framerate drops at times. The PC I’m playing on is more than capable of running the game, so I suspect this might be due to optimisation issues which will hopefully be ironed out by release.
Kingdom of the Dead is a bloody, fast-paced shooter that’s a lot of fun. There are some genuinely tense moments that will leave you feeling vulnerable. With an uneven difficulty, however, these moments are fleeting and the game would benefit from more variation between boss fights. That being said, Kingdom of the Dead has tons of atmosphere, even if it’s hampered by some significant framerate drops.