Kingdom Elemental:Tactics is a real time strategy game from independent developer Chronic Logic, set in a lightly amusing fantasy world. Real time-ish, actually, as the game employs the familiar 'hit the spacebar to pause and issue orders' combat model which essentially makes the game play out in micro-bursts of activity, followed by longer, decision-making pauses.
The first impression of KE:T is that it's all very tongue-in-cheek. While it employs all the usual fantasy stereotypes, it pokes fun at the often ponderous, pretentious nature of the genre. The narrator of the main campaign tends to wander off topic, get in arguments with the recording engineer, and so on. It's made clear that this is not a game to be taken seriously. The tutorial is also presented in a lively, informal manner that gets things off to a good start. Just how funny you'll find it all will depend on personal taste. We appreciated the light and fluffy atmosphere of the game even though it never came close to raising an actual laugh.
It's all remarkably simple to get to grips with. A pre-battle screen lets the player unlock or upgrade various units with a set number of 'unlock points'. The further into the game you get, the more units you have at your disposal, which then broadens your strategic options in future battles. There's no base building or resource gathering here, it's purely about flinging units at the bad guys and fighting it out. Anyone familiar with Bungie's old Myth games will feel quite at home.
There are ten different unit types available. Each can generally be classified as either offensive, defensive or support, though a few units serve multiple purposes. Each unit has three unique skills that can be unlocked as the game progresses. These skills are either passive, and so always in effect, or active and able to be fired off at the correct moment during battle. Archers, for example, can have their rate of fire and walking speed permanently increased and have fire arrows as an unlockable active skill. Honestly, it takes longer to explain than to learn and shouldn't take anyone more than a few minutes to fully understand.
All the action takes place on a battlefield of varying size. You select as many units as you can afford, arrange them as you see fit within a defined starting area, and then you're off. You're free to mix and match units as you want, though a sensible combination of frontline, support and long range units will usually do the job. A round of combat consists of a number of enemy waves who attack at timed intervals. Your task, then, is to get through a full round with at least one man/woman/creature still standing.
Units are controlled with all the standard RTS options - box selection, double click to select all identical units, ctrl+# to assign groups and so on. Camera controls are exactly what's expected, making it easy to swing around the action and zoom in, out, up and down with ease. It's not in the least bit innovative but this familiarity contributes to the game's easy-to-learn nature.
Graphically, the game does the job without ever impressing. The resolution is locked at 1024x768, resulting in a somewhat murky, muddy look. The units are colourful and easily identified but, again, are more functional than attractive. Good news if you're running the game on a woefully underpowered PC or laptop, but about as far from the cutting edge as you can get.
The sound is more problematic. As mentioned before, the game takes a humourous approach to everything, and this includes the unit responses you get when clicking on them. They might be passably amusing the first time, but it won't take more than five minutes before you start looking for the 'turn unit responses off' switch. And there isn't one. It's all or nothing, and nothing is preferable. So, other than the game's generic orchestral score, everything plays out in silence. It really is a crucial oversight that takes a lot away from the game. Keeping the sounds of battle banging away without having to listen to the same allegedly 'funny' quip over and over and over again would be a blessing.
Further problems crop up once battle begins. It's possible to maintain coherent lines of battle for a while, but the closing minutes of each conflict almost always sees a clump of friendly and enemy units packed shoulder to shoulder, jostling each other into submission. It becomes necessary to give orders to each individual unit and it's extremely tricky to pick the correct unit out of the scrum. Expect to spend a lot of time swooping about with the camera until you find an angle that lets you fit your pointer through a gap in the crowd. Another minor grumble comes when firing off a unit's active skill. It doesn't always 'take', which necessitates another pause-click-unpause cycle. These are admittedly small gripes but they're such a constant presence that they quickly make the game needlessly irritating.
The campaign is enjoyable but fundamentally flawed. It does seem as if the main key to success is to unlock the right units and skills at the correct point in the campaign, rather than being a tactical genius on the battlefield. One of our campaigns ground to an early halt, thanks to a battle that no combination of unlocked units was able to win. After restarting and playing through to the same point while unlocking different units and skills, we were able to breeze through on the first try. This is a significant problem, in that there is no way to know what units you'll need to win upcoming battles. It's worth noting that after losing a battle, any unlock points you've just spent are refunded, so you can try out other units and skills. Unfortunately, this is not usually enough of a rewind to get you out of trouble. While it may, in fact, be possible to battle through with any combination of units, losing for the fifteenth time in a row replaces strategic fun with tooth-grinding frustration and a strong desire to go and do something else.
There's some salvation in Skirmish Mode, which doesn't suffer from the campaign's potential dead ends. All the units and skills are unlocked and you can set up as many rounds as you like, at a difficulty level that suits you. Failing that, just leave everything on 'random' and see what happens. It's a good way to experiment with unit combinations and skills and is fun if you have a few minutes to kill. Skirmish Mode does suffer a little from the blink-and-it's-over nature of KE:T's battles. You don't get the ebb and flow that you might in other, more weighty strategy titles and it can all feel a little lightweight and pointless.
Kingdom Elemental: Tactics is an uninspiring game that undermines its own middle-of-the-roadness with a too many small but persistent irritations. It doesn't offer anything that hasn't been already presented in a more professional and attractive manner. The game becomes a very difficult recommendation when you consider that you can get a full copy of Rome: Total War for less than KE:T's asking price. At best, Kingdom Elemental: Tactics would serve as decent distraction on your old laptop during a long flight but there's deeper, better looking and more satisfying strategy gaming to be had elsewhere.