King of Dragon Pass was released in 1999. Since then, it’s seen a port to mobile (iOS, Android and Windows mobile), a digital release of the original on GOG.com and finally it’s returned to PC via Steam, with some minor content additions. Does it still hold the crown after 16 years?
I’m writing this review as someone with a deep love of strategy and rpgs…but I’m also writing this review having experienced King of Dragon Pass for the first time. I must have been too busy playing Team Fortress Classic, Star Craft, Civ 2, Homeworld and other titles in 1999…I am surprised I missed King of Dragon Pass on release, but 1999-2000 was a big year for games, especially with the advent of broadband internet and the explosion in multiplayer gaming on PC. So, unlike some other reviews of the King of Dragon Pass re-release/port, my viewpoint is not tinged with nostalgia, even though I have heard nothing but good things about the game for over a decade.
So, what is King of Dragon Pass? It’s part rpg, part Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, part interactive fiction. King of Dragon Pass is set in the world of Glorantha, a fantasy setting conceived by Greg Stafford and the setting of pen and paper RPGs such as RuneQuest, Hero Wars and HeroQuest. Glorantha is a complex world, made up of multiple cultures and races. Dragon Pass is a Nordic-inspired region of Glorantha, and you start the game with the responsibility to guide an Orlanthi tribe through settlement and hopefully the conquest of Dragon Pass while faced with treacherous political situations, desperate battles and epic hero quests on behalf of the gods you serve.
The majority of your time in King of Dragon Pass will see you dealing with random events while trying to manage your tribe and also juggle resources to ensure you are keeping your people happy, your warriors strong and the gods on your side as you aim for the ultimate goal of completing the requisite number of “Heroquests” to reach the game’s victory condition.
The mythology and backstory for King of Dragon Pass is layered and complicated…though I have to admit a little of the awe I felt towards was diminished when I found out it was based on an existing property. You will find yourself laughing, cursing and pondering in equal parts as you encounter the various random situations, encounters and consequences of decisions that you are forced to make as leader of your tribe.
However, all is not sunbeams and fairy cakes in King of Dragon Pass. First, as a mobile port, it suffers from unoptimized graphics and an ugly, unappealing user interface. A number of menu systems are confusing, because they are designed for touch and there is no indication of when to scroll your screen or use a mousewheel to access prompts or selections. You have to Shift+Tab in and out of Steam Overlay to access the manual or other text heavy elements of the game. There’s no way to save more than one game, no display settings…and if you are playing on a high resolution monitor, this is one game you will want to run in windowed mode…and won’t be able to unless support for windowed mode is patched into the game at a later date.
The story becomes repetitive, even for a new player. Within three playthroughs I encountered the same random events multiple times. Like, seriously Thadart? Do you HAVE to keep being captured by those Tusk Riders? For Heroquests and other choice-dependent scenarios, it often feels like a matter of memorizing the correct response…and even though the game explicitly states that there is no wrong decision…trust me, there are definitely choices that are far more beneficial than others. The scope of your strategic control feels limited and chance-dependent, most notably in battles and trading. 16 years ago King of Dragon Pass was leaning more on the charm and depth of its world than its sophistication as an RPG or strategy game…and the time since then does not cast the game in a flattering light. It looks and feels primitive to the vast majority of games in either genre…even games that predate the original 1999 release.
King of Dragon Pass’s weaknesses are very evident to anyone looking at the game without a view obscured by nostalgia. Be skeptical of any review or individual extolling its deep strategy or role-playing aspects. It’s a linear game with an illusion of far more choice than it really offers. King of Dragon Pass is constrained by the limitations and crudeness of its systems, but it still serves as an entertaining diversion due in part to the simplicity of the gameplay and the attention to detail of the setting and the various random encounters that define your decision-making journey through the game.Website On Steam