Road of middle-ranking courtesans

Gamebooks have made a big comeback on mobile devices recently. But for all the nostalgia and entertainment they provide, I can’t help but feel most of them are a wasted opportunity. On a multimedia touchscreen device, why limit yourself to static pictures and text? Road of Kings attempts to take the concept to a new level by mixing in elements of rouge-like adventure games. You play a barbarian warrior who has 100 days to amass a fortune of gold big enough to buy yourself a chieftainship.

The action takes place on a top-down hex map of a fantasy kingdom. There are towns to visit, ruins to explore, and monsters and other heroes to encounter, which you can either fight or have join your party; if you choose the latter option, you must then feed them by buying food or risking hunting in the wilderness.

Road of Kings

So far, so ordinary. What’s intriguing about Road of Kings is the combination of chance encounters and scripted story. Travellers on the road or the contents of long-forgotten ruins are generated randomly, but many locations on the map provide a richer vein of adventure.

Enter one of these and the game map is overlaid by a text window describing your encounters and offering you choices in the vein of a “choose your own adventure” book. The locations of these change occasionally, but once you’re in a given adventure the script remains the same. And you’ll need to experiment and learn the rewarding choices if you want to succeed in your quest.

This is because Road of Kings walks a satisfying line in difficulty, demanding experience to win and ensuring decent replay value. The game borrows permadeath from the world of roguelikes, so you need to watch your step. But the road is beset with perils, often-wandering monsters, but also poor choices during the text segments of the game: both of which will catapult you into combat.

Road of Kings

And this, sadly, is where things start to go wrong. Battles are tedious affairs, which see round after round of participants squaring off against each other, with virtually no user input or choice to maintain interest. Statistics are boiled down to a simple combat score/health combination with no thought given to inventory management or item powers.

Indeed the interface as a whole seems to be almost deliberately designed to keep things at a plodding pace. After every single hex movement you’ll be asked if you want to hunt or provide food for your party from your stores. This is no big deal at first, but after your first few games when you just want to plough through the bits you’re already familiar with as fast as possible, it becomes very tiresome.

Things aren’t helped by a pretty basic presentation with muddy, muted graphics, a limited palette of encounter portraits, and fairly repetitive sounds and music.

Mechanically the game is a mixed bag. Some of it works rather well. You’ll often get the chance to recruit strangers into your party but won’t know in advance how many or how skilled your new recruits will be. This makes managing a swelling roster of fellow adventurers against their food needs a tense and constant balance.

Road of Kings

But in other respects the game seems too simplistic. The roster of items seems fairly basic and item drops are rare, which makes them a cause of celebration when they happen but leaves the reward for most quests as just being gold, which quickly gets repetitive.

It’s unfortunate really. I have to admire Road of Kings for trying to do something a bit different in the bloated, identikit world of the App Store. And I think the developer has the seeds of something unusual and interesting here. But while the game is essentially fun, I can’t help feel it could have been a lot more so.

Better graphics would be nice, but are hardly essential. What the game really needs is more depth and complexity, and tighter mechanics; a greater sense of being woven into the rich tapestry of a mysterious world rather than button mashing on a touchscreen. Is that something an update can deliver? Here’s hoping.