Version tested: PC
I'm both the best and the worst guy to be reviewing this. The best because last year's strategy/role-playing curio King's Bounty: The Legend was comfortably my game of the year, and one I bent the ear of anyone unlucky enough to be in the same room as me about. The worst because, well, that. I know the thing inside out. Armored Princess is a standalone expansion for it, and as such it's pretty much the same game. If I'd come to it without already knowing how good King's Bounty is, I'd have been grabbing people in the street, staring at them with wild eyes, shaking them by the shoulders and shouting, "Princess! Armored Princess! Omi god it's amazing it's a proper PC game you have to play it you have to play it whoops I just had a trouser malfunction."
It is a proper PC game. You do have to play it. I have just had a trouser malfunction. It's just... it's the same game again. When you can pick up the first game (well, not the first - The Legend was a semi-remake of the old 1990s King's Bounty) for less than a tenner, it's very hard to tell you to spend £30 on this one instead. And that's the nub of it - if you haven't played the first King's Bounty, get that. There isn't anything in Armored Princess that's worth spending an extra £20 on, unless you particularly get off on inventory screens showing a girl in chainmail that cuts away to reveal an impossibly flat stomach. She might be an Armored Princess, but she's certainly not a Well-Armored Princess. As for whether you should pick this up if you do know King's Bounty intimately, I'll get into that shortly.
First, though, let's talk about what King's Bounty is. Heroes of Might & Magic is the easiest touchstone - a fantasy world which you roam around from a fairly birds-eye perspective, being sucked into turn-based strategic battles whenever you encounter an enemy. Whilst the battles are ostensibly Final Fantasy-esque, with two opposing sides taking turns to biff each other with wild abilities, the difference is that you're pitching armies against each other. You've got 68 archers, 108 snakes, 34 guard droids and three Cyclops and a bunch of werewolves; he's got a gaggle of ghosts, skeletons, dragons, pirates and bears. Fight!
While you're initially pretty cavalier about the lives of your units, the game increasingly becomes about minimising casualties. A victory doesn't count for much if you're left too weak to fight anyone else and you don't have enough cash in the bank to buy reinforcements. So, combining your various abilities is key - one unit might buff another, a spell might increase susceptibility to fire attacks , or your pet dragon (bear with me) could summon a temporary, disposable squad of, say, griffons to soak up the enemy's attacks. It's complicated stuff, but very pleasantly so - both in terms of feeling like you've got a handle on it, and because the game's almost absurdly colourful appearance and super-charming animations act everything out so well.
That's what you'll spend most of your time doing - pitting armies against each other, earning experience points and cash as a result, and in turn buying new units and upgrades for your own team. It's very much an RPG, comparable in some ways to the compulsion, drive and visual reward of Diablo or the recent Torchlight, only at a slower pace and with a whole lot more brains. Outside of the fights, you roam a lavish, World of Warcraft-style fantasy world, picking up quests and buying new stuff.
For its first half at least, The Legend did the latter well, bombarding you with semi-satirical dialogue made even funnier because it was seen through the prism of a so-so Russian-English translation. It threw divine madness at you - most notably, the option to take a zombie as your bride, then to divorce her because a frog-lady gave better buffs. But it was always text, and the quests involved no choice, no resolution bar fighting something to death.
This is why Armored Princess is slightly underwhelming if you have played the first game. There just isn't as much madness, because the rigid structures of the game limit what can be shown and how the world can be interacted with. Text is the only way to convey anything outside of collecting and fighting, so it's hard for Armored Princess to drop genuinely new experiences on you. Alas, it loses a lot of its absurdist charm even in the writing, instead getting carried away and bombarding you with long screens full of fantasy wibble that you'll struggle not to simply click past. The running gag of the titular princess brooking no flirtation from the many men of a male-dominated world can be amusing, but it's not quite sparky enough to generate anecdotes, which The Legend did so well. There are some wildly inventive boss fights and powers, but essentially you'll be playing this more for the mechanics than for the strangeness.
The good news is that those mechanics are great - pairing Diablo-like compulsion with the tactics of Might & Magic is an enormously impressive feat in itself, let alone doing it as masterfully and charmingly as this. You'll spend a couple of dozen contented hours roaming a beautiful world, collecting and doffing up weird creatures. It's slicker than KB in a lot of ways, too - the incongruously cute pet dragon that lends a remote hand during your fights is a smart amalgamation of the over-complicated Rage uber-powers from the first game, for instance, while an instant transport system means there's nowhere near as much backtracking through now-empty zones. There are tons of tiny under-the-hood changes and improvements, resulting in a smoother-playing and slightly more accessible experience than its noble parent.
Yet the original stands just that bit taller thanks to its extra wildness. If you're going to play a King's Bounty game for the first time, make it The Legend - and I'd say that whether or not it was available so cheaply. If you're all done with that and crave more, then Armored Princess will not do you wrong. It's a mighty, beautiful and highly-polished game, and a welcome presence on any PC. I just hope the mad-as-bat-cheese developers are saving up the crazy they didn't quite unleash here for a full sequel.
8 / 10