Version tested: Wii
Little King's Story is instantly familiar if you've played Pikmin, Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon or that rubbishy thing about wizards I've already forgotten about. The gameworld is cute, cartoony and brightly coloured. Everything in it is rounded at the edges. It's populated by people with improbably large heads and triangles for noses. They all want to talk to you and none of what they say is worth listening to. Everywhere you look there are logs to chop, holes to dig and coins to collect. It never rains.
However, there's more to Little King's Story than that. It's not just a glorious celebration of farming crops, finding treasure, living the pastoral ideal and making friends with cows called Pancho. It's also about monarchy, oligarchy, religious hegemony, the effect of industrial growth on socio-economic power structures, feudalism and genocide. But are the graphics any good?
The visual style is certainly a big part of LKS's appeal. There's a soft sheen to everything, as if someone's smeared Vaseline over your telly. Cut-scenes look like moving oil paintings and tutorials are presented as chalk drawings on blackboards (note to younger readers: this is what teachers used in the olden days before it was all marker pens and holograms).
The pastoral theme is reinforced by the audio - Land of Hope and Glory plays over the title screen, and the rest of the soundtrack is comprised of every piece of classical music you've ever heard on an advert. Speech is subtitled as characters talk in weird backwards gibberish which is supposed to be cute, but often sounds like the dwarf out of Twin Peaks.
When the game begins you're given a shabby castle, a limited area to explore and a small number of citizens to command. You're also presented with a team of three advisors. Strapping lad Liam offers blackboard tutorials on demand while Verde saves your progress and provides updates on the status of your kingdom. (She's a hateful and unhelpful witch, but more on that later.) You'll spend most of your time dealing with Howser the Bull Knight, whatever a Bull Knight is. He's in charge of listing the buildings and power-ups you can buy and how much they cost. The options increase when you unlock new areas, defeat bosses or seemingly just when Howser just feels like it.
The task is to head out of your castle and meet your loyal subjects. And they are indeed loyal; they just wander about going "Good morning, my king!" and spouting nonsense about the weather, not one of them questioning the principle of divine right as a valid basis for a political system. Pressing B makes them line up behind you, and they'll then follow you blindly around doing whatever you say. Pressing A will make them perform a task, depending on what they're standing in front of at the time.
If you're standing in front of one of the special job workshops, pressing A will make citizens enter and emerge with a new hat and special skills. Farmers get straw hats, for example, and are best at digging holes and finding treasure. Soldiers get shiny helmets and last longer in combat. As the game progresses new job types are unlocked such as archer, carpenter, lumberjack and IT network solutions provider. Maybe not the last one.
At first you can only command five citizens at a time but as the game progresses this number increases, up to a maximum of 30. The challenge is to construct a team that's optimised for the task you want to accomplish. This is easy to begin with - if all you're after is digging some holes to find some gold, a bunch of farmers will do. But once enemies start popping up you'll need soldiers to defend you too. Archers are more effective, but they cost money, and maybe that cash would be better spent training carpenters so they can build that bridge across the river, or there's that extra health power-up you've been saving up for... And so on.
The gameplay soon settles into a cyclical rhythm. You use cash to build houses which produces more citizens, and give them jobs so they get more cash and defeat more enemies, which increases the number of citizens you can command and the types of job available, and opens up new areas to explore... And so on.
Repetitive? Yes. Dull? Yes, if you're the type of person who thinks all games are dull unless they feature 19 kinds of gun, monsters who look like they're made of genitals and a driving bit. If you prefer pretty, soothing, comforting gaming experiences, Little King's Story will hook you in like a lullaby sung by an angel who breathes morphine. The real world will slip gently away, and nothing will matter to you but hats and cows and lumberjacks, and not until someone comes in and says "It's Tuesday" will you realise anything else exists.
For the most part, anyway. Some elements of LKS can irritate, such as the infuriating save system. You know how all videogames have had an autosave feature since 1892? Not this one. Each time you want to save you have to head back to the castle and talk to Verde. You can jump there thanks to a menu option, but if you want to carry on with whatever you were doing pre-save, you then have to wander all the way back.
Also, you know how most games which have day-night cycles automatically save your progress when your character goes to bed? Or at least give you the option to do so? Not this one, so don't make the mistake of making that assumption.
I didn't discover any of this until the first time I died, a good couple of hours in and a fair bit of time since I'd last saved. I came back to life to discover it was if I'd never built the carpenter workshop or trained the two citizens or got them to construct the bridge or taken the soldiers over to the other side or defeated all the enemies or earned enough cash to build the red house. "It's important to save regularly," Verde informed me after this incident. Thanks for that.
Verde is not the only irritating character you'll meet in Little King's Story. There's also a weird religious type, unamusingly called Kampbell of the Sect of Soup. Early on in the game he wanders up to you and asks, "Do you believe in God?" before demanding you spend 44,000 Bol on building him a church. "God will punish you if you don't!" says Kampbell. "And if God doesn't punish you, I will!"
Nothing much seems to happen if you don't, and it's not as if there's a hidden evangelical agenda here. But all the same, Kampbell and his comments have an air of menace to them that don't sit well within the peaceful context of the game.
Then there's Hoswer. For the first hour or so he encourages you to follow a pretty simple plan - get more money, build more houses. But after you've defeated the first boss, he presents you with a new idea: genocide. That's right, Howser says, you must cross over the river where the Onii creatures live. "Beat all the Onii on that side and dominate the world," he commands.
Kampbell throws his opinion in, too: "God says you must punish all the enemies who get in your way!" There's no option to ignore Howser's demands or question what the Onii did in the first place to warrant their wanton destruction, or to just have a nice sit down instead.
It's a bit of a shame, especially following the LocoRoco and Resident Evil 5 kerfuffles, that all the Onii are black. To be specific, black with big white eyes and bright red mouths. I am not accusing anyone of anything. I am saying that you are ordered to kill an entire species, and they happen to be black, and when my friend Dom came in the room he said, "They look like hairless golliwogs." I am saying, wouldn't it be nice to have more black characters in games who aren't baddies?
There are plenty of baddies in Little King's Story who aren't black, by the way. Bosses, for example, tend to take the form of giant frogs, raging bulls and the like. The battles with them add another element to the cycle of collecting, building and fighting. But for the most part that's all you're doing, again and again. It all gets tougher as you progress, but you get more citizens to command and more options to choose from.
That won't be enough to keep some people interested, and even the biggest fans of this genre will need real dedication to play right to the end; this is an epic game. However, like all the best titles of its kind, LKS is quietly addictive. Just when you reach a point of frustration and think you've had enough, a new job type will become available or a new area will open up, and it's impossible to resist playing on.
Little King's Story is not the best game you'll ever play. It's repetitive, it's lacking in depth and it can feel slow and frustrating at times. Plus it's got some dodgy politics and a rubbish save system. But it's the best game I've played all year, and that includes Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad. It's charming, engrossing and just plain fun. It's proof that Wii games don't have to be mediocre mini-game compilations or first-party Nintendo titles. It's a reason to be glad companies like Rising Star still exist, and that they're still making games like this. And it's got nice graphics. What are you waiting for?
8 / 10