A couple of weeks ago, I became very intrigued by the look of Ruined King, a spin-off, turn-based, single-player game set in the League of Legends universe, that was released by surprise in mid-November. I've never played LoL, but to my own surprise I've been hooked.
Whereas the main LoL game is, as you probably already know, a MOBA, Ruined King is a narrative RPG set in the port city of... Bilgewater (?) and the creepy Shadow Isles (?). Your task is to help Illaoi (?), Miss Fortune (?) and non-human Ahri (?), along with others, to fight back against the mysterious and deadly Black Mist (?). The Black Mist is some kind of "thing" that's disrupting the whole region, bringing with it shadowy creatures whose main goal is seemingly just to kill everyone.
Those question marks are me displaying my ignorance about this not-cinematic universe, as some of those names have apparently been featured in the series before (in fact, looking it up, all of them have apart from the Black Mist). I had zero idea about what to expect before loading up the game and I have to say, as a LoL-idiot, I find myself engaged in the lore and atmosphere of Ruined King. The story is an interesting adventure.
After the opening cutscenes, we're going through the basics with Miss Fortune, who decides to avenge her mother's death against pirate (and another LoL champion) Gangplank, and in the process take the helm of Bilgewater itself. We then switch to Illaoi, Gangplank's former lover from the Buhru faction, who is aware of the creepy Black Mist thanks to her supernatural powers, and vows to stop its predicted torment over the region.
First, let me just say Ruined King looks great. The art has a cartoon-like quality that's instantly appealing and inviting. Second, the gameplay - after a few guided battles - is simple and easy to master. Each character has the chance to make an instant move, such as a low-powered attack or a temporary defensive shield, or a more powerful "lane" move that'll take place further on in battle, helpfully shown in the visual timeline. There are also "ultimate" attacks, but these are few and far between. These battle tactics, healing potions and different types of armour are what you can upgrade and purchase as you progress, thanks to gold coins earned along the way.
Typical to the genre, each character gains points after every victorious battle, which eventually leads to increases in their level and the chance to improve the effects of those instant and lane abilities in turn. You'll also need to upgrade your equipment, including different rings and trinkets each character wears, which come with some simple trade-offs: they might increase your attack power or stamina, at the expense of negatively affecting your character's other skills, such as magical and physical defence. There isn't a strict sense of character classes, but there are plenty more of those RPG staples like managing your mana through battle.
The fights can happen everywhere, as both human and supernatural creatures spot you while roaming around and won't stop chasing you. Thanks to that relentlessness these battles can occur a little too frequently, and coupled with a fair bit of backtracking and roaming around in certain areas it can become an annoyance, albeit a nice excuse to admire the work developer Airship Syndicate has done to build Ruined King's world.
It also helps that the voice acting is really well done, to the point where I wish there was more of it. As you explore, for instance, besides picking up the random bric-a-brac items these games love, you can collect lost notes and diary entries that provide the bulk of Ruined King's lore and backstory. It made me think of games like Trine, another fantastical world only one where snippets of other people's lives are narrated, unlike here, by an old, whimsical male voice, and given publisher Riot Games' near endless resources it might've been nice to hear a few of these many scribbles read aloud, instead of making you read like an undergrad at the library.
There are a couple of genuine hiccups in the 20 hours or so I've played through here, too. First, loading times. Despite its prettiness Ruined King isn't some souped-up, polygon-heavy, ray-tracing showcase and so, especially given the loading capabilities of the Series X, I have no idea why it sometimes takes a few solid beats to load up the next screen as you move between different parts of a map. Likewise even wanting to view the map brings up the buffering swirl of hell from time to time. Airship Syndicate has promised upgraded, native Xbox Series and PS5 versions in the new year, so hopefully this will be addressed there.
Also, although there is a sprinting option to help you move around quicker, Ruined King still felt slow to me. I'm currently addicted to the superslide-friendly Apex Legends, which doesn't help comparisons, but this was still slow for a game of any genre in 2021. There is also, crucially, the matter of the lingering workplace discrimination lawsuit at publisher Riot Games which remains unresolved and is hard to ignore.
Still, before this review, the closest I'd come to playing LoL was through watching the moments shown by YouTubers when they review different laptops, and developer Airship Syndicate has done well to bridge that gap with an enjoyable solo game for those of us who'll never get any closer to playing the MOBA. The gameplay isn't overly complicated, and the story is dreamy enough without being overly stuffy, making it an alluring option even for people allergic to fantasy altogether. Put me down as a successful LoL convert - or at least a willing entrant to its world, if not the main game itself.