When one thinks of a Real Time Strategy game, the first type that probably crops into mind is that of the Starcraft mould; fast paced gameplay requiring both expert knowledge of game mechanic, design, loophole. And with that the skill and speed to micromanage a very intimate set of troops. Many other similar titles still carry on this style of gameplay, having players focus on complex build orders, building tiers, and of course building placement strategy. Lionheart: Kings' Crusade does none of this, instead focusing on troop deployment and army customization. It's a smart move considering the competition on there that's already filled RTS games looking to fit the mould, and fortunately this design mechanic plays out to Lionheart's advantage. There are definitely some personal tastes here to consider though, as not just any RTS gamer will find this unique take on the Crusades to be enchanting.
Set in an era when knights were real and the siege weapon was a brand new piece of technology, Lionheart puts players in command of King Richard, who is out to retake the Holy Land that was lost years prior. It's a story straight from the textbooks, and anyone who has a background in history will be familiar with many of the storytelling nuances of the game. That being said, outside the primary introduction to the game's plot there isn't too much else in the form of a story to follow. Instead the game lets players interact with the world and its characters through battles and objectives.
There are four main groups present in the Crusade, each assisting your army in various ways depending on your favour with them. The Holy Roman Empire, Kingdom of France, Templars and Papal Court all come with their own bonuses, including unique units and heroes to assist in the campaign. Earning favor with them is relatively simple, as each battle has an overview of various strategies suggested by individual factions. Selecting a strategy will earn favor with that individual faction, and work players toward a consistent goal of upgrades.
Likewise once beating the game, using the Crusaders, players will have the chance to go back and retake the Holy Land from the Saracen perspective. New units, different unit trees, and a vast differences in strategies will give players almost a brand new campaign experience. It's well designed for anyone that enjoys playing through every time and every perspective, but the strategies do differ to such an extent that players may find themselves taking some time to adjust to the new units.
Combat in-game is very simple at first, but can become extremely complex over time. Armies aren't simply limited to a dozen or so troops, or one intimate group that slowly expands with upgrades. Instead forces are in batches of twenty or more, and march slowly across a very expansive but detailed map. Terrain will slow down heavier units while at the same time offering cover for ranged attackers to ambush from. This means that which units players choose to enter a fight with are absolutely critical, and knowing how to properly upgrade them is key as well.
Upgrades are done between campaign missions, and will allow players to assign units stat points depending on levels earned in combat. Gold earned through each mission will let players upgrade troops with better weaponry and defenses, in addition to being able to hire more units and outfit them with new gear that may be obtained on the battlefield. The result is an upgrade process that lets players genuinely attach themselves to a style of play and create a truly customizable army. Units can be trained and honed down for a single purpose such as ambushes or quick movement, or left generic to handle all potential obstacles.
It's a truly intuitive way to play, one which separates itself from existing mainstream RTS games while at the same time crafting a very unique strategic style of gameplay. This doesn't mean that the game is not without downsides, as the learning curve can be relatively steep for players not willing to accept a certain degree of patience in memorizing which unit is effective against another. The speed of the game is also extremely slow, meaning that anyone who wants to go in for a quick match may find themselves a little disappointed when their armies seemingly crawl across vast expands of desert.
Likewise, the slow gameplay may appeal to gamers who are more critical (but slow) decision makers. The pacing doesn't really detract from the very start of the experience, when a wide array of enemies are on the field, but as the fight narrows down to the last few enemy units their general instinct is to flee immediately. This means players are often left sitting around to chase down one final group of archers regardless of where they flee, which is pretty dull when its clear that the enemy has absolutely no chance of winning.
Alternatively the game does feature a few multiplayer options, one of which is a typical 1v1 game, while the other pits one attacker against a defender in a siege-style deathmatch. Both are cool, but the overall pacing of the game can take action that would normally be exciting and tone it down to a wait-and-see chess match of sorts. Again, nothing wrong with this per say, but it can be a little immersion breaking when you're literally able to remove your hands from the keyboard and mouse while your troops get into position to counter enemy troop formations.
Graphically the game looks fantastic from any angle, with terrain that's smartly designed and character models that are both interesting to look at from a distance and very cool to watch interact close up. The ability to move in and out of such detail is definitely something to commend, particularly since this feature is purely aesthetic. Sound wise things could use a little more work however, as the music is pretty repetitive and can wear you down after a while. This may be because Lionheart has chosen to go with a full on soundtrack rather than some ambient background noise.
Taking everything into consideration, Lionheart: King's Crusade is an extremely fun game which manages to deliver a unique experience in the wake of many typical RTS games. The unit customization is extremely fun, and mixes extremely well with the overall strategy elements of the game. That being said, the general pacing of the title may be too much for more impatient players to handle. Anyone with patience however should find Kings' Crusade to be an extremely rewarding experience, one which provides an amazing alternative for anyone interested in the Real Time Strategy genre.