Battle Worlds: Kronos — Review

I’ve never played Dark Souls, but Battle Worlds: Kronos makes me feel the way Dark Souls makes other people sound. It’s a difficult strategy game, unrelenting and devoid of an easy mode, and yet that difficulty makes it feel all the more rewarding. Despite its cavalier attitude and and opaqueness, this is a game where completing the more challenging missions makes me want to jump up and down in triumph, a game I feel like bragging about having overcome.

Now, I normally shy away from difficult games. I avoid competitive multiplayer like the plague for a host of reasons, one of which is the stress of playing against people who are generally better than me. I was also recently disappointed that Hyper Light Drifter hid so much of its engrossing world and atmosphere behind tedious checkpoints and deceptively high difficulty. I’ve come to embrace playing on easy mode, without shame. But Battle Worlds: Kronos agreed with me in a way other difficult games don’t, and so I’m glad I backed this on Kickstarter in the ancient, misty past of 2013.

King Art Games made a turn-based, hex-grid strategy wargame. That kind of thing can sound intimidating, but I think the basics of unit control are easy to get into, and I found the visuals surprisingly appealing for the genre.

Part of this, I think, comes down to the inherent virtues of turn-based games. I can sit and think about what I’m doing, and make considered decisions — a luxury you don’t have in any game that runs in realtime (it took me about 3 attempts to figure out how to beat Hyper Light Drifter’s western boss, but another 20+ to actually execute that plan effectively). Kronos also appears to be entirely deterministic, or at least feels that way — take Unit A and attack Unit B, and, given the same health values and environmental conditions, the damage will always be the same. I don’t think I saw a single percentage chance effect anywhere in the game, either. That combination of a sense of determinism alongside the turn-based gameplay and clear tile-based positioning make Battle Worlds: Kronos feel like a complex piece of machinery, rather than the sadistic hot mess I see in other games sold on the promise of difficulty.

And complex it is. Units deal less damage the less health they have, so a common strategy tactic in most unit-driven RTS games, focusing your fire on specific dangerous units to take them out, becomes much less important overall, and overkill actually becomes a real problem. The veterancy mechanic for upgrading units that are successful in combat is agonizing — do I want to save this unit by boosting its health, or do I want to give it new or better abilities and try to get it somewhere it can heal? It’s a straightforward and not very radical tradeoff, but in the midst of a game where you’re almost always chronically underfunded and lacking in units, it’s often a hard choice to make. I’m pretty sure there’s also a mechanic whereby having multiple units next to an enemy means you can deal more damage (but I’m not completely sure, and we’ll get back to that).

One saving grace that makes the complex combat mechanics manageable is the AI. It strikes a remarkable balance between being dangerous and being defeatable, one that doesn’t hinge on an overall sense of ability. On the one hand, the AI is often remarkably passive, not hunting you down and not engaging unless you get too close; but on the other hand, when it does play, it plays smart. It’s exceptionally good at avoiding being baited into artillery range (to the point that it’s hard to use artillery effectively if it requires a turn to setup), it seems to understand which units counter which others effectively, and it bunches its units up to take advantage of the swarming bonus I mentioned above.

So far, then, we have a game with multiple interlocking combat systems playing out at a manageable pace where you struggle against a reasonably challenging AI in the face of resource scarcity. It’s a good thing the game clearly communicates all these things, right?

This basically encapsulates the game’s attitude towards its tutorials and most complex systems and tactics.

Well, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. That swarming mechanic I mentioned above? I remember it being explained in a tutorial popup in the first mission, but since then there’s been no visual indication of anything happening, and damage varies so much based on other factors — unit health, unit types, armor types — that frankly I think I might have dreamed it up completely. Also, remember resource scarcity? Some buildings produce resources for you, but other identical-looking ones don’t, and there’s no way to tell until you’ve actually captured a building and can look inside. There are docks in some missions that you paradoxically cannot dock most naval units with, because they are built on top of shallow water — which you can barely see, because they’re built on top of it! Mission 13 caused me to take a 10-turn detour with my army because I couldn’t use a dock to ferry units across a lake. Also, apparently you can call reinforcements onto the map if you’re having a hard time, but I didn’t notice the button for this until halfway through the campaign, and at that point I had grown used to being starved for units, so I simply didn’t bother (and got more achievements that way, too).

In part, this speaks to my own inattentiveness, but I still stink Battle Worlds: Kronos would do well with a much more clearly-designed UI that effectively communicates everything you need to know about the game, rather than just the basics.

What of the overall arc of the game? There’s a 13-mission campaign, interspersed with endearingly janky cutscenes, and it was my finishing this campaign yesterday that prompted me to write this review. The difficulty wavers from mission to mission, but every time I failed and restarted, I felt like I was learning and getting better — and what more can we ask of the difficulty curve of a strategy game?

There’s a story here, too, one that seems not quite certain whether to be campy, sincere, or trope-filled. The basic premise is that the people of an interplanetary society come to the planet Kronos every so often to fight it out and crown an Emperor, and at first you’re in one of these many warring factions. There’s an interesting angle here on the public spectacle that is made of war, and the idea of violence a deep instinct in need of an outlet is raised and ultimately shot down. There are also weirdly meta bits of dialog like the one I pictured above, and there’s an inevitable conspiracy by these guys.

Are the hood and cloak really necessary?

Just in case it wasn’t clear that they’re a shadowy cabal, they’re called the Lumati. The campaign ends in a showdown between these Illuminati stand-ins and a group of rag-tag survivors from the previous apocalyptic war, who drive junky trucks and are led by someone who essentially looks like Furiosa from the latest Mad Max movie (though Kronos actually came first). That premise sounds a bit wacky, and it is, but the story does its job at tying together the missions and providing narrative context for everything that’s going on, and it did get somewhat endearing by the end.

To top it off, despite what you’d expect from a wargame, the fundamental attitude of the campaign didn’t seem to be that overwhelming violence wins the day — many of the missions pit you against overwhelming violence, and your goal is to escape or get a message out rather than kill all the things. The core idea seems to be that education is a better way to stop and prevent conflict than violence. There’s a lot to be said about the cultural politics of games that appear to advocate against conflict and yet use conflict as a primary mechanic, and I think that’s a complicated discussion that could use Battle Worlds: Kronos as an interesting case study, but it’s a much bigger issue than I’m looking to cover here.

Overall, I was left quite strategically satisfied by the game. It feels like a more hardcore wargame than what I normally play, but Battle Worlds: Kronos is comfortable in its own skin — maybe a little too comfortable at times, but nobody’s perfect. If you like strategy games, or just think you might want to try it out, I’d highly recommend giving it a shot.

If you find any bridges between you and the enemy, use them wisely! I could have done a better job here, placing my tank on that last hex of dry land and lining up the ranged attackers behind it. Unit positioning is really really important in this game.
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