I wrote this review a while ago but I’ve been sitting on it to coincide with the release of the universal app for iPad and iPhone. That day has arrived, and you can now buy the remastered version of King of Dragon Pass from the App Store for $10.49 for iPad and iPhone; or, if you don’t have either of those, you can download the original from Good Old Games for $4.99.
I called this a review just then, which isn’t quite right. It’s more of a gushing love letter, so you’ve been warned in advance.
The isolation ended when a stranger tried to take over the land. His name was Belintar. We knew that he had powerful magic, because he swam ashore from the ocean, which was closed and utterly impassable. Belintar, who did not worship gods anyone knew of, claimed sacral kingship. He declared Kethaela to be a place called the Holy Country.
It was holy, he said, because he ruled it.
We refused to acknowledge him as king. We were attacked, persecuted and robbed. We faced a difficult choice. We could submit to Belintar and remain in Heortland, but as little more than thralls. Or we could strike out for haunted Dragon Pass, risking our lives but retaining our freedom.
Since I am telling you this in our clan hall in Dragon Pass, you know what choice we made.
King of Dragon Pass is one of the best video games ever made. I came across it probably more than twelve years ago, on a pirate disc from South-East Asia, and at that time I must have poured hundreds upon hundreds of hours into it. I still leave it for years at a time and then wander back to it for another run-through, and, even though I now know it better than that episode of the Simpsons with the teacher’s strike, I still find it entertaining.
King of Dragon Pass is part strategy, part RPG, and part simulation. There are no moving graphics; the game is conveyed through text and illustrations, both of which are immensely rich. The writing is on par with the best of fantasy novels, and the story is the by far the game’s biggest drawcard. I can say hands down I’ve never played a video game with a deeper and more engaging world and story.
King of Dragon Pass takes place amongst a culture known as Orlanthi (named after their god, Orlanth) who roughly resemble land-borne Vikings of the Dark Ages: they’re brash and burly and have an economy based and cattle and raid each other without thinking much of it. The Orlanthi live in Heortland, a rich and prosperous country – at least until Belintar the Usurper shows up. In the persecution that follows, many of them flee to Dragon Pass, a dangerous and forbidden land to the north. You take control of a clan that chose freedom over servitude, and fled north to eke out a living on the wild frontier, where about twenty other Orlanthi clans are simultaneously squabbling for turf and fighting off the legion of other inhuman threats.
And so, from day one, you take control of a clan of refugees in a frightening and dangerous new land. You’re in charge of every aspect of their lives: agriculture, livestock, raids on other clans, feuds and alliances, internal politics, exploration of Dragon Pass, fortifications, sacrifices to the gods, the management of their magic, trade relations, the accumulation of wealth, their leadership struggles, and much, much more. And with every passing season, you’re given a random event to deal with, drawn from a pool of something like 500, often influenced by choices you’ve made in the past. They range from events as mundane as a raid by an enemy clan or a high-ranking noble caught sleeping with someone he shouldn’t, all the way up to completely off-the-wall shit like a zombie plague or a rampaging chaos snail.
The beauty of King of Dragon Pass is how richly realised the game world is – as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s on par with well-regarded fantasy novels like Game of Thrones or video games like The Elder Scrolls series. The level of detail makes it one of the most immersive games I’ve ever experienced, and the culture of the Orlanthi is what grants the game its RPG aspect. If you try to play like a 21st century latte-sipping Guardian-reading empathic civilised human being, you will fail. Put yourself in the mind of a bloodthirsty Viking chief and you may do a little better. But, as one slightly grumpy review in the app store says:
The outcome of the game seems to be determined by 90% the random cruelty of an insane hostile world, and 10% by your actual decisions.
This game is easy once you know the ins and outs of it, but that takes time. I would love to go back to when I didn’t know anything about it, rather than when I knew it off by heart and simply clicked the best option when I saw the picture. Note that I said “best.” There are no right answers or wrong answers in this game; every option is influenced by your clan’s reputation, the skill of your leaders, your magic, your wealth, luck, and a dozen other hidden factors. You are not given a “likelihood of success” percentage, and the game is richer for it. You’re as blind and helpless as an actual frontier clan would be.
This is not a fantasy world based on Tolkien derived tropes. Elves are literally plant people, made of vegetable material (if one of your lumberjacks gets shot by a green arrow, don’t bother hunting for the culprit.) Dwarves are strange little men in thrall to a machine god and an unimpeachable schedule. Magic comes from the gods, not from anywhere else, and many things are inexplicable. The pass is swarming with horrible monsters – minotaurs and walktapuses (walktapi?) and dinosaurs and horrible zombie creatures that burst out the stomachs of your cattle.
Every event gives you five or six different options encompassing a number of reactions. For example, a tribe of weird duck people live nearby, who are a source of jokes for both the player and the Orlanthi. When a warrior duck storms into your clan hall, says he’s tired of being the butt of jokes, and demands to fight your finest warrior to the death in single combat, you can either refuse him; or accept, to first blood; or accept, to the death; or apologise for making fun of the ducks; or refuse, and make a joke to his face. Most recently, I accepted, and sent out my battle-scarred war-leader. The duck cut him in half.
Which was shame, because you come to know and love your clan’s leaders. There are seven slots at the bottom of the screen, which comprise your clan ring, selected by you from about 20 or 25 potential nobles. The makeup of the clan ring has a number of effects on the game – having worshippers of seven different gods makes heroquesting easier, having more women than men makes the clan more fertile, having a chief with a weak leadership score can result in a coup. But mostly they act as advisors to an uncertain player: giving their advice, explaining certain laws and customs, suggesting repercussions to situations that might not be immediately obvious.
As the visible face of your clan, the clan ring are effectively the game’s characters. They have quirks and foibles and eventually die, and if you’ve grown attached to them, it can be quite sad. Because you have seven ring members, they’ll come and go, arriving as fresh-faced youngsters and departing as grey-bearded old-timers… if they’re lucky. More likely, they will meet a brutish and nasty early death. Playing on Hard on the iPhone version, without ever save-scumming, I’ve lost eight chiefs in about thirty years – in battle, while heroquesting, to assassinations from other clans, to snakebite, to whatever. When one of your nobles steps up to the plate and successfully completes a heroquest (a re-enactment of a god legend, which can bring either great boons or terrible curses), it feels good. When one of them goes missing while exploring the area and their bones are discovered a year later, it feels bad. When a feuding clan offers to make peace, and then double-crosses you at the meeting and assassinates half your clan ring, it makes you furious.
And these people have minds of their own; they may challenge the chief for power, or turn out to be a secret Chaos worshipper, or go and murder the children of another chieftain “to start a war… we’re getting soft.” Sometimes they can be useful, sometimes they can be infuriating, and sometimes they’re racists with a chip on their shoulder who won’t stop banging on about elves.
It’s possible to forge a narrative in this game, to nurture potential heroes and send them on quests and missions you think is appropriate to their character. But it’s also possible that the young, handsome Elmali with a gift for leadership that you’re grooming to become king in the endgame sequence gets randomly killed in a botched cattle raid at age 21.
King of Dragon Pass isn’t for everyone. Not having moving graphics is probably a major point against it in our Flash-driven world, and it’s most definitely not a typical ten-minute timekiller that you play while sitting on the train or waiting to pick up Chinese takeaway. If the idea of a slow-paced strategy game with more depth than the average 12-part fantasy series isn’t appealing to you, then it’s probably not your bag. If, on the other hand, you want to play a game where you manage a Viking village, ride dinosaurs into battle, negotiate with dragons, forge a kingdom out of wilderness and do combat with the gods themselves in an alternate dimension, then, yes, buy this game.
I know ten bucks is a lot of money for an iOS game, but it’s not a lot of money in general. It’s less than what you’d spend on a sandwich and coffee in a cafe (in this country, anyway). Pretend it’s on Steam. It’s definitely worth it.