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Everything Old Is New Again… Knights Of The Chalice [Review]

Knights of the Chalice by Heroic Fantasy Games has a clear audience in mind. The screenshots say it all; despite being first launched in 2009 (and updated/patched consistently until a couple of months ago, hence reviewing it only now), KotC could pass for an early 90s DOS game. Borrowing its presentation equally from RPG classics such as the old D&D Gold Box series, and the characterful-but-confusing isometric style of earlier Ultimas, it’s readily apparent who this game is aimed at. But does it hit all the right notes? And does it hold any appeal for a wider market?

Knights of the Chalice is a truly old-school RPG. Plot and characterization get pushed aside in favor of assembling a party of heroes (4, in this case, with no NPCs to recruit, or replacements to draft) of your own design and going on a vaguely defined quest to explore dungeons, discover evil plots, beat up evildoers in complex turn-based combat, hoard loot, an do it again and again until your four novice heroes could casually trade blows with the deities of the realm.

Running on a cut-down and tweaked version of the tabletop D20 gaming system (the same framework that supports Dungeons & Dragons V3.5), KotC makes the controversial decision to excise everything in the rulebook that doesn’t revolve around kicking asses, taking names and hoarding loot. No conversational skills, a threadbare crafting system (just spend money/XP to spontaneously create weapons/scrolls/wands) and no spells that don’t have direct combat applications. While you have access to the full range of traditional stats and feats to pick from during character generation and leveling up, there’s only three races and three classes (Fighter, Cleric and Mage) to pick from. No thieves, no lockpicking, no druids. If it’s a broader interpretation of the ruleset you’re looking for then The Temple Of Elemental Evil has been updated to a fine state by fans, but KotC knowingly trades complexity for focus.

KotC is a game of tactical turn-based RPG combat. Played on a grid representing five-foot spaces, positioning is key as each character can take a free swing at anyone trying to muscle past them. While the game does, effectively, only contain the rules for basic combat, arcane spellcasting and clerical miracles, it has the full rules pertaining to these three core pillars of D&D gameplay. Want to have a warrior shoulder-barge an orc out of the way, then wrestle an evil wizard to the ground in order to stop him from casting spells? Easy, so long as the dice fall in your favor, and every action does have a handy percentage chance (based on all the virtual dice involved combined) of success shown so you know the odds. There’s no locks to pick or reticent characters to charm, but rather the entire game is (outside of a few random encounters) a series of scripted battles that’ll force you to use your party of four in new and interesting ways, although your progression is partially non-linear, often letting you pick and switch between several quests at any given time.

As an example of the tactical complexities of the game, one particularly notable encounter had my heroes escaping from a long and grueling dungeon, only to be greeted by a circle of Gnoll mages and clerics. Almost immediately, the clerics buffed up the mages, ensuring their spells would work, then the mages trapped my party in a field of magical spiderweb. To make matters worse, some of the mages then polymorphed into giant spiders, allowing them to scuttle at full speed across the webs to bite chunks out of my own casters. Fortunately, they hadn’t anticipated that they were dealing with a lucky idiot. A fortuitously misfired Fireball spell knocked out my own pyromaniacal mage, but not before burning away all the webs and half the health of the spider-gnolls, allowing my (slightly toasted) warriors to close the distance and get their stab on, opening up my own cleric to miraculously enlarge herself to massive size and run down the scattering survivors in a fit of holy vengeance.

Enemy AI is particularly impressive, with them making very few unwise decisions. Archers will opt out of an easy shot and nervously take aim at your magic-users, hoping to interrupt any spellcasting as it happens, while enemy warriors will block corridors and set themselves up in a defensive posture, anticipating your charge instead of wading into a waiting spear. Enemies seem to have a fairly full understanding of their own strengths, so giant creatures will attempt to overpower and pin smaller folk, and spellcasters will do everything they can to keep sword-swinging aggressors at range. While enemies will never try to outright retreat from combat (it would be tedious to chase them down), they go to great lengths to keep themselves alive. The clever AI also extends partially to your own characters, with movement paths automatically drawn out to avoid getting caught by attacks of opportunity, or ensnared in environmental hazards. You can manually walk into such threats, but you won’t ever do so accidentally. It’s complicated, but it’s also fairly hard to do something irredeemably dumb unless you mis-click.

While the game does have a remarkably comprehensive built-in help system allowing you to view the full ‘behind the scenes’ rules on every action, statistic and spell (usually with just a click on the subject name in question), KoTC makes very few concessions for newcomers. The closest thing the game has to a tutorial is a short and potentially lethal fight against a trio of summoned elementals in the comparatively safe confines of your starting fortress. Even that is quickly followed up by the first ‘real’ fight of the game; a remarkably complex large-scale battle between your order of knights and an invading Orc force. If they survive, then your Level 1 characters will ascend to the much less squishy heights of Level 2. I admit that it did take a couple of tries to survive that first major encounter, as first-level characters can easily be knocked out by a single lucky shot. Such one-hit-kills thankfully become rarer as you play further, and fights become more deterministic.

The game does helpfully provide suggestions on what feats and spells to pick when your characters level up, but you’re free to make – and live with – your own decisions, as far as party loadout goes. While probably nigh-impossible to complete the game without a cleric (there are no healing potions, only healing wands that are usable only by clerics), you’re fairly free to spec the rest of the characters as you see fit. While there’s only one difficulty level, the game does throw you a couple of bones in the form of an optional toggle to automatically roll high on your hit-point gains per level, or even automatically roll any number of your core attributes at their highest during character creation. This is undeniably a hardcore and challenging game, but it does at least give you the option to start off a little better prepared than most.

So far (I’m presumably a little under halfway through the supposedly ~30 hour long campaign) it all seems remarkably fair and balanced. I’ve had no shortage of close calls and near-death situations, but only the hardest of battles have forced me to repeat them more than a couple of times. Saving is manual (outside of a couple of automatic saves, made handily just before ‘point of no return’ moments), so you need to keep on top of that. Aforementioned ’points of no return’ are particularly threatening to an unprepared player, as the game doesn’t let your party rest and regenerate health/spells unless you find a special safe-room with a campfire, and these are a very scarce resource. Quite a lot of dungeons trap you inside and make you ration your healing and resources until you finally bring down the boss and escape for some rest and relaxation. Having that little autosave has rescued me a couple of times already, letting me roll back time to prepare and have a plan worked out.

Despite the complex nature of the ruleset, the interface is remarkably clean and usable in spite of the limitations imposed by the bizarre adherence to an upscaled 320 x 240 basic resolution. Everything can either be activated by simple mouse commands, or through single-letter keyboard commands handily highlighted in the top-right corner of the screen at most times. In fact, the biggest flaw of the game is probably its steadfast adherence to the visual limitations of an early DOS-era game. While the low-res sprites are charming and clear, they’re oddly locked in scale. There’s no option to zoom the map out for a wider view, despite the generously sized pixels feeling artificially enlarged on any modern monitor. Screen space is also at a premium – things get cluttered when you have the three main interface panels – turn order, available commands and roll results – all activated.  While this all goes to help enhance the feeling that you’re playing a long-lost game from the ‘golden age’ of PC gaming, it does hinder gameplay sometimes, especially when interacting with inventories and trying to loot fallen foes, which would be much less cumbersome if you could just have your character inventories open without covering the whole screen. You even have to manually scroll through dialogue boxes, as they’re only a couple of lines deep due to limited screen space.

Addendum: I’ve just been informed that there is an alternate, zoomed-out view mode, but it only works in windowed mode. Hit F2 to keep the same window resolution, but halve the pixel-size. It doesn’t resize any of the UI elements, but it does make the actual combat field feel a lot less cramped.

On the subject of dialogue, the plot – or, rather, the lack of it – is another potential sticking point, depending on what angle you’re coming from. This is not a fantasy world with a rich, detailed history; it’s the Forgotten Realms with the serial numbers filed off. Your four heroes are part of a knightly order dedicated to beating up monsters and generally being heroic, and you’re sent off on a quest to find a missing knight, and stab anything that might have done him harm, although your commander gives you a friendly nudge towards a nearby dungeon to practice your stabbing-and-looting in before you head off on your real mission. There’s very few dialogue options beyond ‘I will be nice and listen to you’ or ‘I will stab you because you are evil’, and the writing is simplistic. The plot is largely there as an excuse to take you to a variety of locations filled with an escalating menagerie of critters, then make them dead. It’s a dungeon crawl, pure and simple, and that’s fine for some – me included – but some might be put off by the lightweight narrative.

Another potential sticking point is the price-tag. At £15 (approximately $24), this is a hard sell for many. There’s a lot of content here despite the cut-down ruleset, but they might have trouble attracting interest outside of their core market, especially as a growing number of RPGs from the 90s are available now from stores like Good Old Games, and tend to be priced much lower. Knights of the Chalice is definitely good at what it does, but with so much direct competition now, it’s hard to recommend as an impulse purchase.

For better or worse, Knights of the Chalice is a game with a clear audience in mind, and it achieves the goals it sets itself quite admirably, recreating – and in many respects improving on – the nostalgic feeling of old-school RPG adventuring. I’ll admit that aside from some interface quirks and some mild frustration, I’ve had a romping great time with this game so far and will likely go back to playing it more as soon as I’m done writing, but I find it hard to earnestly recommend it to anyone but seasoned old-school RPG fans with a little extra money to burn. This is a highly compelling, involving game, but perhaps a little too niche for widespread appeal. With a tutorial, better use of modern UI trends, higher base resolution graphics and a lower price, I’d tell anyone just to take the plunge on this game. As it stands, I’ll just say to try the demo and make up your own mind.

Knights of the Chalice is available for Windows PCs, and can be bought for £15, direct from the developers below.

[Heroic Fantasy Games]

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