(Kingdom of the Dead is out now for PC. The distributor provided a review copy.)
I admire Kingdom of the Dead more than I think I like it.
Not that it’s a bad game. It nails a lot of the mid-90s and early-00s aesthetics and game play tropes perfectly. Controls are slick and smooth, and while the levels can’t reach the heights of Doom in its heyday, they are lovingly crafted labyrinths for the most part.
Visually, Kingdom of the Dead is gorgeous. Looking like a cross between Edward Gorey and Junji Ito, the nightmarish world of 19th-century America overrun with demons is spectacular. Utilizing an ink and pen style, Kingdom has flair and charm to spare.
It’s just a shame the same can’t be said for the enemies, who are mostly generic and repetitive. There are fun callbacks to the floating eyeballs of Doom, and Civil War-era zombie soldiers are always good value. But they all feel superficial, and none stand out even in later levels. It’s a shame, too, since they all look amazing. They just don’t impress in any other way.
That extends to other aspects as well. Every time Kingdom of the Dead does something interesting or striking, it follows it up with something half-baked and unfinished. The plot is threadbare, to say the least, but some of the dialogue is fantastic. The bosses are intimidating to look at, but utterly uninteresting to fight. One step forward, one step back. That’s the dance we’re doing.
Similarly, the visuals make some of the levels extremely hard to comprehend. Sometimes it just gets too dark to even play. There are no accessibility options, either, apart from some color filters that really don’t help that much. The options menu is extremely basic, only providing the most rudimentary changes to sound and mouse sensitivity.
The plot, mentioned earlier, is secondary to the game play. You are Agent Chamberlain, a member of a secret order called GATEKEEPER, out on the front lines in a war against Death himself. Armed with a talking sword and an assortment of weaponry, you lung out from your hideout to take on the generals of hell as you make your way to the big bad at the end.
It’s not like other old-school shooters boasted expansive lore or even rudimentary dialog, but even so, Kingdom could just say “gun go brr” and it would be as effective.
Even so, I find myself forgiving Kingdom of the Dead for surprisingly many things. It is, after all, the passion project of a sole developer. As such, it deserves a wider berth than other projects. Is that fair? Probably not, but I make the rules here, so that’s what we’re going with.
It helps that Kingdom only costs about 15 euros and offers just enough gameplay to justify that price. There are 9 levels, each with three difficulties that change your objectives to warrant further exploration. I found the hardest difficulty a bit too much to bear, but I’m sure there are enough gluttons for punishment who’ll love it. In true 90s fashion, Kingdom makes for a great speed-running experiment as well.
Kingdom of the Dead is far from perfect. But it is worth checking out, nonetheless. Especially for fans of old-school shooters, who feel like modern ones do too much hand holding. How much there is beyond the nostalgia factor is up for debate, but I feel like Kingdom manages to eke out enough goodwill from its stunning presentation to make the journey worthwhile.