Indie horror games have always been the pioneers of the horror genre, with such names as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, and Inside setting a high standard for even AAA horror games that followed. An indie, hand-drawn, survival horror FPS game seems like a perfect combination of different styles and genres, full of potential to deliver a memorable experience with unique and artistic visuals and engaging gameplay.
Kingdom of the Dead though, developed by Dirigo Games and published by Hook, manages to fail in every aspect that you expect from such a game. The hand-drawn art style is unique, but disorienting in a 3D space, the story is a weird Lovecraftian horror, the gameplay is a disappointing reskin of 1993’s DOOM, and the 8-bit music doesn’t fit with anything that the game has to offer.
I’m gonna be honest, it only took me two hours to give up on the game. Maybe if I stuck around, I would’ve discovered more of the story to make sense of all of it, and experienced better gameplay in later levels. But if the stating portion of a game is not captivating enough, not many players are gonna make it to the later stages. So now I’m going to detail my full experience in Kingdom of the Dead, up until I reached my quit moment.
We start the game, and the intro and the menu actually look good, and I’m excited to hop in. The first off-putting element is the music though. The 8-bit music is reminiscent of 90’s video games, which the game tries to emulate, but the tone just doesn’t fit the atmosphere. But maybe there are more tracks that fit better with the actual gameplay. So I continue and hit start. There’s a short cinematic where we are told about the story through subtitles. We are an agent of a bureau that is fighting against the rising dead to try and hold them back.
We see a scene in a private detective office where an agent slips a note under the door. So, I’m a private detective, and maybe I get to solve puzzles in the midst of all the zombies and Lovecraftian horror. How exciting! After the scene, we suddenly have control of the character. My first instinct is to go towards the door and exit into the world, but I can’t. I look around. There is no UI element or no hints as to where to go and what to do, and the room is extremely dark by design. I just walk up to the desk I put the note on, and suddenly the mission selection menu pops up. No interaction, no transition, it just happens. And this is the first of many UI shortcomings that make the game feel like an incomplete demo. Having a simple interaction button to open the mission selection menu is a simple thing, but it can have a huge effect on how the game feels.
We notice the lack of an interaction mechanic multiple times throughout the game. There are a few captured civilians in each mission who we have to save, and in order to do that, we have to walk up to them. The same goes for saving at a checkpoint. If you’re walking back during a fight and accidentally walk to a save point, you have just saved the game when you didn’t particularly want to. In order to open flimsy wooden doors that are obviously not locked, we have to either shoot it and waste our ammo, or switch to our sword and smash it. We can’t just open the door like a civil human.
Talking about swords, ours is a sentient talking one. We start the first mission by having a quick banter with it, saying how we wish to get rid of it but it is the only way to fight against the dead. But in reality, the melee combat feels so weak and inefficient, that this sentient otherworldly weapon is reduced to a battering ram for our detective who can’t operate a door handle.
Our first mission is to infiltrate a large mansion. there’s a long way to walk from the gates to the mansion itself, and the way is filled with zombies. I try to land headshots with my pistol in order to save ammo since I don’t know when and where we can get more, and that’s when I see it. One of the zombies is shooting at me with its own gun. Zombies with guns are something I didn’t expect in a horror survival game, but I guess it’s an interesting way to restock on ammo. We get a shotgun and a bunch of ammo, and combat to this point feels trivial. Just shoot the zombies before they reach you, and keep moving so the gunslinger zombies can’t land a shot.
At this point, I finally realize that the music is just ruining the mood of the game for me. It really doesn’t fit with the dark atmosphere. So I open the menu and mute the music, and then I notice the only good thing about Kingdom of the Dead; The sound effects are really good, if you mute the music to actually hear them! The silence builds up anticipation, and when we get close to zombies, their creepy moaning actually creates the feeling I expect from a horror game. It’s such a shame that these brilliant sound design elements were overshadowed by the loud music, but at least I got to discover them, and I thought this would make the game feel much better going forward.
We finally get closer to the mansion, and a strange creature warns us to not get closer. Cool, maybe a boss fight will turn things around. We reach a courtyard with a huge well in its center, and a huge worm pops up from the ground. As I’m looking around the courtyard and surveying the surroundings to figure out how best to fight against the boss, I notice zombies crawling out of two dirt patches. I start running around to dodge the attacks of the big worm monster and try to land headshots on the zombies to open the way, but they just keep coming. There has to be another way.
I accidentally break a box in the courtyard, and I see that there was dynamite inside. I pick up the dynamite, and I know what I have to do. Finally, a moment to get creative! I can blow up the zombies’ nest, kill the remaining ones, and focus on the boss alone. I was disappointed with the lack of puzzles or true challenges up until this point, but if we get to face our first puzzle in the boss fight, it is all the more glorious. This was the moment I was waiting for, the moment that shooting everything was not the optimal way, and I would be rewarded for my creativity. I saw what you did there game. you saved the first interesting mechanic for the boss fight. Right? RIGHT?
If you hadn’t guessed it, I actually lived through the Anakin Padme meme. I threw the dynamite into the dirt patch and froze in disappointment as soon after, another zombie came out, and another one, and I died because I was standing for too long and the worm monster chomped down on me. The death screen is excruciatingly long, but luckily I can skip it. I reload at the last checkpoint just outside the courtyard and walk in to try again.
This is the horror in the Kingdom of the Dead. The disappointments of seeing the lost potential. The game could’ve been so much more fun and challenging, but the only challenge is to run and shoot, hoping that you won’t get stuck in the janky physics of the environment. I manage to deal enough damage to the boss while dodging the unstoppable hordes of zombies, and the worm goes back into the well, saying that it will be back. I clear the courtyard and head into the mansion. Disappointed, but still hopeful. The worm can be a recurring villain now, and that’s something that I look forward to.
Inside the mansion, is the first time that I realize that the art style can be really disorienting in closed spaces. Running through narrow spaces feels like one of those hypnotic patterns, and trying to fight and navigate through these spaces is really unpleasant. There’s nothing new in the rest of the mission. New enemies don’t have anything interesting or challenging, and we reach the end of the mission. Another circular room, another well, same boss, same unstoppable hordes of zombies, and the same ending. The villain retreats. Again.
It was starting to dawn on me. The worm monster is not a recurring villain. It is the only villain. At least in the first few missions. The rest of my playthrough was more of the same until I get to the worm boss again. I was in the habit of being efficient with my ammo, so I had a lot in the boss fights. But this time when I died, I noticed something. When you reload at a checkpoint, you won’t preserve the ammo you had before. You just get an average amount of ammo for each gun. So in this boss fight, which was more challenging just because there were more zombies and the boss had more hitpoints, I died and came back with much less ammo. Too few in fact, as I was completely out when the boss was around 25%. I died again. I can’t kill the boss with the ammo that I have, and I’m not going to repeat this mission. This was it. I had enough.
Nima played Kingdom of the Dead on PC, with a Steam code provided by the publisher.