With the launch of a new generation of Xbox hardware, namely the Series X|S consoles, you’d think that game developers and publishers would be falling over themselves to make games that can fully utilise this newfound power. Surprisingly, one of the companies that appears to be in the vanguard of the charge to slap that vital “X|S Optimised” sticker onto their games is KEMCO, purveyor of more retro-styled JRPGs than you can shake a stick at. So, with a high heart and a definite feeling of excitement, I downloaded their new offering Blacksmith of the Sand Kingdom, and fired it up, hoping to be blown away by the game on display. Were my wishes fulfilled?
First up is the story of Blacksmith of the Sand Kingdom, and it is very much business as usual here. We play as Volker, an aspiring adventurer and son of the Court Blacksmith of Muspelheim – a nation that is largely made up of deserts and wilderness – also known as the Sand Kingdom. Now, as the game opens, Volker’s father has sadly popped his clogs, and so his blacksmith’s shop and business have fallen to Volker to get them up and running. Now, as luck would have it, Volker’s best friend is a young girl called Valeria, and she has always wanted to be able to play shop, so faster than you can say “Aren’t you cold in that dress?” she’s firmly ensconced behind the counter. Now, as Volker is to blacksmithing as I am to ballet dancing, it is also fortunate that the Fairy of the Forge, Pitte, takes pity on him and decides to train Volker until he too is Court Blacksmith, as his departed father was. Pitte will also, at various points in the story, teach Volker how to create new materials, such as iron and steel, allowing him to expand the range of things that he can make.
However, Volker still wants to be an adventurer, and as such he enrolls with the The Adventurers Guild, which licences people to go out and explore dungeons in order to grab materials to craft with. While they are out there, they can also perform missions that are requested by various people, such as to explore to a certain point in a dungeon, or kill a specific number of various species of monsters, for instance. Volker meets Aegon, who runs the Guild, and as Aegon was a close childhood friend of Ulrich – Volker’s father – he lets him go and become an adventurer.
And it is at this point that the game splits into two halves. The first half is spent in the city of Santburg, capital of Muspelheim. Here you have a screen with various places to visit to prepare for an exploration mission. There is the Blacksmith workshop, where Volker can make stuff to sell, and the Guild, where he can accept missions, train and also recruit extra companions, making a party of five. Each member of the party can also change their class or job at the Guild as well. The Infirmary is the only place where wounds can be healed, and mana points refilled, for a price of course. Here the party members can also change their religious belief, should you/they wish to. The Tavern is run by Carmela – a lady seemingly allergic to clothing – and here the party can eat a hearty meal, which will award them with a great deal of Exp points, for some reason. Exp can be gained in battle too, but apart from boss fights the amount of points is very measly, so eating every day is the best way to level up. Further, the item shop is an establishment where you can purchase items, believe it or not, including books that will allow you to expand your blacksmithing repertoire. The final location is an arena, where you can engage in up to five bouts of fisticuffs with monsters per day, earning points as you do so. And what do points make? Well, in Blacksmith of the Sand Kingdom, crafting materials!
The second half of the game sees you going out to a dungeon to find things and fight monsters. This is much more familiar ground for a KEMCO game, showing a large sprite wandering around the place, with chests and sparkly piles of rock to interact with, from which Volker draws his materials. It is here where Blacksmith of the Sand Kingdom provides a reasonable pace, with Volker almost jogging around the screen, and it’s good that the monsters can be avoided if you are sufficiently quick with your reflexes.
However, there are some foes you have to kill for missions, and there are also materials you need to gather that can only be taken from monster corpses, so it’s always worth a bit of a scrap. The actual combat screen shows a pair of 3 x 3 squares, which can each have a monster in, and it is here where your party can acquire various different formations that can make the difference between living and dying, depending on the classes you choose – having a tanky Fighter in the front row, with the squishy Priests and Mages hiding behind, is usually a good tactic. One thing worth noting is that you can only go to a dungeon once a day, so make sure you have explored everywhere before heading back to town. The in-game day is brought to an end when you open your shop and sell stuff, so make sure that you have accomplished all the things you have to before setting Valeria loose.
Graphically, there’s absolutely nothing to distinguish this game from any other KEMCO game from the past couple of years. It’s still a retro-styled JRPG, just split into two halves, yet this time it comes with more than a distinct whiff of a mobile game about it. This is likely because this game first launched on mobile devices back in October 2020, and while the controls are a lot better than the run of the mill KEMCO games, the experience as a whole certainly doesn’t feel like it is “Optimised” for anything, let alone the new generations of Xbox. The graphics do have a certain style and charm about them, and the music is nice, but it’s no Immortals Fenyx Rising, let’s put it that way. Even the blacksmithing activity is a little dull, with the forging system in Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition having a much more interactive system to use.
All in all, Blacksmith of the Sand Kingdom on Xbox is an interesting take on a KEMCO game. It’s more of a management sim than a straight-up RPG, with you having to balance your jaunts to dungeons against the needs of the town for blacksmithed goods. The game settles into a routine very quickly, with eating meals, going and fighting, turning in missions and creating things to sell or for people’s requests all having to take place before you open the shop and bring the day to an end. There is a depth that is quite pleasing, but the whole premise seems to be to grind – while there’s fun to be had, it is very repetitive.