The world of Death Crown freaks us out, and we love it. There’s some Conan in there, in the grotesque necromancers and warriors in loincloths. But there’s some cosmic sci-fi in there too, with rotating cubes and spheres descending from the skies. Then it all gets printed out by a dot-matrix printer and animated like a 1bit flipbook, in a manner that resembles Return of the Obra Dinn. You might call it ugly, but we adored it. For good measure, it even throws in some rotoscoped animations, taking us back to Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings.
Death Crown has style and originality pumping through its disgusting veins, and it’s not often that you get to say that about a real-time strategy game. Often the most clinical and militaristic of genres, Death Crown is ghoulish and characterful. Hell, the world-building is probably worth a recommendation on its own.
You play the forces of Death, as you claim the soul of The King, who has subdued and united all human lands of the world after the Millennial War. But with his victory has come over-confidence, and The King has no intentions of leaving it all behind. He uses the power of the Death Crown to dispel you, forcing you to claim his soul by force. With your armies of the undead, you’ll have to take his lands, region by region, before breaching his palace.
That’s literally only the half of it, as Death Crown also packages its DLC in the form of a second chapter, as you play The King in the original millennial war. The roles are flipped and the undead are your enemy, as you conquer death trees and giant wyrms, before claiming the titular Death Crown.
Having come off the back of The Colonists, a recent family-friendly RTS, we would never have predicted that Death Crown would be the simple one of the two. In Death Crown, you are presented with a hex map, never bigger than the game screen. At one end of the map is your castle and its grounds, and on the other is your enemy’s. Your objective is to destroy their castle. You can only build on hexes that are within your control, which means that you have to expand that control if you want any chance of success.
You can build three things on those hexes. Three! And they can’t be upgraded in the moment, either (it is, however, possible to upgrade them a few times between battles). Two of these constructions increase the perimeter of what you can build on: Defence Towers, which will fire at incoming enemies, and Crypts/Garrisons, which produce a steady flow of troops, which you can direct at the opposing forces. The other construction is a Mine (Farms in the human campaign), which – like the sunflowers of Plants vs. Zombies – continue to pump out the gold you need to build. You will always be wary that Mines are protected, but also not positioned so they cut off your control.
With so few building options to think about, Death Crown focuses you on other things. Terrain is a big one, and gets greater focus in the human campaign. Swamp increases the cost of placing a construction, while hills increase a building’s defence. Farmland boosts a human farm that has been placed on it, towns boost a human garrison that has been built on it (the alternative to Crypts), and forests can’t be built on, yet they can be walked through. Tailoring the direction of your expansion to the terrain is a big part of succeeding in Death Crown.
Since expansion takes time, you’re also going to have to choose the areas of the board that you prioritise. Three Black Crystals can commonly be found on the map, and they’re your most common destination. If they are in your area of control, your Crypts and Garrisons get extra strength, putting you in a formidable position. But they’re not the only strategy: you might beeline to particular terrain, conquer a strategic point of the map, or just blitzkrieg your opponent.
Death Crown makes good use of the limited map sizes. Boss levels bring in additional rulesets, with some particularly memorable ones in the human campaign: tentacles erupt from all swamp tiles in one, while another has a sinkhole appearing sporadically to swallow up constructions. Other levels introduce quicksand, choke points, or multiple castles.
Regardless, ninety percent of the time, we found our strategy to be that age-old RTS pattern of building a strong base of Mines, while taking out our opponents’ Mines, crippling our opponents’ ability to build. Along the way, we would prioritise the black crystals and move from Defence Towers to Crypts/Garrisons at roughly the halfway point.
It highlights the standout problem. Death Crown is incredibly simple, which can make battles routine. Black Crystals are too powerful to ignore; Mines must be placed safely at the back of the map; you’d be a fool not to put a Crypt/Garrison on a town hex, or a Farm on a farmyard. Too many decisions feel like they’re made for you, which – on top of the incredibly limited building options – can mean that you’re going through the motions. We didn’t want to take the same approach with every map, but we felt foolhardy not doing exactly that.
Increasing the difficulty helps here, as we stayed a little too long on the default. But there’s no getting around the sense of familiarity of each map. Hexes are hexes, after all, and there are only so many ways that you can make a level feel different. Even when there are multiple castles, choke points, or an abundance of a certain kind of terrain, you won’t feel it’s quite enough. We rarely shifted from the same strategy.
In making the transition to console, there are issues too. You can – technically – create a path that your troops will follow to an enemy base. It’s essential on a couple of missions, as quicksand will make quick work of them and they will lemming right into it. But creating a waypoint is an absolute nightmare, as you hold A from hex to hex without any visual feedback about whether your troop is still in focus. You’ve just got to hope that, by the end, your troops get to their destination. The battlefield can also get too noisy, as it becomes impossible to differentiate your troops’ paths versus your opponents’.
Death Crown’s answer to a lot of these issues is to be short and sweet. There aren’t a huge number of levels here – we counted roughly fifteen on each campaign – and they are no more than ten minutes each, as long as you don’t stutter to a stalemate. The brevity certainly offsets the repetition, and we’d have been carping about the simplicity and repetition more if it wasn’t this bitesize.
It means there’s nothing more than three hours’ worth of campaign on offer here, but other game modes help out. A Domination game mode is an escalating sequence of battles, but it didn’t really stick with us outside of achievement-chasing. It’s not an ‘endless’ or ‘sandbox mode’ like we’ve come to expect from our RTS games: you have to reset the map between battles, which makes them feel like flavourless campaign levels.
Luckily, there’s a Versus Mode, and this is the clincher. With both forces visible on a single game screen, Death Crown is prime material for local competitive play, and so it proves. We’re not superbly set up for playing it locally – props to my wife for at least giving it a go – but it’s hugely customisable, great fun, and absolutely where the longevity of Death Crown lies.
The local co-op is fun because the core of Death Crown is good. Managing a single game board on the fly, switching between your trifecta of buildings, and looking for an opening is RTS gold. We only wish more could have been done to support it. A greater confidence in their own design might have led to more moment-to-moment choices, less returning to routine, and a greater range of game modes.
We hope that someone, somewhere is creating an ‘Art of Death Crown’ coffee table book, as we’d buy it in an instant. But who would have predicted that beneath this grotesque, horrific art was a simple and friendly RTS? It’s easy to pick up, slightly too easy to master, and offers a three-hour campaign that breezes by without fully engaging the brain. Local co-op gives it slightly more legs, but you should begin your quest knowing that Death Crown doesn’t exactly put the ‘long’ in ‘longevity’.
You can buy Death Crown from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S