Gaming can get dangerous. When you’re not being recruited through games (The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game), you’re being sucked into them (Tron, the recent Narita Boy). Into the latter ‘sucking’ category comes Kingdom of Arcadia, where you play Sam, who ducks into his dad’s garage to play his old coin-op machine, Kingdom of Arcadia, only to spin through a vortex and end up within it.
As with all the examples we’ve given, you’re a prophesied hero, and you need to solve all the game’s problems. In this case, an evil wizard named Draken has stolen four scepters from four kingdoms, and has eyes on the fifth and final one. You’re recruited by the remaining kingdom to recover the scepters before finally taking on the big bad and saving the world.
This sets up the game’s structure: you have just one scepter, so you only have access to one kingdom. Each kingdom is split up into five levels and one boss battle, and you work linearly from level to level. Gain a scepter from a boss and a new kingdom becomes available, taking you to ice castles, sand castles (but not sandcastles) and rainforest castles (we’re not sure that’s how climates work), resulting in twenty levels and four bosses in total.
Kingdom of Arcadia is pitched as a Metroidvania, but it isn’t. The discrete levels and the lack of any player-abilities means this is more an action-platformer, which is A-OK with us. You can jump, double-jump, wall-climb, whack things with a sword and chuck a thrown weapon, which seems to be the arsenal of the average platformer. You’re moving through levels in an attempt to get to an exit door, and finding levers along the way, which have the handy habit of making the path to the exit shorter. You’re also scanning the walls for cracks, as there are tons of secret rooms to find in Kingdom of Arcadia, and they house coins, hearts, thrown weapons and shields, as well as the collectibles of Kingdom of Arcadia: special energy, which look like winged beholder-style beasties. Meanwhile, all sorts of enemies bounce, fly, throw spears and spit fire at you.
We recently reviewed a game called Acalesia and noted that platformers don’t have to be complicated or innovative to be joyful, as showcased by Kaze and the Wild Masks. Unfortunately, Acalesia showed that, for that to be true, the core jumping and combat needs to be on-point. Its platforming was slippery and the combat was tame. Kingdom of Arcadia, on the other hand, is an example of this simplicity done right, with the gameplay tightened up so that the simple acts of jumping on platforms and donking enemies feels good. For at least the first half of Kingdom of Arcadia, everything felt familiar and intuitive.
Kingdom of Arcadia also feels good because it’s generous without completely sacrificing difficulty. When you die, you don’t lose all the progress you’ve made: you retain the coins that you’ve gained, which can be saved up for upgrades in a hub shop. The levers you pull are permanently pulled, so you can die secure in the knowledge that you’ve created a shorter path to the exit. Enemies stay killed, so you can retrace your steps without dying to the same bat over and over again. Even the gameplay has softer edges that feel more welcoming, with your attacks able to hurt enemies behind you, so you never get overwhelmed, and hitboxes that feel designed to always be in the player’s favour.
The levels are chunked up nicely, too. They’re a good size, and the focus on levers and partnering doors manage to make them feel less linear, and more a dungeon to explore. The hidden rooms are so frequent and rewarding that you’re always scanning for something to blow up. While the levels aren’t exactly revelatory – expect a lot of timed platforms, Thwomp-like falling blocks, and swimming sections – they are pitched nicely between simple and difficult, and we (mostly) enjoyed our time in them.
We say ‘mostly’ because the level’s biggest fault, and Kingdom of Arcadia’s, is that their lustre wears off. Kingdom of Arcadia isn’t a long game – its twenty levels will last you roughly four hours – but we found ourselves getting bored a couple of hours in. The enemies, even across the different castles, are largely reskins of previous ones, and the designers can’t find new ways to throw a projectile or bounce at the player. We started recognising level layouts that were seemingly copy-and-pasted, and playing through became a little rote. Even Kingdom of Arcadia’s best idea – a balloon that you can ride up levels, dodging fireballs and deliberately popping yourself on the platforms you want to reach – became over-used.
With the achievements no longer popping halfway in, and the upgrades becoming more and more expensive (therefore requiring more of a grind to unlock), the joyful sprint through the opening two castles became slightly more of a trudge. There was still a lot of fun to be had, with the hidden rooms in particular pulling us in, but the graph of enjoyment-against-time definitely takes a plunge.
The bosses, too, are on the weaker side. Some levels have mini-bosses, and each castle has a boss, from a gold knight to a yeti to a green goblin. They have two core problems. One is repetition: they are often reskins of each other, with a Thwomp miniboss turning up multiple times, while the optimal tactics for beating them tends to be very similar: wall-climb to dodge their attacks, and then jump down to wail on them/throw axes at them. The second problem is that there is a very generous immunity period after getting hit, which means that you can stand on a boss and hit them repeatedly without any consequences. They’re not broken by any means; they’re just a bit throwaway.
None of these are walls that make Kingdom of Arcadia impossible to progress through; they just dampen the enjoyment a bit. But play in small bursts, rather than look to hurtle through in one day, and you might find more to love. We’re fond of Kingdom of Arcadia, from its chunky, meaningful upgrades (we love how the upgraded swords not only hit harder, but are just plain bigger, with longer reach), down to its swiss-cheese level design, with you able to carve secret rooms out of virtually every screen. We could gripe about a lack of map, and a couple of glitches that forced us to bug out, but it wouldn’t take focus away from the charm and low-effort platforming that are at Kingdom of Arcadia’s core.
Make no mistake, Kingdom of Arcadia on the Xbox offers absolutely nothing new. Hundreds of action-platformers have been here before, and looked better as they’ve done it. Surprisingly few, however, have done it with its levels of charm, and with its tight handle on controls. So, should you be in the market for a simple platformer that offers zero originality, but done well, then put down the measly £4.99 and give it a spin.