In Royal Frontier, you play three mercenaries, hired to escort a caravan of settlers as they move from one end of the country to another. Bandits and events keep scuppering your journey, and there’s a high chance that they will kill you before you reach your destination.
The nostalgia bells started ringing. Were we getting a spiritual successor to The Oregon Trail? We were all up for a sequel to the classic educational game, just with a touch less dysentery.
As it turns out, it’s not quite the same. Royal Frontier, developed by Woblyware Oy and published by the ever-prolific Ratalaika Games, may initially have been inspired by the Apple II classic, but it’s got more in common with more modern games like Death Road to Canada, Guards and even Slay the Spire.
The first hint that we’re straying from the trail is that Royal Frontier is not set in the real world. This is a caravan trip through a fantasy-medieval setting, where you’re just as likely to be jumped by orcs and sandworms as you are bears and bandits. Both mercenaries and enemies can wield magic, and consumables come in the form of potions and scrolls.
For a reasonably budget Ratalaika title – Royal Frontier is only £6.99, with a reduction on launch – it’s also rather lovely to look at. It’s the all-too-common pixel art, but there’s real craft on display here, as the characters on both sides of the caravan are jolly and over-the-top, as well as being uniformly colourful. It’s a bit of a looker.
But it’s in the gameplay that Royal Frontier abandons Oregon Trail and aims for more roguelike structures. Play starts on a node map, with three paths to be chosen from. At first this will be bewildering: the icons won’t mean much, so all you can do is jump in and choose. Then you are moving from node to node, facing whatever challenges that the icons represent. In most cases this will be combat – a black skull makes this encounter reasonably obvious – and you will jump straight into battle.
JRPG fans will find this familiar. On the left-hand-side are your three mercenaries, and on the right are up to three enemies. What takes place is turn-based combat, with the mercs always going first. The options are extremely simple: wade in with a basic attack, spend some of your finite PP points (hur hur) on a more impressive ‘ability’, or use one of your banked items.
Basic attacks and abilities give you a smidge of agency by offering additional damage and effects if you tap A at a specific time. This might take the form of a simple QTE, a golf-style power bar, or a spot of button-spamming. It’s all extremely simple and you’ll have done it time and time before. Whether it’s welcome is up for some debate: we initially enjoyed the ability to get involved with the combat, particularly when there’s so much of it. And the increase in DPS is definitely noticeable: you will want to be paying attention. But it’s also easy enough that it’s essentially a reward for paying attention. By the end, it was simultaneously essential for success, but a bit of a chore to pull off.
Abilities are determined by the class of your merc, and they’re nicely varied. You might be raining fireballs, healing the team up, or laying traps, and a well-balanced team will be essential. The priest character is squishy but borderline essential for healing, but the rest of your team will be down to preference. We ran a wizard for extreme damage-dealing, and a rifleman for, well, extreme damage-dealing, and it seemed to do the trick.
When your turn’s up, the enemies attack and the QTEs come back in. Press A at the right point and incoming damage will get dialed down dramatically. Again, it’s incredibly easy, as the window for tapping the button is large, so it’s more a test of whether you were paying attention.
What might surprise is that, coming out of combat, there are so few methods of healing up or recovering PP points. The priest will only get you so far, as you are effectively trading health for his own PP points. This is where the strategy comes in: what approach will you have in dealing with the game’s brand of attrition?
In the opening few runs, tactics are limited. You get three perks to carry with you on your journey, but these are bland, ineffective buffs to your team’s attack or defence stats. But as you complete runs, the XP starts stacking up, and suddenly you have more perks to unlock. These start tinkering with your ability to conserve essential resources, and plans start to form. We opted for a perk that hands you ten scrolls at the start of the game, and they’re so powerful that you generally only need to activate one per combat to do the business. Since scrolls are often given as treasures from battle, it can allow you enough traction to start stockpiling. Big bosses wait at the end of Royal Frontier’s three worlds, so you’ll need them.
Other locations drop onto the board before the bosses start carving chunks out of your health, including events – utterly random encounters that ask you to pick the best of several bad options – shops for purchasing items, and taverns for your choice of recovery: do you take a health or PP boost? But mostly it’s just combat.
That’s about the crux of Royal Frontier. It’s a turn-based RPG strapped to a survival game, as you move from node to node with an ever-decreasing life and PP pool. Whether you succeed or fail is determined by your strategy for conserving essential resources. If you’re not keeping up with the curve, you’ll likely die and have to restart, hoping that a new perk has unlocked that will make the next run a little more effortless.
All told, Royal Frontier is a fun diversion. There’s enjoyment to be had twiddling its dials, trying to figure out what works or doesn’t. The perks in particular allow for so many different strategies, and each run is a test of a hypothesis: can you make an item-based build? Can you turn your priest into a healing behemoth, never needing to replenish his PP pool? As a toolkit, there’s fun to be found in having a tinker.
The roguelike wheels begin to turn, too. You will get better, as the clouds part and you understand what works and what doesn’t. If you’re like us, you will wonder how you will ever get off the first world, before something clicks and you wonder how you ever got stuck there.
Which is a neat segue into Royal Frontier’s biggest failing. After our third run, and some of the meatier perks landed, we found it almost impossible to fail. Once you learn to conserve your best attacks and items for the more difficult enemies – which also, frustratingly, is the least fun way to play Royal Frontier, since it means you do basic attacks 90% of the time – then your progression is pretty-much guaranteed. It doesn’t help that the perks you unlock are so, so much better than the ones before.
Which would be fine if there was a form of escalating challenge: a New Game+, perhaps, as a reward for completing it, with harder enemies and better rewards. But, sad to say, there isn’t one to be found. Complete Royal Frontier once and you will have to find your own motivation for clearing it again. There are more perks to unlock, but since they make you increasingly powerful in a game that largely shirks a challenge, that motivation is a little hollow.
Royal Frontier feels like a demo for a better game. That’s not because Royal Frontier is short or light on content, but because it’s a roguelike that only needs three or four runs until it becomes a walk in the park. Our motivation dried up.
But for our few runs of this Oregon-Trail-with-broadswords, we enjoyed our time with it. The combat may not be varied, and there’s little that we would call new, but it’s sturdy and colourful. We solved it way too early, but the moments leading up to that solving were a satisfying spinning of plates. If only that feeling could have lasted an hour or two longer.
You can buy Royal Frontier from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S