Go alone, or stick together.
A quaint, picturesque windmill sits shortly out of town, housing cult members waiting to ambush a lone trapper as he’s exploring the wilderness. They spring their trap. The trapper tries to escape but is stunned by a mallet-wielding, bucket-for-a-helmet cultist. He dodges a fireball from another. A third cultist spears him in his side.
He’s left dead on the ground, triangular blood splattered everywhere. Monsters will scavenge his gear and gold if his friends don’t find and revive him soon. RIP, Scruffy.
These difficult, against-the odds-moments like this are the heart of For the King. This turn-based roguelite is brutal despite appearances. You will find the most surprising and engaging gameplay in these moments. And even if you sometimes feel cheated, it’s probably because you didn’t stick together.
This should come as no surprise; you are warned about this before the game opens. Then the menu opens with a cartoon-style vista and you think to yourself, “Hey, this isn’t so menacing – look at that adorable little windmill!”
Alas! An evil force called Chaos is escaping into the world and you must stop it in the name of the titular king. Riveting stuff. The story in each campaign is a means to an end. It isn’t the draw; the party you create and the micro-adventures they experience are.
The Blacksmith, Minstrel, Scholar, and Hunter are the starting classes and each serves a fairly typical RPG party role, but earning rewards from gameplay will unlock more classes to play around with. Want a party of three burly lumberjacks? Go for it. A bunch of herbalists? Why not. Or a troupe of minstrels using barrels (of mead, no doubt) for backpacks?
The fights and encounters are geared towards having a variety of different classes in play, but individually they are well balanced. There is a lot to experiment with here, considering how different the class strengths are.
Each class has unique starting skills, items, and stats that largely define how they will progress if you want them to survive. Every stat affects your rolls, and having a mixture of high stats among your party will be beneficial.
Rolls never feel stacked despite the frequent bad luck I experience. Focus is a delicate resource to balance for each party member. Spending it at the right moment can boost the odds of a roll succeeding and increase your movement across the map. The result is a satisfying risk-reward loop that trickles through every choice.
Even moving your party around the map is one of your more understated complexities. Party members are individually capable of moving wherever they like. The difficulty comes from knowing when to stick together or send a lone wolf to scout the surroundings, risking an ambush. I find the risk of separating your party more than a few spaces rarely pays off, due to combat drawing nearby enemies and party members.
Campaign provides subtle changes to your end goals and perils you’ll face. There is no distinct benefit from picking one or the other; you will receive the same rewards and ultimately it comes down to where you want your party to die horribly.
Some will blast you with icy winds while others are covered in dungeons. Do you want to charge an enormous tower to stop the flow of chaos, or delve into five lengthy dungeons to smite emerging evil?
High risk means high rewards. I had no qualms about dropping to the lowest difficulty after dying frequently early on. I choose the lowest difficulty because I have no spine, and this causes the game to feel more grindy than it actually is.
You feel very powerful from your accomplishments – at times I have a hunch to grind my way to victory. But it’s easy to forget that you’re playing a roguelite and not a sprawling RPG. For the King fights this with its chaos mechanic. Your chaos meter builds over a number of turns, with enemies getting stronger and chaotic storms damaging your party.
This is tied to exploration; finding dungeons with powerful creatures without charging in to slay them immediately means they can emerge later as scourges to devastate the overworld. One of the more interesting scourges completely shrouded my map, slowing my progress until I could find it (again) and defeat it.
One flaw is that it’s difficult to tell how much of a threat the chaos and scourges are going to be. The in-game tutorials do their best to instruct players on what they can expect, but in your first few runs, the obstacle feels insurmountable. When I play other roguelites I usually feel that I’ll get there eventually.
Part of any roguelite is learning after death, but death in For the King can feel downright unlucky. The best roguelites leave you feeling that with a bit more skill you can triumph next time. There is no way to redirect incoming damage from enemies apart from the taunt skill, but this only works on a single creature for one turn. There are healing abilities but they are costly, requiring consumable herbs.
Sometimes there is no way to avoid damage stacking from enemies. Other situations during quests can also be crushingly harsh. I sent my blacksmith into a cellar alone (per the quest instructions) only to find an acid slime that melts all my gear and nearly kills the smith. There is a warning that only one character can enter and that there is a monster inside, but having my smith leave half-melted with only a broadsword in hand seems a tad cruel.
The strength of the game is its careful party management and moment-to-moment escalation, but there is some longevity. Players can unlock new locations, encounters, items, and appearances from the Lore Store. Lore is rewarded for completing quests and dungeons. I found after a few hours of gameplay, I was averaging about ten Lore. The deaths were worth it.
Unlocked locations, items, and encounters can appear in any area of a new playthrough. These open up options for how you can approach challenges in future. The potential for future content will likely be implemented as additions to the Lore Store, and it will take a lot of dungeon-crawling to buy everything.
The co-op in For the King also makes for some great moments; however, games can drag on in the later stages. I tried local co-op and the turn-based gameplay works reasonably well, but prepare to argue over who gets the gold. In a game where death occurs so frequently, you’d expect multiplayer to suffer and I find in most situations that if one player dies with no more revives available, everyone else is not far behind.
For the King is a dedicated multiplayer roguelite with a finely tuned sensation of risk vs reward. In a genre that doesn’t often see co-op capabilities, it’s refreshing to see a game that balances the draw of a D&D adventure with friends and the manic challenge of a roguelite.