Looking for a free-to-play casual game that has you lording over a small city trying to assert itself in a world torn by orcs and bandits? Especially one that you can play casually during breakfast, at lunch break, and perhaps poke your head into before bed? Then come and take a look at the fantasy builder social-RTS Shadow Kings: Dark Ages published by Goodgame Studios.
This game is a web-based social-RTS that runs on Flash—for those who spend their time in front of a PC—but it also has app versions on both Android and iOS for the on-the-go mobile user. The only caveat about PC vs. mobile play when it comes to SKDA is that it is not possible to play cross-platform with the same account. So, if you’re mostly a PC player make a PC account; and if you’re mostly a mobile player make an account on your Android or mobile device. You will not be able to switch between them.
The game follows the standard RTS-building formula without much deviation: start a town, build buildings, upgrade buildings, wait for resources, recruit warriors, sally forth, and raid enemies. Add in that the players exist together in a larger overworld and can also compete with each other by attacking each other’s cities and you’ve got a game that hits all the usual marks.
Graphics and sounds: Cartoony, light, with a good mix of humor
Shadow Kings: Dark Ages presents itself with two primary views: the city that players will build up and the world map where warfare and mayhem takes place. The city is really the place where I spent most of my time, picking buildings, constructing them, and upgrading them, as well as clicking on them to get them to produce what I want. By that I mean warriors and equipment to wage war on the world screen.
The UI is easy to learn and it’s primarily taught via a tutorial with interesting characters with cute names who happen to be cartoony members of fantasy races. There’s a dwarf who shows up mostly when there’s war to be waged (he has a huge battle-axe), an elf who appears when I needed to construct buildings or do municipal work, and even a long white-bearded wizard who seems to be part of what I’d call the main quest line. More on that later.
One thing that players might notice is that there’s very little in the way of animations. In fact, pretty much all the hubbub in the game occurs at the city with tiny little people wandering around—which you can zoom in to watch them walk around. Some of the buildings have bits that move as well, but it’s quite minimal. Of course, much of this is likely so that the game doesn’t overwhelm the platforms its designed to run on (web and mobile) and the attention to detail is more than enough to make it look good.
The music of the game is an interesting mixture of different melodies that tries really hard not to sound like it’s repeating itself. And it’s also gentle enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the speakers and sounds a lot like the most generic and ambient fantasy music possible. Add in the sound of birds tweeting quietly in the background and you’ve got the makings of environmental music that I didn’t feel the need to turn it off (this is a common problem with me and many games.)
The UI has a good number of sounds that make it obvious something is going on but the real shining effect of SKDA’s UI is that it makes noise when there are things to be done. This is important because everything in the game takes a little time (the hardcore casual effect) since sometimes builds can take 5 mins, 30 mins, or even an hour, I am constantly tabbing away from the game to do other work. Hearing a ding-jing! when something is complete is important so that I can hop back in again.
Gameplay: This is a hurry-up-and-wait web and mobile RTS game for casuals
The best thing about Shadow Kings: Dark Ages really is the way that the tutorial follows a nice themepark path that explains each of the functions of the game.
The first few tutorial quests include making the first building, upgrading the first building, recruiting some warriors, and sending them out to raid a “Shadow Camp.” Shadow camps seem to be dens of ruffians and curs, so I didn’t feel bad beating them up and taking their stuff. Of course, it also gave me gems and completed quests so there’s that.
During my review, I only made it to level 10 but the quest system did a great job of always keeping me on track, introducing me to new systems and mechanics, and making sure I didn’t miss out on the odd bits of the UI.
Following the quest system also made sure I had enough defenders that when a Shadow camp—obviously emboldened by my meddling—attacked me, I repelled them with ease.
Aside from quests designed to show you how to build up your city, gather resources, and keep it running smoothly, there’s also what seems to be a quest line called “Unknown Shadows” led by the wizard character that may lead to more interesting outcomes later in the game at higher levels.
As at higher levels upgrades start to take 30 mins to over an hour to complete, the hardcore casual part of the game really starts to assert itself. This is the sort of game you can expect to hop onto and play for five to ten minutes during a work break to make sure the town is chugging along, warriors are en route, and get reports on raids or defenses.
The game also has a form of PvP and early on players are invited to form alliances (there’s a quest for that). Alliances prove useful as the levels increase because very quickly players will be attacking other player cities and without friends they’ll start getting whittled down—and that could prove bad. As a result, the ambitious players will want to bolster their defenses, man the walls with warriors, and sally forth to raid for resources and money.
Early in the game I joined an alliance. They’ve been active enough over the past 4 days that we can actually chat (although asynchronously, I think we’ve got competing sleep schedules.)
Freemium: Microtransaction model pretty much exactly like other games of this type
Since Shadow Kings: Dark Ages is an RTS game there’s a few game currencies such as stone, wood, bread, and gold (which could be considered the freemium currencies); the premium currency of the game is Diamonds. Diamonds run in price from 1,700 for $1.99 to 130,000 for $99.99. Not to mention there’s intermittent offers that appear with every log in that can lower prices.
The early game quests do provide quite a few Diamonds, although I’d used several hundred I still had over 400 remaining by level 10. This provides a good way to show what Diamonds are good for and why you might want to spend them on the game.
Diamonds are used throughout the game in a way very similar to a lot of the hardcore casual genre: primarily to finish builds and troop recruitment instantly and to unlock buildings and gold assets. At level 10, I am out of expansions for my city, but I can buy one with 1,400 Diamonds (a perfect chance to burn that $1.99.)
It’s also possible to buy resources (wood, stone, bread, coins) from the Travelling Trader just outside town. Something that I have availed myself of several times in order to bolster my storeroom.
As for equipment, though, it seems there are definitely buildings and items that are Diamonds only. For example, the Dragon fist (14 Diamonds) is superior to the Battering ram by about +5%, 5% vs. 10%; and the Catapult (12 Diamonds) does the job of the Scaling ladder +5% better. There are some powerful incentives to buy extra Diamonds to get this type of equipment.
Diamonds do not, however, allow you to unlock buildings, fortifications, or equipment at an earlier level than when they should become available. For example, the level 37 fortification, City moat, which costs 25,900 Diamonds (valued at $30 without discounts) is still locked for my level 10 character.
Conclusion: While simplistic Shadow Kings: Dark Ages hits all the marks of a standard social-RTS
As this is a web-based Flash game, Shadow Kings: Dark Ages works very similarly to other social apps of its kind. Players who have taken themselves to Facebook social games will be very used to the format and what little learning curve there may be is entirely swept away by the excellent tutorial and quest system.
It’s possible to go free-to-play all the way through, but it’s also obvious that the company wants to tout its premium currency. Unlike other social games Goodgame Studios does not spray advertisements for buying Diamonds everywhere and it does not ask you to annoy your friends on social media. Random deals on Diamonds do pop up from time to time, but the advertising is unobtrusive and doesn’t get in your playing the game.
The only thing that this game is missing that other RTS-building games usually combine is a combat system—the strategy is entirely in preparing the city, and picking outgoing forces to take down enemy defenses. Fortunately, the game does not really need a combat system for micromanaging battles and it would likely make it harder to run on mobile or even play casually if players needed to perform battles on their own time. Instead, battles are resolved instantly (after the troops make their trip to the site, of course) with no worries from the player.
The community that exists in the game is already beginning to fill up. As SK:DA launched in August 2014 (the same month as this review) the community is still growing. Players will not find themselves alone in Shadow Kings and will find plenty of competition as well as potential friends.
Overall, it’s a cute little free-to-play title with a good balance between social-RTS mechanics, small game monetization, and social elements. This is a good game for people who are already used to the genre and it doesn’t deviate very much from what works.
Also, because the game is published as both a web app and a mobile app (Android and iOS) that means that anyone with a smartphone can enjoy this game—much easier when at work where the PC is locked down anyway.