Friday eXcursion: Crowntakers


Bulwark Studios’ Crowntakers is a strategy RPG with a hearty dose of roguelike elements thrown in. Ostensibly, the plot hinges around trying to rescue an imprisoned king who spoke to you in a dream. The king wants you to know that you are indeed the one and only super special chosen one who can free him. You’ve probably heard this song before. But story aside, Crowntakers wants to be a bit like a medieval fantasy version of FTL (Faster Than Light). High aspirations indeed!

I’m going to cut right to the chase: I like Crowntakers quite a bit. The game is very clear about what it is trying to accomplish and the experience it wants to create. It does this in a very concise package with excellent technical execution. What more can you ask for, yo? Well, I suppose you will want to know what Crowntakers is all about! Alrighty then, on with the show.

Exploring the early regions of the game - in the rain.
Exploring the early regions of the game – in the rain.

Adventure and danger awaits

In Crowntakers, you start off as the proverbial “Hero” character. Except instead of being an honorable hero, you’re more of an opportunistic scoundrel-type when it comes down to it. Your quest to free the king requires you to journey across seven procedurally generated overworld regions that encompass four different landscape types (woodland, alpine, etc.). Each of these regions contains a number of different pathways you can take as you explore and search for the exit portal to the next region. In a nod to FTL there is a timer – the strength of encounters increases with each passing day. This growing difficulty builds a nice tension between exploring every nook and cranny of a region versus moving on to the next region right away. Additional exploration might help you get stronger, but it also means the enemies will get stronger sooner. Tough choices, indeed.

As you eXplore a region there will be hostile encounters and special locations to interact with, along with a host of shopkeepers, blacksmiths, taverns, castle keeps, and so on, each affording their own opportunities or disasters. Most of the special locations offer places to rest or search for treasure, options which are tantalizing but also consume precious time, similar to what we see in BEDLAM. Taverns allow you to recruit additional heroes into your party from a nice menu. There are up to nine of these unlockable mercenaries. Additional mercenaries are unlocked by playing through the game additional times (like in Dungeon of the Endless or FTL) and accomplishing each hero’s special sidequest (usually killing some evil-doer or seeking revenge on some poor sap). As you unlock more and more heroes, they will show up in the taverns and you’ll have more choices next time as to who you want to recruit to your party, up to a maximum of four.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

This is a good moment to talk about the characters and the RPG side of the game. The RPG elements in Crowntakers are fairly light, with limited options for character development. Yet I have found that the choices you might face can have serious consequences. Each of the ten heroes (your main character plus the nine extra mercenaries you can recruit) has a unique set of abilities in terms of how they attack, defend, and what their support actions are. And when it comes to tactical combat (more on this in a moment), character selection can make a big impact on the strategies you have at your disposal. Are you heavy on ranged combat, or stealth and evasion, or armor and damage absorption? You’ll need to figure this out quickly.

Mercenary (hero) unlock menu.
Mercenary (hero) unlock menu.

Each of the ten characters has two additional unlockable variants, each with different intrinsic abilities. These variants are unlocked by accomplishing certain feats with that hero (e.g. killing a certain number of monsters). This heavily incentivizes replay, which given the difficulty, is something you’ll end up doing anyway! In many games of this ilk, these systems can feel like a forced easy mode that undermines the roguelike nature of the game. Yet I feel Crowntakers strikes a nice balance between rewarding you regularly for playing, while keeping you chasing the special achievements.

Hero stats and equipment follow the keep-it-simple design trend, but afford some tough decision making never-the-less. As heroes gain experience and level up, you’ll choose an attribute to boost (health, critical hit chance, strength, or dodge chance). How you balance or focus the development and skills for a particular hero will either be the key to victory or lead to an early demise!

Each hero also has a stock weapon, armor, and ring slot. Over the course of play, you’ll find materials that you can use at a blacksmith to upgrade your weapons and armor. These upgrades add sockets (slots) where you can install runes. Runes can be found as loot or for sale in shops and provide a wide range of abilities and perks when equipped such as life steal, armor protection, bonus health, and so on. A major part of the gameplay is finding synergies between abilities and runes for a given character and, in turn, meshing the abilities of the entire party together effectively.

A visit to the local blacksmith.
A visit to the local blacksmith.

The art and logistics of combat

When you encounter hostiles on the overworld map, you’ll often have a choice of whether to engage in a head-on fight, bribe your way past, or use a special item to avoid the encounter entirely. Inevitably you will need to fight, especially since the exit to each region is guarded by a unique boss encounter. So battle you must. Fortunately, I found the combat system to be absolutely delightful – so much so that I often engaged in risky combats precisely because they were so engaging and tense. In short, combat is fun, but not without significant risk.

Combat occurs on a separate hex-based tactical map – also procedurally generated based on the region type your character is in. Combat uses a turn-based system with a surprising similarity to Age of Wonders III. Each side moves all of its units at once, with each unit having two action points to spend moving and/or attacking. There are attacks of opportunity (moving past an opponent) and retaliation (when in guard mode), flanking attacks, backstabbing, armor penetration, overwatch, and more. There are some nifty opportunities for combo-building, as well. For example, you regain an action point when you kill an enemy unit, allowing you to string together a sequence of attacks if you position your characters in a way that lets you attack multiple adjacent enemies. There is also a nice lineup of combat potions, which can be consumed as a free action. Potions can be quite powerful letting you teleport, turn invisible, and get guaranteed critical hits. String that together for an uber-stealth-backstab frenzy!

A view of the turn-based, hex-based, agony-based, tactical combat system.
A view of the turn-based, hex-based, agony-based, tactical combat system.

Yet as tight and focused as combat in Crowntakers appears to be, there is a surprising amount of depth to be had. Your party will often start the combat dispersed and/or surrounded by the enemy, so consolidating your position and protecting support characters can be critical. As the enemies grow stronger, they will frequently come equipped with multiple points of armor, each of which absorbs one full attack. How you prioritize focus-firing and/or using armor penetration is of paramount importance later in the game. And combat can be downright nail-biting as you watch the enemies take their turn, crossing your fingers that your characters will survive to the next round.

If your main hero dies during combat, your adventure is immediately and irrevocably over. This can be a tough pill to swallow and requires that you be fairly conservative with how you use your main character. If other heroes die in combat, you can use acquired resurrection scrolls to bring them back to life once the combat is over (assuming you survive!) or recruit a replacement at the next tavern. Wounds carry over as well, which means that keeping a good stock of healing items in your inventory is important. That can be challenging, however. Your inventory is fairly small and healing supplies compete for space with potions, special artifacts, extra runes and crafting materials. You will need to make some tough choices about what you cram into your backpack and what you leave on the side of the road. Money is also incredibly tight in Crowntakers – you can easily exhaust your funds on just a small collection of healing supplies.

All of this serves to underscore the importance of smart decisions in tactical combat, both to avoid damage and to achieve a quick and decisive victory. Compared to FTL’s need for meticulous, careful timing, Crowntakers focuses more on tactical strategy. Personally, I like the Crowntakers approach more and find it more strategic.

Exploring the late game alpine region - watch out for barbarians!
Exploring the late game alpine region – watch out for barbarians!

A tale of two games

One aspect of Crowntakers that seems to draw criticism – but is something that I find works well – is the two provided difficulties. There is a “normal” mode and an “easy” mode. In normal mode, characters always start off at level zero and gain experience and stat increases over the course of a single playthrough. In “easy” mode, characters retain their experience gains across multiple playthroughs, allowing you to eventually start with and recruit higher level characters from the get-go. Easy mode also makes the tough boss fights at the end of each region optional after players beat the boss at least once on a previous playthrough.

I’ll say this: normal mode is freaking hard. I find it a welcome touch that you can play on easy mode to get a better understanding of the game and experiment with different abilities and item combinations. In easy mode, even if you fail to reach the end, you are still making forward progress and you’ll start the next run a little bit stronger. What is also nice is that easy mode becomes a way to unlock the additional heroes and their abilities. Once unlocked, characters will be available to recruit in both modes. Unlike some roguelike-like games that use semi-persistent character advancement, a normal mode run always starts you from scratch so that you always have that pure unfettered challenge. I think the system strikes a nice balance, with easy mode appealing to more casual types, and normal mode being for the hardcore roguelike players.

Overview of your progress towards the King’s castle!
Overview of your progress towards the King’s castle!

The fit and finish

Crowntakers is a solid game technically and conceptually. I think the cartoony art style is well-employed, and it tugs my nostalgia strings for a number of 16-bit era console games (Shining Force comes to mind). There is a quirky, humorous undertone to the whole game that compliments the artwork nicely, and the music and sound effects all work well together. Crowntakers is a cross-platform title, available on PC (Steam), iOS, and Android. I’ve been playing the game on my iPad and haven’t had any issues. The UI is clean and simple, and the touch interface works well. I should mention that the game is only $3 on mobile platforms, but five times that at $15 on Steam. I do not believe that currently there are any differences across the platforms to account for such a price discrepancy; it is anyone’s guess why that is.

My biggest disappointment with the game, which is minor in the grand scheme of things, is that the narrative ending is a little weak. There are a few different endings to discover, which I’m not going to spoil. But I think the conclusion for Crowntakers – and many other roguelikes besides – leaves a lot to be desired given how much perspiration you go through to get to the finish. I would’ve liked to see a bit more revealed and maybe have the endings relate to the difficulty mode in some way. The end is the same on easy versus normal mode. If you are playing mostly for the story, replaying on normal doesn’t give you any further incentive to rise to the challenge. But this isn’t really a deal breaker.

Overall, Crowntakers is a delightfully agonizing game, which is what makes it feel like it’s treading in the same ground as FTL. In both games the mechanics are simple, the choices are tough, the heat is on, winning is hard, and you will be unfairly killed despite your best efforts. Cry me a river! If you accept this as the sort of experience these games are trying to craft, then I am happy to say that Crowntakers delivers well on the promise. If you like tactical RPGs or games with roguelike elements, check it out and play on easy mode if you can’t handle the heat. The game sells for less than a latte on iOS and Android, so why wait? As for me, Crowntakers has a permanent spot on my iPad, and I don’t see that changing… like ever!

Ahhh, I love the smell of Dead End Tavern in the fall!
Ahhh, I love the smell of Dead End Tavern in the fall!

Crowntakers is available on on PC, Mac, and Linux on Steam ($15), iOS ($2.99) and Android ($2.99).

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