This year's summer blockbuster games have nothing to do with metal gears, master swords, or anything familiar for that matter. Instead, a number of brand-new IPs have made 2009's hottest months their own. The Conduit, inFAMOUS, and other fresh faces have led the charge. Allow me to introduce Little King's Story, a kingdom-building simulation from Harvest Moon creators Yasuhiro Wada, Yoshira Kimura, and a team of industry greats. Don't let the game's cutesy trappings fool you -- LKS is a love letter to the oft-neglected hardcore Wii crowd. Read on to find out why a seemingly childish product is among the best RTS offerings of the year and a thoroughly rewarding experience for mature players.
You control a young boy who one day stumbles into another world and finds himself proclaimed king by an eccentric knight. You're granted the freedom to explore and customize your kingdom from the get-go, which allows for plenty of immersion. The story is weak when compared to the gameplay, but the dialogue certainly isn't. In fact, it's consistently hilarious, and why my score for the story isn't down in the dumps. I didn't expect so much wit, charm and widely accessible humor to be present, but it is. The ongoing subtle sarcasm and multitude of sly references make for some of the best writing I've seen in a video game this year. If you're skeptical, thumbing through the villagers' suggestion box would likely change your mind.
To further the plot and expand your empire, certain requirements must be met, although your hand is never forced. The gameplay structure may seem oversimplified thanks to two basic core steps (conquer new lands, build upon them), but there are a ton of features underneath them. The whole idea is to bring the entire known world under your prosperous reign, as would be expected in the RTS genre.
Your holdings are increased via combat, exploration, and the amassment of gold necessary to fund the construction and activities that take place. This is where gamers may think they're playing Pikmin. As king, the option to pull any citizen under your command is there with a mere button press. From there on, it's a matter of picking the right underlings for vacant jobs, or training them to become the type of loyal grunt you need. Soldiers excel at fighting; farmers dig holes, carpenters build structures, and so forth. There are many other tasks, but I won't spoil them.
Continuing this user-friendly trend, Little King's Story allows you to change a citizen's class by simply ushering him/her into the appropriate guild for retraining. Certain facilities require a small fee per trainee, but the most basic -- and most important -- transitions are handled for free. Specific class types are sometimes mandatory to complete various quests, and oftentimes choosing the right people can lessen the stress of progress, so you want to keep tabs on your party members. Speaking of which, the number of characters you can command at one time increases over the course of the game, increasing the flexibility of possible play styles.
Without a doubt, Little King's Story is a satisfying play, yet it's hindered by somewhat unintuitive controls. You choose your citizens' formation (attack, defense, or evasion) and throw them forward to do battle, cut down trees, dig holes, etc. The issue pertains to the need for a perfect trajectory, otherwise your members run clear past intended targets. A broken line helps align your throws, but this mechanic proves problematic in the heat of battle, and mildly irritating even in laid-back areas. Considering the similarities with Pikmin, the LKS development team would have been wise to implement a cursor system. Hopefully we'll see something similarly attractive in a potential sequel.
From an audio-visual standpoint, Little King's Story hits and misses. The art style is charming, and the overall look is subdued and pleasant, but the aesthetics are too soft. Brightness can be adjusted, and I recommend turning it down a bit. The bright palette combined with the soft, washed-out filter can be a bit much. Sharper textures and a harder image would really take the visuals to the next level. Comparably, the music suits the experience, but why is there so much public domain material in place of original tunes? It works, but it's disappointing considering the talent brought onboard for the project. The rest of the design is solid, barring some annoying sound effects. A good chunk of voice work is injected into the cut scenes...and the characters speak cute, garbled dialogue in-game.
The aforementioned shortcomings do little to stand in the way of a rewarding experience for Wii owners. The game is lengthy and satisfying, with tons of quests, bosses, and room to grow your kingdom. There's nothing quite like squeezing tax money out of your citizens or watching your creation change throughout the adventure (dirt paths turn to cobblestone streets, for instance). There are plenty of nice touches that supplement the solid, enjoyable gameplay, like a message skip option and hand-drawn cut scenes. Hours of fun await anyone willing to take the plunge, young or old. I've outlined a few areas for improvement, but mark my words when I say Little King's Story is one of Wii's very best.