When I first wrote about Little King's Story back in May, I praised the game effusively, but expressed concern that it might be overlooked when it arrived here in the States. While the jury is still out on sales figures (50,000 units worldwide so far, I'm told), I needn't have worried about the critical response.
LKS currently ranks 10th on Metacritic's "all-time high scores" for the Wii, and reviewers far and wide have sung its praises. Gamasutra has a fascinating interview with the game's director, Yoshiro Kimura; Siliconera reports a sequel may be in the works; and I'm selling copies of the game door-to-door in my neighborhood. So I'm delighted to report that LKS is getting the love it deserves, if not the cash, and no I'm not actually selling the game door-to-door.
The most common complaint you will hear about Little King's Story has nothing to do with the game itself. The game's biggest problem, and the reason it will be overlooked by most gamers, is that it looks like a cutesy kids' game. Its marketing would seem to confirm this impression: a colorful 2-page spread in Nintendo Power (but nothing in, say, Edge Magazine); a flash-based children's book-style website (with background audio of cheering kids); and the game's cartoonish box art - all apparently go out of their way to discourage so-called serious gamers from taking the LKS plunge.
What's more, the game's opening sequence (preceded by a Wii menu screen puppet show animation) conveys the unmistakable sense that we're being placed on a storyteller's knee to hear a once-upon-a-time tale about a timid little boy in a far away land who becomes a king. The farm animals and hyper-melodious narrator seal the deal: this is a game for kids.
But what if all this is part of the point? What if, instead of being fatally saddled with a 'kiddie' presentation and art style, Little King's Story was deliberately designed in just this way to enhance, not diminish, its quietly subversive content? What if, instead of lambasting the game's art style as yet another dose of cutesy Japanese anime, we examine the in-game character designs and flowing watercolor visuals inspired, it turns out, by Russian paintings? In other words, what if they did it this way on purpose?
If you have two normal people standing there, and one of them says 'I KILL YOU!' and stabs the other one, that's just sad. But if you have two little anime-cartoon cute guys, and one of them says [high-pitched voice] 'I KILL YOU!' and stabs the other one, it's serious, but it's really funny. It's the opposite of real people in games doing corny, goofy things... we have little goofy guys doing very serious things.
Yoshiro Kimura, producer/director of Little King's Story
Little King's Story doesn't contain a complex narrative with 3-dimensional characters. The game doesn't require such baggage because it functions as a fairy tale in the purest folkloric sense of the term. Each of the rulers your diminutive king must confront represents a different take on society and its priorities. The citizens in these countries suffer from the same blindness as their kings because they've mindlessly accepted these despots' self-indulgent delusions. Find happiness by being attractive; find it by partying; by endlessly consuming. Find happiness by defeating foes you deem inferior, take their land...and justify it by claiming you're "unifying the world." In its own charming little way, this game takes no prisoners.
Little King's Story sneaks up on you because it masquerades as a frolicking, accessible RTS. And as we all know, the minions you command in such games are disposable peons that can be easily replaced. But in LKS, these characters have names. They have families you helped create by pairing them up and directing them to be married in a church. When one dies in battle, he or she will wash up resuscitated on shore the next day, ready for reassignment. Usually. But not always.
One of the more startling moments I've experienced in a video game occurred when I emerged from my castle ready for a new day and discovered all the construction workers in my town dressed in black suits and dresses, mourning the loss of a departed friend. I was told the funeral would be held in the church, and when I arrived there I found a handful of people and a single child standing alone. Her father was her only parent. He died because I was careless with him the day before. Suddenly the cutesy angle took a sharp turn.
Little King's Story is full of dark sardonic humor that's funnier and darker in its fairy-tale setting. The other kings (essentially bosses) are at once goofy, eccentric, and oddly pathetic. Realistically rendered, I doubt they would have such appeal. The game also assumes you have a brain in your head. You'll catch references to Cervantes, for example, and when you reflect on them later realize they function as more than superfluous cultural name-dropping. They reflect on themes the game mines for meaning: coexistence, responsibility, the middle way.
Beyond its breezy accessible appeal, LKS trusts you to construct meaning in a non-linear self-directed fashion. If you choose to embrace the residents of your country by learning their names and protecting them, you will likely modify your gameplay strategies, and LKS will reward you for doing so. If you wish to explore the rich allegory that underpins the game's narrative, you will find it worth the effort. But you don't have to. You can play LKS as a straight-up RTS/RPG/Sim game, and if you crank up the difficulty (user-adjustable at any time), this game will knock you down hard. Many times.
Little King's Story will suffer at the cash register for its child-like aesthetic and presentation. It will suffer as a mash-up of genres that, while offering unique and refreshing gameplay, also ensures it has no built-in gamer base. And LKS will suffer because it's an unfamiliar 3rd-party Wii game that looks and plays nothing whatsoever like a Nintendo game.
I'm tempted to say that's a shame, but I won't. I have a feeling its gifted developers knew exactly what they were doing and decided to do it anyway. And that's a big reason why Little King's Story is the best Wii game this year.