From out of nowhere, on a system that the bulk of the gaming public considers a joke, comes a title so unique and entertaining that it's a shame most gamers are going to miss it. Pocket Kingdom: 0wn the w0rld, a strategy/RPG from SEGA for the Nokia N-Gage, is that title. The world is Ulgress, named for its ruler, Ulgress, a rude, trash-talking, exploiting, player-killing, newbie-killing griefer, who will stop at nothing to be and stay the best. Fortunately for us, someone has taken notice of his nefarious ways, and Ulgress and some of his top competitors have just been banned from the w0rld. He's been kicked offline, and now the land is in turmoil as every left starts competing to be the new top dog.
As you start out in the world of Ulgress, you'll be the not-so-proud owner of a completely empty kingdom with a limited bank account. From these humble beginnings you must hire and train your troops, get your Lab opened and begin creating powerful and unique equipment, and get your kingdom moving in your quest to 0wn the w0rld.
Gameplay in Pocket Kingdoms has three distinct facets to it. The first aspect of gameplay you'll get acquainted with is building parties and setting their battle tactics. Once you've built a few parties, you can then send them out into the world to search for other kingdoms, and to attack those other kingdoms once you've found them.
The major shock that most players encounter at this point is that once you've formed your party and sent it out to battle, you take no direct control. The game decides the outcome of the battle based on the units, equipment, and AI settings that make up the party, and plays it out for you on your screen. This loss of control takes a bit of getting used to, but it also lends itself to a nice sort of sandbox environment where you set up your minions and let them loose to see how they react.
There's also significantly more depth to these battles than is readily apparent, with some parts of it completely undocumented. For example, based on the terrain type of the map you are fighting in (as represented by the background art), items with elemental properties will be more or less effective. There are also a wide variety of weapon types in the game, and although they all read as giving a similar bonus, each unit will be more or less effective with different weapon types. This adds a lot of replay time as you learn the subtleties of the system, but it would have been nice if some of this information were better documented.
This leads into the second major gameplay aspect, item creation. After every battle, as well as when you search for other kingdoms, your troops will discover raw materials that can be used to create equipment for them to wear. There are thousands and thousands of possible combinations, many of which are fairly predictable (see the Item Builder for examples), and a list of additional "unique" items with even more powerful bonuses that can only be found by using secret recipes (like the legendary blade, Z-Calibur). So secret that, to my knowledge, nobody has discovered them yet.
Item creation actually leads into the game's largest flaw, the item interface, which also ties into shops and unit creation. Your kingdom has a limited amount of space to store items, and because you'll be getting between three and five for every battle, you'll quickly hit the 250-item limit. In order to sell the items, you'll need to select each one individually, and confirm the sale--items don't stack, so there's just a giant list that you have to wade through whenever you need to interact with them. Having the inventory stack, as well as being able to sell entire or partial stacks, would have easily pushed the gameplay score up several points. As it is, this is the only major black mark in an otherwise excellent game.
The third, and possibly most addictive, aspect of the game is unit upgrades. Each battle units survive earns them a level, and as they hit certain level they can be given RankUp Emblems, which will turn them into a new, more powerful unit. There are only nine units you can hire (and only two in the beginning), but over 100 different units possible--including a number of unique units that serve as bosses in the single-player titles (like the ninja Genzoh, who looks like he fell out of Shinobi).
Combining these troops and emblems to create new ones, in the attempt to build the perfect army, is incredibly compelling and a sure way to lose several hours of time. The downside that you'll run into here is that, each time you want to rank up a unit, you'll need to first go into the party screen and remove it from its party, then go back to the lab, and rank it up, then return to the party and add it again. Like the item interface, some refinements here could have made the game even better.
Because the game is portable, just about everything can be done in extremely small play sessions--it only takes a minute to get into the game and into a battle, so you can make some real progress in 10-15. The game can even be left running in the background on the N-Gage (yes, it can multi-task), if you need to make a call or check your calendar. These small gaming sessions are great for things like waiting for a movie to start--though it can be hard to put down.
The game also has a fairly lengthy, single-player storyline, through over 40 different maps, which will provide many, many hours of gameplay. Each area in the game has a history that your Fabbis (ingame assistant/tutor) will tell you, and as you progress through the game you'll slowly learn about the different races (like the reaver Dark Elves). There's even some questing present, though some of it is definitely poking fun at the standard FedExquests you find in most RPGs.
All of the above alone would be fun, and in fact has been the basis of many console strategy RPGs in the past. What Pocket Kingdom does above and beyond this is to take the action online. Once you've finished the third map, you can optionally take your kingdom online and do battle with other players in the same world. The single-player storyline will continue both online and off, as will your kingdom's progress, but you'll find battling other players to be significantly more challenging (and entertaining) than the NPC kingdoms.
The art in Pocket Kingdom is entirely sprite-based, in a classic style reminiscent of the 16-bit era. During the sneak peek, a number of comparisons to the art of the Shining Force series were heard, and that is an excellent compliment. All the art is crisp and clean, the unit graphics are large and well animated, and the interface art is clean and easily readable. The sprite-based art is also exceptionally well suited for the N-Gage screen, as the backlighting and crisp resolution make everything appear vibrant.
The different units are by far the best part of the art though, as each race has its own unique set of sprites. In the end, there's somewhere over 50 races, many of them unique, and all at the same high quality. The only downside to the graphics is a minor gripe--within any given race with multiple units, like many sprite-based games, PK uses the same art in different colors. Some of the color differences between different units are very subtle and can be difficult to discern unless you look closely (for example, the Soldier and Warrior, an early unit upgrade).
While the graphics are close to perfect, the sound doesn't fare so well. It's not that the music isn't good, because it is. But although it's high quality, the tracks are very short and get very repetitive, very quickly. The sound effects don't have the same issue, as they are well varied and perfectly suited to the art style.
Unfortunately, being that this is a game for a mobile phone, I ended up turning off the volume completely shortly after I started playing--you'd be surprised how many looks you get when your phone is emitting sword clashes, explosions, and little shouts in public. As adjusting the volume required going into a menu and moving a slider, it would have been nice if one of the other buttons on the N-Gage would have been used as a quick mute function for the game--if I had been able to toggle the sound off and on I would have used it more, at least in private.
For entertainment, you cannot go wrong with Pocket Kingdom. On sheer addictiveness alone, PK deserves the title of MMOG, and it's full of the "just one more" gameplay elements that make it incredibly hard to put down. While participating in the sneak peek, I found myself playing PK while at a party, sneaking in some time while I was working, and even playing it at home to the exclusion of other titles I had around (GTA:San Andreas, for one).
Although the battles involve no interaction on the player's part, they serve as quick breaks in the mental work of planning your next move, and some of the taunts your units throw down are downright hilarious. There's just something endlessly entertaining about a giant demon that speaketh in ye olde englishe going up against a mage that is just fightin' for tha homies.
Despite the interface problems, there is one thing that can't be changed about the game - it's a lot of fun. Though some parts can be frustrating, the game is a joy to play, as addictive as Bejeweled, and completely portable to boot. If you have a bus or train ride, or any time span with nothing to do, Pocket Kingdom is a great way to fill it 30 seconds at a time.
In Pocket Kingdom, the N-Gage has found its "killer app" and earned its self-claimed title of "gaming platform." Had titles of this caliber been available at system launch, and continued to flow, there would be no shame in admitting you owned one...if you have considered picking up an N-Gage for even a second, this is your excuse.
Perhaps the most compelling thing about Pocket Kingdom is that not only am I having fun playing it, I'm also thinking of what I'd like to see in the sequel. And this game deserves one. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a kingdom in my pocket and I need to go pwn some n00bz.
Pro: Deceptively deep strategy RPG.
Con: The menu/inventory system is atrocious.
Pro: Glorious, sprite-based nostalgia.
Con: Sometimes difficult to discern different units.
Pro: Catchy, well-done soundtrack.
Con: Audio tracks get very repetitive very quickly.
Pro: Just one more battle, I swear!
Con: No really, just one more, I'll be done in a second!