Review: KINGDOM of the DEAD

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How hard must it be to make your first-person shooter stand out in 2022? Sometimes it seems like every concept under the sun has been covered, with every possible aesthetic and system thoroughly explored. Yet, somehow we still get games like Kingdom of the Dead, that manage to carve out a unique look and feel from the vast fields of shooters. Dark, pulpy, funny, and grim, it strikes a singular balance that you really won’t find anywhere else. I certainly can’t say this one breaks new ground in terms of gameplay, but there’s plenty of spooky action and neat twists in the missions you’ll undertake to rid the world of the walking dead.

The dead are restless, and have designs on the late 19th century United States. A professor-turned-general named Chamberlain is tasked with stopping them, being a member of a clandestine paranormal enforcement agency and also the possessor of a demonic sword. Man, sword, and horse have a big job ahead of them, closing gateways to the great beyond that have sprung open all over the eastern seaboard. This grim adventure will take you to crypts and skyscrapers, ships and trains, wilderness and battlefields, all populated by the walking dead and their monstrous retinue. An assortment of time-period-appropriate firearms will let you cut a swath through the shambling hordes, eventually earning you a confrontation with the force behind this onslaught of death.

Easily the most striking thing about Kingdom of the Dead is its appearance, and it’s an important factor in enjoying this game. Unlike the vast majority of 3D shooters, this one is almost entirely monochromatic, with figures textured in the bold lines and cross-hatching of classic pulp comics. Item pickups come in colors, to helpfully highlight them against the dark environs, but the rest of the game is stark whites and blacks, and can admittedly be hard on the eyes, despite the impressive aesthetic. Fortunately, there’s an entire menu of palettes you can swap to at any time to give the game a more palatable appearance for you. I certainly experimented with the many colors and tones, but eventually settled on a more gentle rendition of the original black and white.

However you choose to perceive it, this is a first-person shooter from a more reserved school of thought. Your boy Chamberlain moves at a decent clip, but combat is paced to be very deliberate here, with a single headshot doing the work of a dozen bodyshots and larger creatures falling most reliably to concentrated fire. Nothing in your arsenal fires particularly quickly, not even the Gatling gun, nor do enemies swarm you with any great haste. However, losing track of foes to flank or snipe you is a leading cause of death in the war against Death, so carefully winnowing enemy ranks is the way to go. There aren’t too many enemy types in the game, but the individual levels do a decent job of varying the challenge by offering your weapon pickups in different orders and presenting wildly different environments in which to wield them.

That was a distinct highlight for me, the variety found in the levels. Each of the nine missions in the game are set in unique locales, from manors to ocean liners to battlefields. Some of my favorites included the train, which speeds along the countryside and offers a number of interesting encounters despite the linear layout, and the skyscraper, which involved some rather Thief-esque scampering across rooftops. A few of the setpieces are truly remarkable, including one on the ship that I won’t spoil. Each level has a boss with its own unique look and mechanics, though none of them presented too much of a challenge. On higher difficulties, you’ll also need to complete secondary objectives (always finding some extra item) or rescue trapped humans. It’s not a very challenging game on any level, and part of that is owed to the simple combat and enemy behaviors. Don’t expect any wild shootouts or ridiculous gibs, because this one is a very straight-forward trek.

The star attraction here is certainly the tone and atmosphere, encapsulated by the wry dialogues you get with your sword and the demonic commanders you have to dispatch. Kingdom of the Dead is firmly rooted in pulp horror, complete with insane synth soundtrack and dark twist waiting for you at the end. The aesthetic and unique levels do so much to keep you coming back, wondering what else might be lurking in the shadows or where this whole grim journey will be leading. It won’t take you much more than three hours to find out, since the combat won’t be holding you back in any part. But again, even now you don’t really get many first-person shooters like this, and it’s a worthy experience to see what can be done with such a singular look and feel.

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