January 28, 2009

Time Well Wasted with Keflings

Review

Every medium has its share of fluff. Supermarket romance novels, popcorn movies, and reality TV all strike a chord for those in search of some empty calories. A Kingdom for Keflings represents video game fluff - it's an addictive, engaging experience, but unlike development sims such as Harvest Moon, Viva PiƱata, or Sim City it lacks challenge, variety, or consequences. It's a sim without the simulation.

The goal of A Kingdom for Keflings is to build a castle. It seems simple, but getting there involves a pyramid scheme of development and resource gathering. Imagine the build phase of a real-time strategy game, minus the battle that typically follows. Natural resources are gathered, houses and workshops are built, and then those structures produce more valuable resources. Trees become wood, wood becomes planks, planks become carved wood, and ultimately the most advanced resources are used to build your castle.


All along the way you're aided by an increasing number of keflings, small pilgrims who produce and transport resources at your whim. They have no needs, and one kefling could potentially perform the same task for the entirety of your 7-10 hour trek. Set them up correctly, and you can leave them to play the game for you.

The ability to automate each task combined with a lack of consequence for your actions gives Keflings an unprecedented casual vibe. Developer Ninja Bee even minimized the sound effects, encouraging the use of the Xbox 360's oft-forgotten custom soundtrack feature.

The integration of Microsoft technology doesn't stop there; A Kingdom for Keflings is one of the first titles to support Xbox Live Avatars as player characters. It doesn't change the gameplay at all, but stomping around a colonial village as a fifty-foot-tall black man is a hilariously anachronistic experience.


Unfortunately these features come at a price, as the game suffers from crippling framerate issues. It's odd, because there isn't a whole lot going on graphically. But wait until the snow rolls in, and you'll be treated to a slide show reminiscent of gaming in 1996.

Tech issues aside, the real criticism weighed against A Kingdom for Keflings is a lack of substance. With a new structure to build at every turn, the game maintains a steady stream of linear goals. There's an ever-present sense of progress, but it's an immediate and fleeting sensation. By the end you'll be asking yourself, "What have I done?" as your reward is little more than a polygonal representation of how much time you've wasted. There's no dramatic reveal, no shocking twist, and no insight into their world or ours, but it's fun while it lasts.

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