Long Live the Lion King
Armello wants to be a board game so badly it’s a wonder there isn’t an option to flip the board when things start going awry. Initially releasing in 2015, it’s now gone through the classic pilgrimage of underrated games everywhere and achieved a Switch port.
It feels like Armello has missed a trick on its latest platform. For a turn-based game, the lack of local multiplayer is a huge misstep, especially on the multiplayer console. I am not a games developer and have no idea how to go about these things, but… that’s the whole point of board games, isn’t it? Playing with people in the same room? Kingdom Battle, while a much bigger project admittedly, managed to do turn-based role-playing on the Switch, and it was brilliant. If the Rabbids can manage it, I’m sure this band of battling beasts can. Board games are the original local multiplayer.
Choose from a number of adorable yet hard looking animals
Armello centres around the death of a lion king, but thankfully it’s not the death of the Lion King. We couldn’t go through that again, with the stampede and the falling and the crying… The king of Armello is on his last legs. He has The Rot, a plague that weakens him and makes him do mad stuff that makes no sense to anyone. Presumably a sequel is coming where he declares Armello is cutting all ties with its main trade partners. Anyway, you can choose from a number of adorable yet quite hard-looking anthropomorphic animals in a quest to be the next king of Armello. You can achieve this a number of ways: straight-up fighting him, being the most prestigious animal around when he finally dies of natural causes, collecting spirit stones or getting the plague worse than him and then fighting him. To be honest, the last one doesn’t really make much sense; it feels a bit like the development team were set on having four ways to win and just fudged the last one in.
Armello itself is a fairly small playing space, consisting of various hexagonal tiles that have different properties. Swamp tiles will reduce your health, while healing stone tiles will restore it. There’s dungeons to explore for items, villages to rule which produce cash, mountains that take more effort to cross, and forests to hide in. These randomise every game, to add to that sought-after replayability. You can also unlock extra items as you complete milestones to freshen up future games that vary your hero’s abilities.
If you encounter another hopeful king, one of the current king’s guards, or the Bane creatures which pop up around the map, you can have a scrap. This triggers a separate screen, in which dice are rolled to determine attacks, blocks and perks per warrior. The number of die you have can vary, depending on your fight stats, your warrior’s buffs and even whether it’s day or night, so timing your attacks is important.
The prologue is dull and hand-holding
A prologue teaches you the basics of the gameplay, which is thorough if dull and hand-holding. Such is Armello’s dedication to being a board game that one campaign usually lasts around about an hour, rather than the similar experience Civilation’s sprawling playtime, and there’s no overarching story beyond each campaign; you play, you hopefully become the next king, and then you can head back to the menu and start again, albeit probably with new items and hopefully with new perspectives on how to win. Due to their different attributes, each hero animal is attuned to a different way to win. If you’re seeking a combat victory, for example, the two wolf characters Thane and River have the best stats for fighting. Sana, a bear that looks a bit like the mum in Brave (spoilers), is a master of the spirit stones and will prove best for achieving that victory. The range is fairly standard archetypes for videogames, but nevertheless with eight to choose from you’ll quickly hone in on who will suit your playing style best. Characters abilities seem suited to their characters, or what little of their character you’re shown from their basic appearance. With eight characters and a short, almost minimal story there’s not much chance to get familiar with them. They’re a little heavy on animal stereotypes, too; the wolf is brave, the rat is sneaky, the man bear is angry but the female bear is a mother-figure… This isn’t the start of a hashtag-backed twitter campaign for more diverse roles for animals in videogames, it’d just be nice to be surprised for once, y’know? Either way, the character sprites looks great; all chunky, comic-book proportions, although they’re sadly voiced infrequently. Only the king gets any spoken dialogue, and he’s on his way out from the beginning.
…there’s an enormous scope for tactical play
While it takes a while to grasp all the mechanics at play (I had to look up a few things to refresh my memory even after the plodding prologue), there’s an enormous scope for tactical play and trying different characters to see which has the best abilities for your play style. While I found myself favouring the combat victory in most attempts, the variance in style to triumph in the other possible ways makes the game feel fresh and quite different when you change things up.
As far as the performance on its newest console, Armello is adequate. It stutters occasionally when the camera pans quickly across the landscape or loading in a new world, but when time isn’t of the essence it doesn’t affect your playing of the game at least. Things look cramped in handheld mode and a lot of the detail in the environment is lost, but it’s not enough to make it difficult to play. The menus are often worryingly unresponsive, though, particularly on the front-end. There’s no indication the game is doing anything behind the scenes most of the time, so your left waiting for it to register your confirmatory presses and wondering if your console has frozen or not.
The game does a decent job of keeping you up to date with what’s going on during the actual playable segments, however, via the update window at the bottom-centre of the screen. You’re allowed a hand of cards which vary in number based on your ‘wit’ stats, consisting of items, spells and traps, and in a nice twist these have double usage; not only can you play them against enemies during your regular turn, equip them or boost yourself with them, but you can also burn them in a battle to guarantee certain die roll outcomes, at the expense of whatever ability they contained.