Dark Side: Plot

First and foremost: I haven't made a post focused on the narrative elements of prior King's Bounty games because there honestly wasn't a lot to discuss. The Legend kind of has a sense of an unfolding plot, but this is partly illusory: it's easy to interpret the plot in certain ways that make events seem like an actual arc if you're only half-paying attention. Even what plot progression The Legend has is pretty minor. It's perfectly functional for what the game is, and The Legend is witty and entertaining in its dialogue and whatnot, but the core 'story' is little more than a vehicle for getting you to go to the next interesting area.

Armored Princess is even thinner, spending a decent chunk of time on setting up the basic framework of the game and then booting you out into the world with little progression until you hit the end of the game and there you go everything is suddenly resolved. Again, it works for what the game is doing, but the plot doesn't provide much to talk about.

Warriors of the North makes more of an effort to have a plot that develops, with it actively intruding on gameplay in a way the prior plots did not, but it's not terribly interesting, and most of what I'd have to say about it is complaining. Stuff like the player character failing to recognize that the villain is a terrible person who cannot be trusted even though it's really obvious.  Ice and Fire's story with the Snow Elves and Lizardmen is more interesting, but suffers from the fact that it's a side story added into DLC, limiting its influence on your experience.

Dark Side, by contrast, has a significant focus on its story, and the extent to which it fades into the background as you progress seems driven more by Dark Side's omnipresent incomplete state than any deliberate decision to reduce focus on the plot.

It also deserves discussion because Dark Side doesn't seem to be very clear on what it's meant to be.

I'll come back to that in a second.

The Legend's narrative is fairly straightforward in purpose: it's a scaffold for the gameplay. The position of Treasure Searcher exists to justify the particular combination of freedom and guidance you get: on the one hand, you get missions directly from the king, which act as your Primary Plot Advancing Quests, but on the other hand the Treasure Searcher is free to explore and engage in sidequests. Furthermore, your odd position lets the game sidestep some of the usual implications of being a direct agent of the government: how you choose to handle various situations is not presented as any kind of official government position, letting the game give you the freedom to resolve various sidequests in multiple possible ways without this coming with an attached undertone of loyalty vs disloyalty. Additionally, being a leadership figure acting with the crown's writ is a fairly handy justification for you being able to field an actual army without, for example, provoking your own government into thinking you're a potential rebel.

In turn, the main Quests primarily serve to justify dragging the player across the whole of Endoria, allowing the game to have concepts like 'unit types tend to be found in specific regions' without this creating problematic hoops to jump through on the developer's part. (That is, they don't need to invent some Foreign Hire-able Elves so you can hire Elves) Any purely narrative functionality they may or may not have is secondary to the point.

Armored Princess is similarly straightforward, though a bit less perfectly handled. It fails to provide an adequate explanation for Amelie fielding armies without this raising a reaction from the rest of the world, tending to comport itself more as if Amelie is a traditional RPG hero running around stabbing people herself, for example. But overall the plot serves the purpose of justifying the gameplay: you need the stones to open a portal to fight Astaroth, the stones are spread across the world, so the main plot conveniently justifies you traveling the whole of the world. Since Amelie doesn't know where all the stones are, the game even has the freedom to have islands that don't have a stone at all without this coming across a bit strangely. Similarly, Amelie's position as some prophesied destined hero provides a handy justification for her getting some immediate trust and support from the locals.

Warriors of the North takes the Armored Princess more-like-a-traditional-RPG-hero thing and extends it further: Warriors of the North largely glosses over the whole 'fighting with armies' mechanic, and the story being told is the kind of personal Hero's Journey story common to hack-and-slash RPGs. Our hero finds himself in a time when trouble is on the rise (The Undead wandering the land in unprecedented numbers), goes forth to investigate the source of these troubles, righting myriad wrongs that grow out of it during his travels, and ultimately finds and strikes down the key villain promulgating these problems. It has a bit of a twist on this story in that you spend a bit working for the bad guy without the player character recognizing this fact, and when he inevitably betrays you this leads to a journey to gather allies for a final assault on his stronghold, but overall it's a fairly straightforward story.

And so long as you ignore how it largely glosses over the army-fighting mechanic, the narrative also does a pretty good job of justifying the gameplay: you're a free agent, able to go where you like and do as you will, with the main plot defined by the primary threat and specific objectives given to you first by wise men and then later by literal agents of the gods so you're never left without specific direction. You're free to take or ignore sidequests as you please and handle them however you think is most appropriate, and the main plot drags you across much of Endoria. Notably, every land except the Ice Gardens (Which is DLC-exclusive) and the Isles of Freedom (Which is wholly optional to even discover Sea Charts to) is a location the main plot drags you to, which provides implicit justification for any future King's Bounty game set in Endoria to add on new lands if it likes; why wasn't Olaf given the option of finding these new lands this later game invented? Because it wasn't relevant to his story, that's why.

So that's all fairly straightforward and clear.

For Dark Side, though...

Well.

The advertising for Dark Side is pretty straightforward: have fun playing the bad guys!

And to some extent Dark Side is handled that way. Daert really doesn't have any redeeming value, morally. Many of the allies you gather are terrible people. There's a decent number of moments where your character kills, enslaves, or otherwise does deeply unpleasant things to people who haven't done anything to earn such, often while your character delights in the evil they're sowing.

But in a lot of ways Dark Side comports itself as more a Light Is Not Good, Dark Is Not Evil sort of story. The holy inquisitors attacking Atrixus delight in murdering babies and torturing young women. (Whose only crime we ever learn of is happening to be demonic) The Elves of the world are basically all terrible people who attacked and tried to wipe out the Orcs because of racism, the Orcs having done nothing to deserve this. Some of your Dark allies are actually pretty decent people, and I don't just mean the ones you trick into serving the bad guys. And of course there's the thing with Bagyr's Companions mostly coming to realize he's not actually a bad person.

These two angles aren't precisely mutually exclusive, but they're certainly dissonant, and Dark Side doesn't seem to have a deeper purpose behind them. The ending of the game could be taken as a suggestion that the developers are of the view that Light and Dark is a pretty arbitrary distinction, that there are horrible people and noble people everywhere you go among all peoples, which would somewhat reconcile the two angles together, but the ending is also this weird joke ending so it's hard to tell how seriously we're meant to take this potentially-serious element of it.

Plus, if that is the intention, the story still runs into the issue that nobody is particularly consistent in this regard. No matter which character you pick, at the end of the game the other two will attack you because they want to be the one to defeat the forces of Light, personally, never mind that this is only really in-character for Daert. Whoever you play bounces back and forth between being appalled by the terrible things the forces of Light do and delighting in doing terrible things themselves, with no self-awareness and no hint of irony. And within individual plot threads, this dissonance tends to recur, such as how the game has multiple Racism Is Bad beats attached to the Elves in particular and never really gives us a good Elf, thus suggesting that Racism Is Bad Except When You're Being Racist To Elves Then It's Justified. (The closest to an exception is that there's an Elven queen who we never specifically learn anything to indicate they're a terrible person, and the plot is sympathetic to them being lonely and whatnot) Even Dendra turns out to be Yet Another Evil Elf!

This is one thing where I have to wonder whether it's a consequence of the game's incomplete state or if it goes deeper than that. Would these narrative problems have been present if the developers had polished the game properly? Or are they just a consequence of Dark Side being rather like a first draft, the creators getting down the basics of their thoughts with the intention to come back later and make it work properly only someone came along and published the first draft as-is?

It's too bad this particular development team didn't get to make another King's Bounty game. I'd have liked to see what they would've done.

In any event, part of the point of the above is that these elements of Dark Side's design clearly aren't gameplay-driven. In fact, Dark Side seems to take the gameplay framework for granted, having constructed its plot separately from any question of intersecting with the gameplay. Some of the oddities are sort of understandable, arguably even inevitable; for example, whichever character you pick is the one who is selected to go forth into the wider world and fight for Darkness' sake, while the other two hang out in the Spirit of Darkness' castle for the rest of the game. Sure, fine, even if it's a bit disappointing that they don't do anything in mechanical terms.

But otherwise... well, Dark Side reiterates the issue that the army-based gameplay isn't properly justified by the narrative, but it makes it even worse. The forces of Darkness have been beaten back, horrifically slaughtered and enslaved, but you're able to raise increasingly large armies of Dark troops as you advance through the game. There's elements of justification to this, as it is broadly the case that you are supposed to be building up your technology and recruiting allies and so on... and in fact this works fine when it comes to enabling access to Dark versions of Light races. (eg Traitor Humans) But increasing your access to core Dark forces purchasable at the Shelter is just strange. Why does donating hard-working Human/Elven/Dwarven/etc Prisoners to your military department lead to increasingly large numbers of Orc, Demon, and Undead soldiers lying around, waiting for you to purchase them? Like, sure, the Undead could easily be slaughtered prisoners, and the mechanic of converting Prisoners to Demons could be used to justify that too... but Orcs? How's that supposed to work, particularly given the Orc lands have had their populations decimated such that freeing the survivors really shouldn't provide you with all that many troops?

Similarly, the Sea Chart/islands-based gameplay is inherited, but Dark Side's narrative justifications for going to these various islands is... shaky. If you're not paying attention, it's easy to think that freeing Dark lands and conquering Light lands is a primary objective, but in actuality these are mostly optional. You absolutely have to conquer Insulberg, but that's because Queen Elsa is one of the components of the Weapon of Vengeance and won't turn herself over until you've fully conquered Insulberg. The nine characters necessary for the Weapon of Vengeance are the only essentials to completing the game, and most of them are actually basically off to the side of conquering/freeing the realms. There's some mechanical incentives for conquest -access to new troop types primarily, but disposing of a king also makes progress on the Ruler of Fate Medal- but... overall the connection between the narrative and gameplay is tenuous in this regard. Narratively, it really ought to be plot-important to at least free all the Dark lands, but mechanically? Nah.

So like I said: Dark Side doesn't seem to know what it's trying to be, narratively. Not in a 'pure' narrative sense, and not in a 'narrative as connected to gameplay' sense.

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Next time, we resume a more normal schedule by talking about Dark Side's Bosses.

Well.

Its Boss. Singular.

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