By Marty Mulrooney
Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit is a point-and-click adventure game developed by Lithuanian independent game studio Tag of Joy. Inspired by heavyweights of the genre such as Broken Sword, players take control of Milda – a girl from Chicago – as she unravels a mystery that will see her packing her bags and journeying through modern-day Europe ‘to reveal the secrets of the King who was never crowned.’
Innovating within the adventure genre is a somewhat tricky business, as one of the things that many fans enjoy is playing something unmistakeably ‘traditional’, albeit with a modern lick of paint. Crowns and Pawns ticks this requirement box with style, featuring beautiful 2D hand-painted backgrounds projected onto a 3D world. These backgrounds are then blended with 3D characters, with the end result being very similar in style to Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse (an obvious inspiration – it should come as no surprise that this game is led by the art director of the fan-made adventure Broken Sword 2.5).
Further innovation can be found as soon as the game begins. Milda starts her adventure by creating an avatar in a video game she’s playing, followed by a text message exchange with her best friend where she answers a few personal questions. This is a really clever way of including a basic character creator – my version of Milda ended up having her hair tied back with a sleeve tattoo running up one arm. She also revealed that she is a programmer: one of three potential career paths that subtly alter some of the puzzles. You can also change Milda’s clothes at certain points, which adds an air of realism and an element of customisation to the proceedings.
What follows this initial tinkering is far more traditional, for better or worse. Crowns and Pawns uses a classic point-and-click interface, with puzzles that must be solved using a variety of inventory items. Milda also has a phone that she can use to make calls, send texts and take notes. Hotspots can be highlighted with the click of a button, but the lack of a hint system is a disappointing omission as some of the puzzles are a bit fiddly and obscure. Thankfully, I only needed to resort to an online walkthrough a handful of times, and I was usually on the right track.
Difficulty spikes aside, the story is a really good one. Early on, Milda receives the sad news that her grandfather, Rokas Kovas, has died. He has left his house to Milda, but there is a catch: she must travel to Lithuania within three weeks to claim it. Solid voice acting – and great chemistry between the voice actors responsible for bringing Milda and her best friend Dana to life – quickly invest the player in the immediate task at hand. After packing a suitcase – another moment of customisation unique to each player – Milda jumps on a plane and travels from Chicago to Lithuania.
Soon after arriving at her grandfather’s house, Milda discovers it has been ransacked. But what were the would-be thieves looking for? Answering this question lights the fuse on a globetrotting adventure that will require Milda to delve into her mysterious family history, outsmart a villainous branch of the KGB and hunt down a priceless Lithuanian artefact. Travelling from Lithuania to Belarus and Italy (and back again), Milda must converse with a variety of interesting characters, solve countless quirky puzzles and ultimately decide what matters to her most.
Despite its relaxing tone, the story moves along at a brisk pace – some might say too brisk, as the end credits can be reached in about 12 hours. It would probably all be over quicker than this too, but a few sequences – a hockey puzzle that involves musical notes, a scooter chase that isn’t particularly well-suited to pointing and clicking – serve to slow things down. However, for every moment of frustration, there is an equally lovely moment where the gentle soundtrack, accomplished voice acting and intuitive puzzle solving gel together perfectly.
The criticisms mentioned throughout this review should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt: this is a lovely game that evokes more smiles than frowns. There are admittedly some niggles here and there, and the story doesn’t wrap up as neatly as it should (in either of the two possible endings), but the overall experience is a positive one. Fans of the genre will know exactly what they’re getting into, and they won’t come away disappointed.
Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit is a charming adventure that – like the very best examples of the genre that have come before it – deftly mixes historical fact with fantastical fiction. I greatly enjoyed spending time with Milda and learning about the history of Lithuania, and I honestly can’t wait to see what Tag of Joy does next.
8 OUT OF 10