King Arthur: Fallen Champions (hereafter: KAFC) is a budget-priced standalone stopgap between King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame and King Arthur II. Set in the mythical kingdom of Britannia, what seems like a boilerplate medieval romp veers off into fantastical absurdity almost immediately. I'm a sucker for this sort of thing: spell-slinging ghosts and valiant heroes marching in lockstep against aggressor-hordes. But while KAFC offers up a fanciful setting and has some interesting design tricks up its sleeve, the important bits -- namely, combat -- are straight up broken.
The game opens up with a map of Britannia, on which the three heroes are positioned to set off on their adventures. There's Drest the Chosen, a shaman hoping to reform his wayward people; Sir Lionel wants to save a damsel in distress from a villainous Red Knight; and Lady Corrigan of the Sidhe -- a mystical race of Faerie Lords -- just wants to go home. You can play the campaigns in whatever order you'd like, even switching up between combat scenarios if you'd like a better idea of how the stories intertwine. This kind of variety and non-linear storytelling was great.
Also great: each scenario is split into two parts: an adventure and a battle. The adventure segment plays like a mid-90s Choose Your Own adventure book, complete with fanciful illustrations. The adventure-narratives determine your stats and unit composition for the fight that follows, in the form of companions, or boosts to particular stats. The adventure segments are quick, but they add a surprising amount of depth to what's a rather short title to begin with. But more importantly, they're clever and fun.
But such creative segments can't compensate for a terrible combat system. This is kind of a big deal for a real-time strategy game. KAFC borrows heavily from the (excellent) Total War series, so much is familiar. You'll need to monitor your units' stamina as well as their health, cutting down on forced marches lest your troops reach a battle winded and weary. You can pause combat to make adjustments on the fly, and swap formations (there are far fewer of them in KAFC) to mitigate damage depending on the type foes you're facing.
But things fall apart rather quickly. Despite all of the trappings, there's little actual tactical acumen involved. KAFC lacks variation: you've got dudes on horses, dudes who aren't on horses, dudes who shoot things, and the occasional unique unit -- say, a Healer-monk, or a Giant -- tossed in to spice things up. Swapping between the three heroes does little more than swap skins for the units, and it certainly doesn't help that all of the game's (living) units share the same set of voices -- whether you're playing as the Sidhe or the humans, get ready to hear "Infantry!" and "Cavalry!" repeated ad-nauseum in the same dry tone.
Then there are technical issues. Not necessarily bugs -- with the exception of some camera pathing issues when you're dealing with hills and mountains, the game ran flawlessly. The animations are laughably bad -- it's hard to get a sense of epic combat when your units are facing the entirely wrong direction, deflecting blows and hacking mercilessly at the wind. Potentially interesting combat scenarios are ruined by shoddy mechanics: consider a "stealth" mission that devolves into anarchy thanks to archers with ridiculously long lines of sight. Truth be told, the most effective way to get through KAFC is to throw the bulk of your forces at a small group of enemies until the bad guys' HP drops to 0, and then rinse and repeat until you get to the next scenario. This gets boring, fast.
The trick with cut-price downloadables is to temper your expectations. And KAFC has a few things going for it: I genuinely liked the adventure-time story bits, the graphics aren't atrocious, and the incessantly looping music tracks are pleasant, the first few times around. It's an interesting world, with interesting characters and ideas, but they've gone and made a shoddy mess of the strategy game part, resulting in an experience that simply isn't very much fun.