Kingdom of the Dead – primarily a one-man show from developer DIRIGO GAMES and publisher HOOK – is a stylish, horror-themed FPS with a more methodical pace than I expected. You take on the role of an “Agent” operating along the US East Coast – a not-so-subtle Lovecraftian reference – tasked with shutting down gates to the titular kingdom and defeating Death’s armies before they can invade the mortal realm. Supposedly, you’re “Agent Chamberlain, professor turned Army General, now working for the secret government program known as GATEKEEPER” but the in-game plot is kept to a bare minimum and I’d never have known that if not for reading the store page description.
That said, Kingdom of the Dead is not without some sense of narrative or character evolution. Agent Chamberlain often banters with his possessed abyssal sword, which he relies on to destroy cursed skulls that maintain gateways to Death’s kingdom but does not trust. The sword clearly has its own plans and expresses skepticism at the agent’s altruism and selflessness. This relationship provides ample opportunity to expand on the Agent’s personality during mission introductions, foreshadow later events, and provide a satisfactory ending that still leaves room for more content from the developer or modding community.
As with most indie games, Kingdom of the Dead prioritises gameplay first and foremost, but it wasn’t the fast and chaotic retro-shooter experience I expected. Your protagonist can certainly sprint, jump, and circle-strafe with the best of them, but the mid-19th Century weapons – think revolver, double-barrel shotgun, a repeater rifle, dynamite sticks, and hand-crank Gatling gun – have low fire rates. To keep things balanced, enemies and their projectiles move quite slowly, resulting in a far more methodical shooter than I expected, with a focus on positioning yourself to avoid projectiles while lining up headshots on advancing enemies.
You wage battle against Death’s forces across eight missions (before a grand finale), with several available at any given time from your office desk. It’s an eclectic mix of abandoned locations that’ll be familiar to horror fans – but not all are made equal. The opening Mansion mission is a sprawling, multi-phase battle across the outer grounds, through the expansive interior, and into the twisted depths. Ascending an old clock tower – battling through alleyways, rundown interiors, and leaping across rooftops – was equally impressive. Others, such as a short jaunt through a forest or a claustrophobic battle through an improbably long train, feel uninspired in contrast. Unfortunately for Kingdom of the Dead, level design makes or breaks the experience as the enemies you face lack any complex, unpredictable behaviours.
Melee enemies just lope towards you at varying speeds, while ranged enemies tend to stay back and cast slow-moving orbs (that can be shot down) or fire slightly faster moving bullets. As such, falling back, lining up headshots, and dismembering weapon-bearing limbs is a strategy that works throughout. It’s the sheer number and mix of enemies in later stages, coupled with trying to spot them in the dark, that will cause you trouble. This simplistic design also applies to the gimmicky boss encounters, most of which just require you to circle-strafe or back-peddle while firing your biggest gun, sometimes at a weak spot. Several bosses have one-hit kill moves, so trying not to get stuck on objects or enemies in the arena is often the greater challenge. They’re visually interesting and themed around the environment, but fighting them is rarely as tense or exciting as getting there in the first place.
The difficulty settings take inspiration from the Thief games, upping the enemy count and adding mission objectives, but it’s only the change to combat ferocity that feels significant. The level structure does not change with new objectives, nor does the placement of civilians (you can find and fulfill the optional objectives playing on easy if you want). Several set-piece moments and boss fights with mobs are the real challenges on the highest difficulty, when you struggle to find space to move and tracking multiple incoming projectiles becomes nearly impossible. Regardless of your choice, there are ample checkpoints (including right before each boss fight), plenty of ammo, and several “heart” power-ups to find that increase your total health. Just be warned that checkpoints are temporary and you need to complete the mission to save your progress.
The last element to touch on, and perhaps the most consistently impressive, is the presentation. The “pen and ink” style might frustrate you if you’re used to fast-paced FPS games that use colour to convey player information clearly but, in Kingdom of the Dead, obscuring enemies in darkness or against visually busy backdrops is all part of the horror experience. Ghouls lunge out of the shadows, undead mages fling glowing projectiles from the distant gloom, and twisted birds descend from pitch-black skies. It is only weapon, ammunition, and health pickups that possess a distinct coloured glow to keep you restocked during battle.
Relying on sound to pinpoint nearby foes – most of which have a distinctive cry – ramps up the tension and highlights the creepy ambience. Combat, although slower-paced and less chaotic than its peers, sounds good thanks to loud gunfire and suitably fleshy sounding impacts when you land a headshot or remove a limb. The soundtrack is fantastic – if a little limited. There are moody, tension-building tracks during cautious exploration but also high-tempo catchy electronic beats for when the action heats up. It all comes together to create a distinctly B-grade horror movie experience.
Unfortunately, several technical issues need to be patched asap. The first is the unexpected performance drops during several missions, which feels like a rendering issue on larger maps. This framerate drop had little to do with the action on-screen, and more to do with the viewing direction – almost as if the game is failing to simplify geometry and cull objects obscured from view. Next is the ever-present risk sprinting on sloped surfaces might launch you in random directions (sometimes with lethal results). The final issue was two checkpoint-related bugs, both right before set-piece moments. In both cases, reloading left me dropping through the level geometry and dying repeatedly until I restarted the level.
Those technical issues aside, I still enjoyed my time with Kingdom of the Dead, and plan to go back to finish several outstanding levels on Princeps Agente difficulty, trying out some unlocked cheats and a range of visual filters. When you combine the heavy atmosphere, distinctive visuals, soundtrack, and minute-to-minute gunplay – slower and methodical – it makes for a weirdly compelling package. So long as you’re not looking for another fast-paced, twitchy, gore-soaked boomer shooter, Kingdom of the Dead is a great pick for both FPS and horror fans.
A review code for Kingdom of the Dead was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Kingdom of the Dead (PC) ReviewKingdom of the Dead (PC) Review
Story7/10 GoodMinimal but it has character growth and a satisfying ending.
Gameplay7/10 GoodNot as fast or visceral as its peers, and the experience doesn't evolve much over the short runtime, but the slower and methodical gunplay is weirdly compelling.
Visuals7/10 GoodThe pen and ink style looks great, ramps up the tension, and is part of the gameplay challenge. However, several technical issues need to be addressed.
Audio8/10 Very GoodThe dark visuals amplify the impact of the creepy ambience, impactful combat, and great soundtrack.
- Slower, tactical gunplay
- Several missions with great level-design and creepy ambience
- Novel art style and great soundtrack
- Gimmicky boss encounters and simplistic enemy behaviours
- Wonky physics and rare checkpointing issues
- Unexpectedly poor performance given the requirements