Chess Knights: Viking Lands Review
Chess Knights: Viking Lands
Developer: Minimol Games
Publisher: QUByte Interactive
Genre: Puzzle, Casual
Platform: Nintendo Switch (also available on PS4, Xbox One, PC)
Age Rating: PEGI 3
Release Date: 18/03/2021
A code was provided for review purposes.
Chess is an iconic board game that is steeped in history and has stood the test of time. I remember constantly playing a version that was pre-installed on our family computer when I was younger. It comes as no surprise that its strategic and methodical concept lends itself well to the puzzle genre. Many puzzle games over the years have regularly been inspired by chess and Chess Knights: Viking Lands is no different.
Developed by Minimol Games, Chess Knights: Viking Lands is a smart concept that blends the rules of chess with varied level design.
No Prisoner Left Behind
Taking place in 40 different levels, situated across four locations, Chess Knights: Viking Lands has you rescuing those that have been captured by the enemy. As mentioned earlier, these levels are designed in a grid-like fashion with elements of chess taking centre stage. You control a handful of knights that can move as expected, in an L-shape pattern. It’s your job to move these pieces from the safe zone, across the level, and escort the captured allies back safely. This needs to be done all while getting past the patrolling enemies scattered around.
I love the premise of this game, taking some tried and true aspects of chess and crafting something quite engaging. It feels comfortingly familiar yet refreshing in its own right. The levels start off quite straightforward and get progressively more challenging. From more enemy types, level complexity and traps, the difficulty increases pretty naturally. While the gameplay may not have a lot of variety on its own, the puzzle-like premise really works well to keep the player engaged.
Some Awkward Mechanics
Using the analogue stick, you can move it around to choose your knight’s destination. However, the game can be a bit unintuitive at times. The direction you move the analogue stick in doesn’t always align with what’s happening on screen. As you move the camera, it can throw you off quite a bit, where you will be pointing the stick forwards, but the game aims the knight’s direction backwards or somewhere else. It seems to be based on a fixed point, but this changes randomly as well.
This isn’t helped by the fact that you can undo your previous move, but only if that move doesn’t lose you your final knight. This led me to a couple of instances where the awkward controls made me make a silly mistake, costing me the entire level right near the end. It’s frustrating and made me be really careful later on, however, this wouldn’t be a problem if you could just undo that last move.
Know Your Enemy
Being aware of the enemies is a key part of Chess Knights: Viking Lands. These move about the map as you play, taking turns with your own movements. The enemy types, like your own knights, are those found in chess. The earlier levels only have a single type, the rook, while later levels will include bishops and queens. These have their own directional restrictions, moving horizontally/vertically, diagonally and both, respectively. If you move a piece into their line of sight, they will claim your piece. Similarly, if they move and you leave a piece that’s in their line of sight, they will take it next turn. There was the odd glitch where an enemy piece wouldn’t move or react, even when moving directly into their path. Luckily it only happened a few times and made those levels quite easy to beat.
Only three enemy types might seem too little, but it actually works to the game’s advantage. They all cover a diverse enough area of ground on the stages to allow for tense and strategic gameplay. If there were any more, it would become too messy and unfair to the player due to their much more limited movement. Many levels have a handful of each enemy type to help fill out space, alleviating any minor issues anyway. Also, new tricks are added later on, such as more enemies appearing mid-level, to keep you on your toes.
Sacrifice Your Knights
If you’ve played chess yourself, or are aware of the iconic chess scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, you’ll need to sacrifice your troops, or in this case, your knights. A lot of the time, there are often too many enemies for you to progress safely past to rescue your allies. In this case, sacrificing a few of your own knights as bait is an important strategic move. Since the enemy that takes your piece is also removed from the game, it clears some of the level, making it viable to cross.
This was such a great aspect to incorporate into the experience, as it’s a key feature of chess itself. It adds an extra layer of depth to the gameplay, giving you plenty of options for how you want to approach each level. Trying to manoeuvre around the blind spots of the enemy, while also picking which one of them to bait, to remove them from the equation, makes for a genuinely exciting experience. It can also be fun to try and see if you can complete each level with as many surviving troops as possible.
Not Tough Enough?
While Chess Knights: Viking Lands’ main campaign levels offer a solid amount of challenge for the player, there is actually more for you to do. Once you’ve cleared all the levels of one location, you gain access to new ones from the main menu or straight after finishing that location. These are called The Lost Ones and offer a much greater challenge to complete.
These are made harder by having fewer knights to control and therefore, sacrifice to reduce the enemy number. But there are sometimes many more enemies instead, or more open levels with hardly any cover to protect from the enemy’s gaze. These really test the player’s skill and strategic thinking in order to persevere. It’s also a smart move to make these optional and unlocked after having first played some of the main game. That way, the player won’t get discouraged by the difficulty or be forced into playing these unrelenting levels.
As you might have gathered, the game is based around Vikings, at least aesthetically. Everything from the chess pieces, music and locations are Viking in nature. Even when you die, instead of a simple ‘game over’ screen, the phrase ‘Helheim Awaits’ appears. It’s a nice touch and pretty smart, as who doesn’t like Vikings?
The different locations, such as Midgard City and Yggdrasil Way, look really nice in conjunction with the simple art style. The music is equally solid, with a fierce and pounding tone. The Viking theme really does come together quite nice in general. My only complaint is that it does at times just feel like set dressing, to make an otherwise simple premise more exciting.
An issue with the game on Switch is the performance. With a simple art style like this, you’d think it would run really smooth on the console. Well, you’d also be wrong. The frame rate drops quite regularly throughout the game, heck, even the main menu runs poorly. The silver lining is that a stable framerate isn’t necessary for the gameplay, so I never felt disadvantaged because of it. It’s still a bothersome issue in some ways, but nowhere near a game-breaker.
As a huge puzzle fan, I found my time with Chess Knights: Viking Lands to be really fun and rewarding. The elements of chess felt so natural in combination with the premise and level design. Dodging the enemy, sacrificing knights when needed and even planning multiple turns ahead, made the experience engaging.
While chess is quite a complex game on its own, this title was able to remain challenging while still being approachable for newcomers to the rules and concepts. The game isn’t without its faults, but for the price, Chess Knights: Viking Lands is one puzzle adventure I highly recommend.
4 out of 5
You can get your copy of Chess Knights: Viking Lands on the Nintendo eShop now.
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.