It must be tough to be Scandinavian these days. The popular notion of the snow-bound northern European countries has shifted considerably in recent times from hale and hardy muscle-bound stoics to a land of emasculated men and shit furniture. Still, they got to keep the alcoholism. Heavily inspired by the former, Kyn is a tactical team-based RPG from two-man developer Tangrin and published by Versus Evil that weaves a rich fantasy setting, Scandinavian-style. It’s a rugged yet beautiful adventure influenced by a folklore where the men were men, the women were also men, and everything else was an elf, and just couldn’t be trusted.
Kyn‘s storyline opens with the first two playable characters emerging from a cave after a months-long ritual to grant them magical powers by being buried alive (which, quite frankly, had me scratching my head from the start, but who am I to question the occult?) to find that their homeland has undergone a few changes since they took their subterranean vacation. The Aeshir, a once-peaceful tribal race described as “sheep that wear clothes and play flutes” by one of the playable characters (which is a bit weird, considering that they look more like goblins with skeletal servants) have been changing colour from green to red, and starting trouble for everyone. The opening quests of an RPG are never the most thrilling affairs, really just serving to ease the player gently into the setting and characters before hitting them with the heavy world-threatening evils, but the opening quests of Kyn seemed more than a little ham-fisted. One of the first side-quests (called ‘pacts’) that Kyn offers is to rescue four guards who have been captured by Aeshir. However, it’s made very clear that the guards have been burning their villages down, and there are a decent number of friendly Aeshir on the map who won’t so much as raise a hand to you as you wander past them. Without the necessary time and explanation, such confusion between enemy and neutral units winds up offering a rather bewildering exposition to the world they’ve created. It is, however, a general standard that PC RPG games shouldn’t be judged for their storylines, which is not a standard that Kyn challenges.
In essence, Kyn is a love letter to the kind of games that exemplified the PC RPG, and if you play it expecting to find a worthwhile successor to Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale, you won’t be disappointed. To anyone that remembers these games, that’s pretty high praise, but it also comes with its own share of attendant problems, and though Kyn faithfully recalls much of the gameplay that made its predecessors great, it seems to replicate quite a few of their faults, too. In what will no doubt be a breath of fresh air to more ‘hardcore’ gamers, Kyn is a game that prides itself on being difficult, at the expense of alienating more casual players, and those who are looking for their next hack-and-slash adventure will be disappointed because Kyn seems to owe more to X-Com than Diablo. It’s obvious that a great deal of care has been taken to ensure that a certain kind of RPG fan, the kind who likes to get down and dirty with party micro-management, has been catered to. Ostensibly, characters are developed via three different skill areas; Mind, Body and Control. These refer to Mage, Warrior and Rogue skills respectively, and the skills on offer are exhaustive, with regard to tactically controlling the enemy. Players who enjoy thinking three steps ahead will be in their element, using a terror spell to send some enemies running pell-mell into a spike trap, while funneling the others into an arrow charge while their warriors come in to mop them up from the rear. Players who are expecting a gentler pace might be drawn in by the game’s casual presentation, but they won’t stay for long. A feature of the game allows for time to be slowed for a short period of time (and then needs a few seconds to recharge), giving players the breather they need to position their party and issue commands, but it’s very much a necessity for the thoughtful rather than a favour to the clueless. Put simply, if you’re not willing to put the work in, it will kick your arse. Repeatedly.
However, for those who want more Dark Souls than Skyrim, some of the battles are all the more rewarding to engage in because of their exacting nature, punishing the player who tries to wade into the melee without accurately positioning and evaluating their abilities. Unfortunately, these are punctuated by far less interesting encounters, random smatterings of enemies that can be ploughed through with relative ease in a matter of seconds. With no real way to tell the difference between the decent battles that require strategy and the careless padding, it’s tempting to save before each enemy skirmish and reload if it happened to be one of the ones you need to think about. There are a variety of enemy units on offer to mix up gameplay with differing strengths and weaknesses. Archer units, for example, are quick and ranged but weak to attacks while shielded enemies are nigh-on indestructible from the front, requiring the enterprising player to eschew full-frontal assault. At times, the enemy AI seems pretty on-the-ball, keeping a sneaky shaman just out of reach to revive a larger unit whenever it falls. Mages and archers will often hide behind groups of melee units, and run off when it looks like they’re in danger. The emphasis on party placement seems to be shared by the AI, which usually makes for engaging battles. However, the positioning of enemy troops can be bewildering at times. Groups can be placed in small enclosures with a single entrance, limiting player tactics to wading in and hoping for the best, or trying to draw them out, and hoping that they don’t overwhelm the party. All-too-often will one or two of them slip the net after battle and go gallivanting off around the map, requiring the player to hunt them down. In a larger party, that’s no problem. Just sling off a spell or have an archer deal with them. Earlier on, it makes for situations that can only really be summed up in this video:
Apart from this, there are a few bugs that hopefully will be ironed-out before release. Enemy units have a tendency to give up halfway through a chase, walking casually back to their bases heedless of the seven-foot warrior attempting to force a sword into them, while at other times there seems to be no escaping them, chasing a retreating party across half the map before stopping to take out their aggression on an unassuming village.
Controlling the game is simple, with full mouse control and a smart, sensitive auto-scrolling option, and those who desire more agency over the map can turn this off and scroll using cursor keys instead. The user interface is efficient enough and does a great job of staying out of the player’s way unless they specifically want to engage with it, but this kind of minimalism feels very limiting. For instance, there is room enough to select two abilities for each character to keep in an access bar at the bottom of the screen and while that might seem enough, Kyn prides itself on trying to force the player to think and act tactically, which in practical terms means swapping out abilities constantly to ensure the right tools for the job. If you’re anything like me, you’re paranoid enough to want healing abilities on hand, so keeping a heal spell and a resurrect spell in the access bar leaves no vital real estate left for myriad other spells and abilities. These can’t be changed in battle either, so if you find yourself in need of a spell you have, but can’t access, you’re screwed. The other space is kept for a feed skill. These skills allow for special abilities to be modified via combination with feed stones (rare items found in the game-world) of varying elements. These powerful abilities require environmental recharge, meaning that a death stone recharges with enemy kills, an ember stone recharges with proximity to fire, etc. While this is an innovative and interesting mechanic in itself, I personally grew to resent it. Having only two active abilities while being forced to keep an ability that recharges so arbitrarily was a pain rather than a pleasure. Though it’s easy to drag-select the whole group, using the ability of a member completely deselects the rest of the party and forces the player to drag-select everyone again, which can get particularly annoying when a player wants to keep a handle on the whole squad.
The visuals and the music set the mood perfectly, and though it isn’t the most graphically-intensive game, effort has been made to overcome these limitations. Forests are lush and full of life, while dungeons are dark, oppressive and richly-detailed. The opening was particularly impressive, with butterflies flitting across the foreground of the screen from time to time. This sense of depth and vibrancy often works against the player when their vision of the action is obscured by an overhanging willow, and the absence of graphical flourishes like butterflies are conspicuous by their absence a little later on, but it all works to complement a well-designed world-space nonetheless. Music is impressive, with tracks composed by Will Bedford that work perfectly alongside the visuals to set the scene. Tracks are dynamic, drifting fluidly between the calm foreboding of the field and the sharp tension of battle music without skipping a beat. Despite the ability of the sound effects to ruin the mood with the incessant frog-croaks, birdsong and crow-chatter, there are some quieter points where the background music is allowed to drift into the foreground, and I personally found myself looking forward to these moments.
Overall, Kyn must be commended for seeking to advance a genre that has been allowed to grow stale. It brings some fresh ideas to the table, and utilises them better than most modern examples. The ability to slow time and issue orders is finite, forcing the player to commodify the lull in action and use each second with care, in contrast to Dragon Age, for example, where the player could pause the whole thing for as long as they wanted, maybe make a cup of tea and watch a YouTube video before telling their heroes what to do. It keeps the sense of urgency without breaking the tension. The player’s party can be customised almost completely, giving the player the option to completely rebuild them anywhere out of combat by reassigning the number of points put into mind, body and control. Feed abilities give the player an incentive to keep an eye on their surroundings, using the environment in a very novel way. However, you need to be a specific kind of player to really appreciate Kyn. The issue isn’t just with the difficulty, though it can be downright sadistic at times. Kyn bases itself around the kind of player who wants to take the time to manage everything efficiently. To make sure every character is in the right place, with a plan laid out before each battle begins, with skills and mechanics based solely around those who are going to take the time to consider tactics, location and enemy movements before taking action. There’s a lot more strategy to Kyn than most examples of the genre, and if that isn’t your cup of tea, it won’t be possibly to blast through it on easy.
If, however, the idea of reassigning abilities and skill points before each battle out of necessity intrigues you, and you are looking for a game that doesn’t just challenge, but openly tests you, then Kyn comes heartily recommended.