Game Reviews
Knights and Merchants
by Joymania Entertainment/Interactive Magic

War has raged on for years. Your kingdom is left in ruins, shattered by superior forces ravaging their way through your land. With the proper guidance, it may be possible to regain your standing in the world. As the last captain of the Royal Palace guard, your duty is to take on the role of commander, defend your people, and try to rebuild from what little remains of your kingdom.

Knights and Merchants is a real-time strategy game similar to the Caesar games. It takes place during the middle ages, and requires you to build a working community, and prepare for war. You'll mind resources, train subjects, and gather forces to take on the inevitable enemy attack. In the campaign, you'll work your way across the land, putting the countryside back in order once again.

The graphics in Knights and Merchants are very nice. The units are of a decent size, so they're easy to keep track of on the screen. The animation is good, you can tell what a subject is doing at any time by seeing what he's carrying, or by thought balloons that appear above their heads. The landscape is well-designed, with rolling hills, nicely rendered trees, rocks, and other objects. Sounds are also well done, the music works well, and the sound effects fit right in with the mood. Certain sounds go off when events occur, keeping you aware of progress throughout the game.

Town construction consists of setting up buildings to provide resources, and manning them with the correct person. Schoolhouses train workers for particular skills. Woodcutters and stone masons provide raw building materials, and additional structures like the sawmill turn the raw materials into useable goods. Food is an important resource, and you'll find many options available. A farmer grows corn, and the baker makes baked goods. The pig farmer raises animals, then the butcher turns the carcasses into meat, while the tanner turns the hides into leather. A vineyard provides the town with wine. The whole ecosystem is fairly simple to set up and is pretty much self-maintaining. Serfs provide transport for the goods, and laborers build the structures and keep them in good shape. Eventually, you'll train soldiers for war - both to protect your town and to attack the invaders directly.

Much of the interface reminds me of that used in Dungeon Keeper, especially the building panels. News items drop down along the side of the command panel, and the little thought balloons work just like the ones in DK. You can't possess a subject or anything like that, but the layout of the commands is very similar. Units are diverse and interesting, the ones in town taking on responsibility without your direct intervention. I was quite impressed when I found that the woodcutter also performed reforestation. Little touches like that are very nice.

I have one big problem with Knights and Merchants, and that is the lack of proper control. The game basically consists of two parts, building and fighting. In build mode, you have no control over your subjects' actions whatsoever. You train them, making sure the proper types of workers exist. By laying out plans for buildings, your laborers will go ahead and construct them. Unfortunately, you cannot directly tell them what to give priorities to, or to do things in a specific order. They basically run from job to job, depending on the availability of materials. If one job runs out of materials, even if more are about to arrive, they will run to the next job, even if the travel will set them back. You must be very careful not to line up too many jobs, or nothing will get done in a timely manner. Troops must be fed. In order to do so, you send the order to supply the troops, wherein all of your serfs take off to do that one job, dropping all else to do so. I could find no way to order some to do one job, and leave the others to tend to other needs. Much of the game is an "all or nothing" proposition.

In battle mode, it gets worse. Here you have a modicum of control over your units, but not nearly enough. You cannot select units in a way similar to other real-time strategy games (group to select by drawing a box), here you select a platoon and click where you want it to go. Unfortunately, you can ONLY select a platoon, there is no way to send only one or two units, unless that's all there is to the team. It's clunky and at times unmanageable.

The manual is no help at all. There is detailed information on the units and a long background story, but gameplay specifics are sparse at best. Instead, two tutorials are included within the game. While you do learn a lot in these tutorials, there are some details that are left out. Since the manual does not cover all of these details, your only option is to try and figure things out by yourself. It's annoying, even frustrating at times.

Overall Impression

Bottom Line: Knights and Merchants had a lot of potential. The graphics are nice, the sounds are good, even the overall interface is pretty slick. Unfortunately, the lack of sufficient control over your units ruins the experience. You can't queue jobs, and battles are overwhelmingly difficult to direct. The end result is a game that feels half done.

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