Review of King of Dragon Pass
Game available from the iTunes App Store for $9.95 regular price
Produced by A-Sharp Software: www.a-sharp.com/kodp
Fully playable without sighted assistance.
Reviewed by Michael Feir
The Apple iPhone has certainly taken the blind community to an unparalleled level of affordable accessibility. Its built-in Voiceover screen-reader has managed to turn a flat-screen device into one of the most useful gadgets I've ever owned. Years ago, I had bought King of Dragon Pass for the PC only to discover that it was completely unplayable without sighted assistance. The text was printed in a way my screen readers couldn't detect. There was also a map to explore which required a mouse and sighted help to manage. Worse yet, in a painful paradox, the game required continuous reading as it was mostly text-based. Any sighted people I found who would try the game with me would very quickly lose patience having to read everything out loud. Now, thanks to the ingenuity and inclusiveness of the iPhone, I am able to fully enjoy this unique game experience.
Let's be clear. This is a game made for a sighted audience first. There's artwork on the screen and the map to be explored. Things are set up to be easy for sighted players to scroll around when they need to. However, for those who have the patience to explore the screen, every element of the game has been made accessible thanks to the Voiceover screen-reader and the efforts of programmers at A-Sharp Software. The developers continue to update the game and have proved very responsive to peoples' reports of issues they faced while playing using Voiceover. There have been several updates since its release and they have included improvements for Voiceover users as well as other additions to the game like new scenes. At this point, the game is fully playable for blind people who have patience and recognize that due to its visual nature, there are some quirks to be wrestled with from time to time. If you can live with that, then get ready for a brilliant game where a flexible but cohesive narrative takes centre stage. Blind players may not be able to appreciate the artwork, but for a very refreshing change, we aren't left out of the picture.
As I say, there are some quirks. One of these which I think is ultimately favourable is that the game must be played in landscape mode with the home button on the left or right. Presumably, this makes things like scrolling around the map somewhat easier. Familiarizing yourself with the screen layout is essential for this game. For instance, when the menu is toggled on, it goes across the top of the screen. I used to have all sorts of trouble getting to it reliably until I figured this out. Hitting the "menu" button toggles the menu on or off. It makes a slightly different sound when it's on. KODP uses ordinary controls familiar to Voiceover users. You can flick left and right to go between options and double-tap to select them. You can also scroll around the map with a three-finger flick in the direction desired. The map is much larger than a single iPhone screen so you'll need to do this eventually. One issue is that dialogues in the game tend to stack on top of each other at times. A good example of this happens when you explore. One dialogue active at that time is the map screen. Once you hit the "explore" button, music plays and you can then position your exploration cross on the map. Once that's done touch near the bottom of the screen where you should come to the exploration dialogue. There, you can choose who leads the exploration party and how many weapon thanes and footmen to send. You also set the exploration pace between slow, normal and fast. Once you have that taken care of, you can then go to the "explore" button. The problem is that there are two of these. The first one is from the initial map dialogue. The one you want is past the "menu" button. Hit that and your expedition will be sent off. You'll here the exploration music as well as horses.
Another issue can occur at various times. One of these is when sacrificing. After you have sacrificed to one of the various gods or goddesses in the Orlanthi pantheon, you might then find yourself on what seems to be an empty screen. Patience is needed here as you should keep running your finger slowly over the screen until it starts reading you the result of your sacrifice or you encounter the "proceed" button. If you find the button first, just flick left and you'll hear the result of your sacrifice. Flick right again and you'll be on the "proceed" button.
Other than these minor issues, things are quite straight-forward. The background music and sound can be toggled on and off from the "controls" option screen which is accessed from the menu or before a game starts. Especially while familiarizing yourself with the game, it would be prudent to turn off the background music to make certain that everything is heard. I certainly found this helpful. There's no way to regulate the volume of the background music separate from overall volume. However, Voiceover does automatically lower the music volume while it is speaking. Reading event text works quite well. Most of the time, there's no need to scroll. Once you've flicked onto event text, all of it is read out to you. Continuing to flick right goes across the choices available.
When using the advice, it works much like the menu button in that it toggles the adviser selection screen on and off overtop of whatever dialogue is already present. Advice is always contextual to the screen or current situation the player is presented with. Flicking right goes across the adviser buttons whose names will be read out. Once activated with a double-tap, their advice will be read out. If you need to find it on the screen, you'll have to learn where it is on the screen or find it by flicking through elements. When you're done with getting advice, find the "adviser close" button. Activating this removes the adviser selection and any displayed advice from the screen.
After choosing the duration and difficulty of your game, you must set up your clan. You can call it what you like and then begin to make various choices which effect how the game unfolds. Your saga starts here. Don't expect to just jump into this game and do terrifically right off the bat. Reading the manual is a very helpful thing to do in this case. Also, during the first year you play, a tutorial box is present which provides guidance for what to do on the various screens. After going through it, you'll at least have a basic grasp of the options and different game screens that you'll use throughout your clan's history. Once you have completed the tutorial, you will no longer have to contend with the tutorial box. It will never appear again unless you reset your game centre achievements even if you start a new game.
Essentially, the game is one of decision making on behalf of your clan as its history unfolds. There are many factors which influence the results of your decisions. These include random chance as well as such things as the skills of your clan leaders. You are always able to receive advice from members of your clan ring. This is very helpful particularly as you are first digging into the game. It may be helpful to keep notes on things you learn. A lot of information is available to you in the game but details such as the personalities of clan leaders you encounter can be useful to refer to. Not everything is kept track of in the saga screen of your clan. Also, during hero quests, you can't refer to the relevant mythology. Be certain to check out the "lore" screen. There, you'll find a vast amount of information about the myths, culture, history, and much more. The game manual can also be accessed from that screen via the button near the bottom right. The manual is also available in pdf form from the "tips" section of the game's web site. This pdf is unrestricted and may easily be converted into text by Kurzweil1000, Adobe Reader, or other software. Remembering details can make a very big difference in how things turn out for your clan.
Combat in the game is quite straight-forward in terms of the decisions you can make. However, there's a whole lot going on under the hood. A clan's personality might effect how prepared their forces are. How much magic you or the enemy devotes to the battle can make a substantial difference. At times, individual leaders involved in the battle will be placed in key situations where their choice can strongly effect the outcome. Battles occur throughout the game but this aspect doesn't dominate play unless you wish it to. If anything, the game encourages careful consideration about what is worth fighting for and why one goes to war. You cannot simply conquer your way to victory in King of Dragon Pass.
Much of the farming which takes place is handled automatically. However, there are points where decisions such as how much land to set aside for which purpose, how many hunters to have, and how much magic to invest in crops can make or break a clan. Thankfully, it's very hard to make decisions in the course of a single year which would completely wreck one's chances of winning. The game is won or lost in increments over time rather than in some sudden large-scale disaster or stroke of good fortune. Your clan ring is always there to advise you of problems and will have useful things to say about most decisions. However, during hero quests or combat, you understandably cannot seek their advice.
Your people, particularly your clan leaders, are capable of a degree of growth and change over their lives. In my Tandora clan, I now have a lady who is renowned for her bargaining skill. Over time, completing hero quests, fighting battles, and other experiences may produce exceptional individuals in your clan. These should be used with care and protected as much as possible.
Don't treat each year as a separate entity. Decisions you make in earlier years may have effects which carry on through the game. From how you choose to deal with the large pantheon of gods to which clans you are feuding with, it's all interconnected. In effect, you're building a house of cards with each decision you make. While the game is fairly forgiving, it is quite possible and inevitable that a game not won will eventually be lost. Things don't just keep going forever.
Sound and Music:
The background music for King of Dragon Pass is quite well done. It suits the epic but fun feel of the game and enhances the various moods experienced by your clan. Sadly, as I previously mentioned, it can interfere with one's ability to hear Voiceover. You can download the soundtrack from the game web site and enjoy it separately. One way or another, the music ought to be experienced. Much like in a movie, it adds a lot to the feel of the game world.
Sound effects are experienced while dealing with various dialogues. They often include music as when you send off a caravan or exploration party. They are used to add life to things such as battles, feasting, or other events triggered by your choices. The sound vignettes are brief so they don't interfere with one's ability to hear Voiceover. Beginners can fully enjoy the game's sound without any added frustration. Much like the music, the brief sound scenes add just enough detail to the game world to tantalize the imagination. Due to their brevity, the sound vignettes don't become annoying after repeated exposure.
While not effective to blind readers of this review, it should be noted that King of Dragon Pass features original hand-drawn artwork. Not having seen it, or anything else for that matter, I can't give any detail or first-hand opinion about it. However, from what I've read in other reviews, people who are lumination dependent seem to think highly of it. Artwork is displayed during scenes and is likely also present on the various game screens. Mugs, shirts and original art from the game can be purchased if desired. Details are on the game web site. Therefore, if you're playing along and a sighted person asks "What's that?" they may very well have glimpsed some of this artwork past your fingers. You'll then have to decide whether to show and explain, or simply turn on your screen curtain with howls of derisive laughter.
This game is by far the most meaningful and detailed I have ever been able to play independently. I don't believe any other accessible game even comes close to what King of Dragon Pass offers the patient thoughtful player. The re playability level is astounding. There are over 500 scenes which may or may not occur in a given time. The results of your choices are impacted by many variables which may differ should you encounter a familiar scene. Even in cases where you do all the "right" things such as the hero quests, results might differ due to the preparedness and suitability of the person chosen to undertake the quest. Different treasures may or may not be found. You become a co-author of an epic novel which never reads the same twice but always maintains its cohesion.
You don't have to be a mathematician or social scientist. The text is very well-written and you'll find yourself drawn into the story. After a while, you'll feel that you've gotten to know leading figures in your clan over the years of game time. The leadership and management decisions feel very natural and intuitive. Keeping a good overview is important to eventual victory. However, you never lose sight of how much individual community members matter. They just keep popping up. The game has a whole lot to teach about the value of community cohesion, leadership, and other things besides. Should I ever be successful in winning even the short game on easy difficulty, I'll be left with fond memories and a true sense of accomplishment. I'll also be driven to start a fresh game knowing there are still possibilities I have yet to encounter. Thankfully, it is possible to record and share one's accomplishment via the iPhone Game Centre, Twitter, Facebook, or via emailing your game saga to yourself and then to others. The iPhone is the perfect device to play such a game on. Despite its complexity and length, it lends itself to casual play. You can pull it out of your pocket, make a few decisions, and then simply put it away again until a few moments of free time present themselves. That is, if you can resist finding out whether your weaponthanes manage to drive off the ice demons. Like drops of water in a bucket, all these short cessions will add up and you'll be amazed how far your clan has come along.
I have always believed that games are more than mere frivolous wastes of time. Games are like journeys for the mind. We learn best while at play and games can teach us a great deal in an environment where wrong decisions don't equal real disaster. Considering this game's fantasy setting, mythology, gods, creatures and people, King of Dragon Pass can teach us an awful lot of deep truth. At its core, King of Dragon Pass lets us play with leadership and power. It does so while showing us the consequences of our decisions in a very engaging way. If ever there was a game which defied its critics to call it devoid of any meaning and value, King of Dragon Pass is such a one. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if it proves to be a watershed game for blind owners of IOS devices. It has the potential to be played both at a casual and a serious level. This could prove to be the closest the blind gaming community has come to a phenomenon like Pac-Man was for the sighted world. What's more, we're playing on an equal footing and can let our accomplishments be known. Thanks to the inclusiveness of Apple and the considerate folks at A-Sharp Software, this game truly bridges the blind/sighted gaming divide. It's worth every cent of its $9.95 regular price.