How Kingdom: Two Crowns stumbles over itself and its ideals in co-op

It’s lonely at the top, and as the ruler of a withering land in Kingdom, you’ll know that all too well. Every aspect of this beautiful pixel art game has been designed to not only immerse the player in the world they inhabit and rule, but to detach them from it as well. The latest version of the game, Kingdom: Two Crowns, robs the player of that innate, beautiful loneliness of ruling this fallen land by allowing a second player that breaks down the game’s foundation.

In Kingdom, you play as the monarch of a ruined realm. Your subjects are meek and scattered, and their homes weak and undefended. Although you can bring them into the fold and rebuild a safe and secure fortress, you never feel any connection with these NPCs nor do you ever tangibly interact with the kingdom and the wilderness surrounding it.

To recruit the disheveled wanderers of the land, you throw a coin to them. You don’t hand them some money or touch them in any way, you drop a coin on the floor from your mounted ruler and they pick it up to become your subject. To give these people jobs, you pay a merchant to build them a tool, and they’ll pick it up and take up the role. If you want them to chop down a tree or interact with a building, you mark it. Your commands are never direct and this indirect means of giving orders makes it feel like you are never interacting with the NPCs on a meaningful level.

Even combat is managed without any player interaction. As the nightly assaults on your kingdom begin, you can do nothing but bare witness to your villagers, soldiers, and defenses attempt hold back the angry, greedy tide.

As lonely as a cloud

And this detachment and loneliness is what gives Kingdom such magnificent design. As you gallop through the forests or wander through the town, your only real companion is your ever-present reflection. Your mount is nothing more than an extension of the ruler that sits upon it, and your connection to it is the same as your connection to your own feet. Without ever fretting over the fate of the lands you can barely touch, you enter an almost meditative state as you explore this almost regal loneliness.

But this speechless, boundless loneliness as you try and muster your people against the forces of an eternal enemy makes Kingdom as mechanically beautiful as it is visually. The game deliberately hides its rules and mechanisms so that players are left to explore the game on an emotional level, rather than a competitive one. Even your money isn’t shown as a numerical value that can be easily accounted for. Players have to accept their loneliness, detachment, and inability to influence and micromanage and just play.

Kingdom: Two Crowns robs the player of the emotional impact of this by letting you play in co-op mode. With a second monarch on a second steed, you are no longer alone. The meditative, deliberately obscured feeling of Kingdom is lost when you are playing with someone else. There is someone you can talk to, someone you can coordinate with.

The game feels more tactical with a second player. You are no longer experimenting and wandering in the humbling silence and stillness of the world, but scheming, plotting, and attempting to win in an exploitative way that you simply can’t do alone.

Nothing to interact with but each other

Other mechanics work best without a second player. For instance, the city you form is always in the center of the island, forcing the player to divide their time between exploring and defending two separate fronts. With a second monarch, you can divide the work easily, robbing you of the scale of your responsibilities and the pressure that makes up the gameplay loop. Kingdom is not a game you are meant to win, it is one you are meant to play for the sake of playing.

Co-op games can be a lot of fun, and introducing co-op can greatly improve the enjoyment of a lot of games that might not have been as exciting otherwise. From Left 4 Dead to Gears of War, the camaraderie of playing alongside someone else enhances the action, and plasters over some of the more glaring faults you might have noticed playing on your own. Working together to overcome a challenge is a powerful feeling that can create some truly satisfying moments as you win. Kingdom is not one of those games though.

Even the beautiful music is lonely and ethereal. With no dialogue at all, the music and the soft dietetic sounds hypnotize you. Your thoughts are allowed to meander the bubbling brooks and shadowy forests of each island, deciding hazily where to go and what to do. With someone else, there is discussion, compromise and goals. It draws you out of the lofty, lonely position the game tries to put you in where you rule under a silent crown.

You’re meant to feel a little detached from the world of Kingdom, a ruler that can be affected by the world, but only in the most extreme situations. You’re alone whether you are in the middle of a bustling and fortified town or in the midst of a deep woodland. You can enjoy the sights, sounds and feeling of the world around you, until it is taken away. You never feel sad to lose in Kingdom, because you never really belonged there. You never really connected with any of the people, or the places you encountered, unless you had someone with you. With another player you can feel a connection and an urge to win against the rising tide of greed, and that takes away from the very core of Kingdom.