Before I dive in, Flat Kingdom is one of the games I bumped into at PAX South earlier this year. Games Starter helped bring the little title to fruition and is actually the first major game distributor in Mexico. Their main goal is to help developers south of the border develop and fund their projects. I really admire that goal which is why I took on this review and for that matter, one of the few games that have made me cuss out loud to myself in a long time. Well, since Hyper Light Drifter a week ago anyway.
Flat Kingdom presents itself as a platformer with an edge. The graphics are immediately beautiful and very pop up art style akin to Paper Mario. As I booted it up, I went into the settings to see if anything could make the 2D game look any better than it already did but found the best settings were already in place. So, I started the game on the highest difficulty and off it went.
There is no spoken dialogue and most of the story is delivered through very direct cutscenes or speech bubbles. The game itself opened up to a kingdom in duress over the disappearance of the crown princess. You, Flat, are charged with the task of tracking down four mystical jewels and saving the princess in the process.
The game kicks off with the usual controls of jump, double jump, etc found in most platformers. However, very early on they teach you why Flat Kingdom is unique. Flat is able to change into different shapes besides his usual circular body. Basically with a press of either the X, B, Or Y face buttons (on a 360 controller) you will change into a square, circle or triangle respectively.
The breakdown of each transformation is like so:
- Flat Circle is the best jumper and can perform double jumps with great vertical height.
- Flat Square is heavy and moves slowly but you can use him after jumping to do a butt stomp or prevent yourself from being blown away by wind. It’s also the only form strong enough to push blocks and other items.
- Flat Triangle is speedy and can actually move through the level very briskly. At first it doesn’t excel at much but later in the game became my favorite.
With these shapes mastered, the game now throws you into puzzles that require you to figure out how to best navigate your area. Each puzzle and level in the game really play to your strengths and help you understand how to best control yourself as you careen through the various locales.
Speaking of which, almost every archetype of a platformer are present including an opening forest level to a frustrating active volcano stage. Each level has its own unique look and aesthetic as well as usually an exclusive mechanic. As you navigate these levels, you begin to gather upgrades that allow each form to do more things. Such as a float for the circle mode that helps jumping become less stressful.
The game as a pure platformer is fairly easy, however when the developers added in the dynamic of your shape versus an enemy’s, things get dicey at best. This is where the frustration begins. Each enemy has a shape so to say and if you pick the correct form before coming into contact with them, you’ll destroy them. There is an actual game of rock paper scissors being played here except with shapes. The system is Triangle beats Circle which beats Square which in turn beats Triangle again. The early enemies are easy as they are either very blocky, very round or very angular. However, when you start fighting the advanced enemies, well… let me explain.
The ‘advanced’ enemies in Flat Kingdom are basically creatures that are made of more than one shape or have an alternate form. For instance, a crab with a shell may appear. His claws are triangular but his shell is boxy… so which do you do? On hard mode at least, this caused me to run into him in square mode, realize it didn’t work and swap to circle. I thought that was the end but then he lost his shell and emerged in a shape that looked oddly similar. So I had to swap to box mode again which caused him to collapse exposing his round shaped head. Now I could use the triangle to finish him off. If that sounded complicated, there are multiples of those in a row on some levels. I say frustration but in reality, it’s really fun to have to stop and watch an enemy instead of just speed by them.
From there, we move into boss fights which are a deal in patience and timing… for most of them. With the exception of one icy boss, every boss has a set pattern of attacks but usually cannot be countered with your shape modes. That’s right, the mechanic they taught you just doesn’t matter to some bosses. In lieu of your core mechanic, each boss has a different twist which makes them memorable. However, until you learn this mechanic, you will die over and over in an odd trial and error loop. Once you defeat them of course, the feeling of jubilation washes over you and you’re rewarded with a new ability to boot.
So, with its really great idea, beautiful art design, and smart boss fights, it sounds like all sunshine and roses. But that’s not completely the case. As great as Flat Kingdom is, there are a few shortcomings in its design and pacing. Speaking again just from hard mode, there are points in the game where you HAVE to take damage and there’s no avoiding it. I got stuck in a glitch where a creature that usually runs back and forth decided to say screw and stood right at the spot where I had to jump. It continued to stand there, staring at me with its cold dead eyes. Telling me, if you jump, I’m taking that heart.
So I did. My hope was for an invincibility frame like in Mario that would push me forward but instead, the enemy knocked me back enough for a death. I thought maybe it was a bad load but upon further inspection, it may just be the way it was programmed.
A lot of things in the game are designed more as an “I gotcha ya, ha!!” than there to enhance the experience. For example, after a particularly long stretch of difficult platforming, I found myself with about 1 heart left. In the distance I could see what looked like the end of the stage so I propelled myself forward only to have the screen slowly pan over to show I wasn’t done and instead ran right into my murderer, a lizard. There was no indication he was there and in a platformer, design like that only enrages the player, especially when the checkpoints are pretty far apart.
Aside from those two grievances of mine, I do have to applaud Flat Kingdom for creating a great indie platformer that captures so many inspirations so well. I mean, I can see little tidbits from Mario (duh), Zelda, Metroid and even Strider in there! Who does that? Who even remembers strider?! These guys do and they’ve really pushed themselves to put together a short love letter to the legends that came before them.
In closing, Flat Kingdom (on hard mode) is a challenging, interesting and novel platformer full of great ideas and a few common pitfalls. During my 13 hours of the game, I did find myself compelled to push forward and struck speechless by the ending sequence as it was surprisingly different from the rest of the narrative. There are a lot of other ambitious platformers on Steam right now but if you’re looking for something pretty damn different from the rest, I highly recommend giving Flat Kingdom a shot.
My final verdict for Flat Kingdom is a felt paper Thousand Year Door out of 10.
Pros: Great art design, controls feel very good, platforming is solid, novel gameplay idea to change up the formula, takes inspiration from some of the greats, way more valuable (and awesome!) than its price point
Cons: Level design feels pitted against the player at times, some bugs that cause you to take unnecessary damage, checkpoints are in odd places, sends you back through the levels on a fetch quest later in the game
Andron (or Ace as he likes to call himself) is the so called "Head Honcho" of Bombchu.com. He has a deep passion for video games primarily RPGs, Fighting or Adventure. When not gaming, he's furiously typing on his keyboard or coming up with new schemes.