Look at that title. So unobtrusive. Put it next to the hyperbolically monikered brutes it'll be sharing shelf space with - Madworld, Overkill, Chop Til You Drop - and it may as well be called 'Don't Worry About Me' or 'Sorry. I'm Just Really Sorry'. But that's the little king's secret: smile, look harmless and crush with extreme prejudice. Underestimating this diminutive dictator will be your biggest mistake this year.
There's a feeling you get from some games - mostly very special games - of being in safe hands. It often stems from a strange side detail; if the periphery is sound, the heart must be worthy too. In Little King's Story it happens ten seconds in, just after the remote strap safety warning. Developers' names are scribbled on a chalk board as Ravel's Bolero begins to play. A classy art style, for sure, but it's the music that tells you to pay attention. The militaristic rat-a-tat-tat underpins soaring majesty - a mix that grows bigger and bigger and is a perfect synopsis of the game to come.
The Little King's story is one of expansion. From quaint hamlet to a sprawling metropolis. From empty grassland to homes overflowing with virtual lives. From a dusty shack to a castle American tourists would wet themselves over. From an entourage of one knight, a stroppy librarian and a cow to a heaving populace of farmers, chefs, merchants and miners. It's the stuff of countless real-time strategies, only played from ground level. No hiding in invisible sky observatories for this god - you've got to taste the fruits of your labour, be they bitter or sweet.
While many games are interested in the heights of power, few paint as witty a picture of humble beginnings. Your town begins hopeless, full of unemployed bozos who while away the day sleeping on the pavement. Think Trowbridge before a nuclear blast killed all the greenery.1 Good for nothing but menial digging, the wastrels prove a useful excavation force, uprooting turnips to be converted into moolah. And so begins town planning, cleverly limited by dwindling funds to disguise the fact that you're tirelessly working through a two-hour tutorial.
Homes pop up overnight. There's a chilled tone throughout Little King's Story that rejects the SimCity clutter of build-times; time isn't of the essence, so it matters not that buildings miraculously sprout in the ground. Likewise, you have no control over where the town grows - it's geographically linear - so the only decision you have to make is what you want to build. A smidgen of strategy is introduced here: building your subjects new homes will boost the population, but then you won't have the cash to build them places of employment - places that will undoubtedly feed the coffers, thus enabling more building.
As we said, town management is largely out of your hands, but it's remarkable how easily you can muck it up. The world map opens up with new professionals - you can't get beyond the initial area without woodcutters, for example - so choosing to build houses can set back exploration. This in turn prevents you from finding the riches of new areas, leaving you to try to raise the money through day after day of harvesting grass. As a punishment for poor decision making, this is suitably demeaning, not to mention far preferable to a traditional 'game over' screen.
So you've got the means to employ your subjects; here comes the second dose of strategy. You're limited to a certain number of followers at any one time, so you have to make them count. The others will tootle around town in delightfully clockwork AI routines while you set out on adventures. Only those adventures won't get far if you, say, take four farmers to fight a poison-spewing snail beast. You'll need soldiers instead, but then how will you dig up gold? Best take one farmer. But he won't whip you up the necessary bridge, so it's carpenters you need...