Riot Games wants to build on the success of “League of Legends,” one of the most popular video games in the world, by providing gateways into the franchise that do not require fans to enjoy playing the ultracompetitive, online battle arena game. To do this, Riot released “Arcane,” a Netflix animated series about two of the game’s champions, and published two games — “Hextech Mayhem,” a musical rhythm runner, and “Ruined King” — all in November.
On its own, away from Riot’s grander ambitions for the “League of Legends” brand, “Ruined King” feels just fine. Airship Syndicate knows how to deliver on engaging and iterative turn-based combat but the game doesn’t aim to cover any new territory. Outside of the combat system, gameplay can feel cumbersome with a finicky menu system, frequent loading screens and a number of aimless side missions.
That said, if you’re itching for more of Runeterra after watching “Arcane,” “Ruined King” is a fun way to ween off the show’s shimmer-induced high. The game brims with character, even though “Ruined King” follows a somewhat uninspired “end of the world” story about a specter hellbent on destroying humanity. It is still a treat for any fan who wants to take in every morsel of Runeterra.
“Ruined King” revolves around the port of Bilgewater, a city of pirates, gangs and cutthroats run by Miss Fortune, and the neighboring Shadow Isles, a set of deserted islands corrupted by a scourge known as the “Black Mist.” Fortune forges an alliance with Illaoi, a local spiritual prophet, to protect Bilgewater from the deadly mist encroaching on the city.
In time, Fortune and Illaoi partner with fellow League of Legend champions Braum, Yasuo, Ahri and Pyke in a quest to stop the Black Mist coming from the Shadow Isles. Fortune is dead set on revenge; Braum traveled to Bilgewater to save his village back home; Yasuo is attempting to atone for past sins. Some of the best moments in “Ruined King” come from the conversations the crew has while resting at a campfire. Cutscenes where the characters wrestle with their inner demons between dungeon fights.
“Don’t tell me you actually sleep with your eyes open?” Fortune says to Pyke at one stop in their journey.
“I don’t sleep,” replies Pyke, a bloodthirsty serial killer who was previously terrorizing the pirates of Bilgewater.
“That makes two of us,” Fortune says.
All of these conversations are illustrated and brought to life by the art from developer Airship Syndicate and some top-class voice acting. Joe Madureira, a comic book artist known for his work on “Darksiders” and “Uncanny X-Men,” is one of the founders of the Austin-based studio. The studio’s background in comics shines through in the game. The cutscenes feel like a graphic novel for “League of Legends.” And it helps that “Ruined King” brought on big-name actors like Laura Bailey, who played Abby Anderson in the “The Last of Us Part II,” to voice Riot’s champions.
“Ruined King” is a true turn-based strategy game. The game’s combat builds off one of Airship Syndicate’s previous titles “Battle Chasers: Nightwar,” which was adapted from a comic book series created by Madureira.
Players form teams of three champions with varied sets of abilities used to heal teammates, defend and fight off opponents. You never have to worry about committing to the wrong combination of champions; all the characters level up after every fight, even if they’re sitting on the bench. The game encourages you to experiment with different playstyles and, at times, forces you to try out certain heroes because they’re required to be involved in certain parts of the storyline. Fights don’t become too stale too fast, and if you do wind up feeling uninspired by a certain team combination, you’re not penalized for switching things up late in the game.
As the game progresses, you can promote certain attributes in champions or shore up their weaknesses by equipping and upgrading specific items or weapons. But swapping out these items and cycling through the options always felt a bit complicated. I’d often have to back out and re-enter a character’s profile when I wanted to select another piece of their equipment to review or change.
When you’re in a fight, the combat in “Ruined King” is organized into a three-lane system that looks a lot like the fretboard from “Guitar Hero.” Players orchestrate turns across three lanes — speed, balance and power — that determine how fast and how powerful a certain move will be. You can speed up an attack, but it’ll mean you won’t inflict as much damage. Or you can move an attack into the power lane, but that’ll take more time to execute. Toward the end of the game, when you’re facing some of the tougher bosses, fights turn into duels for positioning on the three lanes. You need to avoid certain lanes while the boss rains down fire, and you can position certain moves before the enemy’s turn to heal or to land a well-timed block. Airship Syndicate does a great job at introducing compounding actions to make champions stronger as the match stretches on — similar to how it feels when playing a match in “League of Legends.” Pyke, for example, can acquire a buff called “Executioner” that will multiply the strength of one of his lane abilities.
The battles are a blast; it’s the space between the fights that can feel like a slog. “Ruined King” is structured around a series of dungeons, like what you’d find in “Diablo” or other dungeon crawlers, but the various puzzles required to open a door can be particularly grating. I’d let out an audible groan whenever I had to backpedal to a certain part of the map to flip some switch.
The game’s dependence on loading screens exacerbated my frustration. Whether I was entering a massive cave or quaint shop in town, every entryway came with a 15-second loading screen. You hit enough loading screens in quick succession that playing the game feels a lot like driving through stop-and-go traffic. Once you level past a certain area in the game, traveling back to find that last unopened chest becomes another series of loading screens that makes you want to call it quits for the day.
I reviewed “Ruined King” on Nintendo Switch, and the game crashed a half dozen times or more. There’s an in-game auto-save feature, but it wasn’t very helpful. Some bad luck with an in-game hiccup could set me back 20 minutes. It led me to habitually save after every fight, which was a fine solution but it seems like a backstop that shouldn’t be necessary for games nowadays.
Later in the game, I circled back to some side missions around Bilgewater only to find I had waited far too long and, now, completely overpowered my opponents. Most of the side missions either fit into a bounty hunter system or require a “fetch” mission, delivering parcels to characters around the map, all of whom were hiding behind a set of those tedious loading screens. I abandoned ship and continued on with the main story instead.
I should note that I am probably Riot’s target audience for this expansion of the “League of Legends” universe. I have thought about playing “League,” but was always put off by the daunting number of hours I’d need to commit to learn the intricacies of some of the game’s 150-plus champions. I ended up downloading “Wild Rift,” Riot’s mobile version of the base game, to learn more before fully diving in. I then watched “Arcane” as soon as the show debuted on Netflix and became completely enthralled. I’m orbiting the “League of Legends” universe and can feel Riot’s gravitational pull.
Riot now has an entire publishing team, entitled Riot Forge, dedicated to partnering with independent developers on new “League of Legends” titles in different game formats. There are two more games already on the way: “Song of Nunu,” a single-player journey through Runeterra’s arctic Freljord, is expected to come out next year; and “Convergence” an upcoming platformer starring Ekko, one of the characters from “Arcane,” set for 2022 as well.
A turn-based RPG like “Ruined King” is the exact type of game I’d want to try out. Despite all of the headaches, I have a better understanding of Runeterra and the champions in it thanks to “Ruined King.” I like Braum’s buoyant optimism and Pyke’s deadpan demeanor. The next time I’m scrolling through the roster of champions on “League of Legends” or “Wild Rift,” I’ll give them a try.
Because of “Ruined King,” I’m developing a connection with the franchise. I just don’t find the game to be a must-play worthy of a ringing endorsement.