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Rewind: Fighting Windows 95 in Kingsway

Just like in real life, the PC is your enemy

Kingsway is Windows 95 as an RPG. It’s a stock standard fantasy quest in most ways, but every part of the game — overworld, equipment, items, combat — is presented and controlled like an operating system from the 1990s. Just the idea of it prompts images of retro tech kitsch combined with the charm and convoluted management of an early computer RPG (CRPG). This was a strong enough pitch that I went and bought Kingsway (mostly) sight unseen.

In action, though, Kingsway plays like a basic CRPG that’s been stripped of the actual role-playing. It’s more of a roguelike fantasy adventure that focuses just on combat and survival — with the most uncomfortable control scheme possible.

Kingsway screenshot

Originally released in 2017 on PC, developer Andrew Morrish and publisher Adult Swim Games issued an out-of-nowhere update in November 2021 titled Ascended Edition. This update is basically a free expansion, bringing along the new Necromancer class, nearly 100 new items, new encounters and enemies, a number of smaller updates to the base game, and a lot more that you can peruse in the patch notes. As far as I can tell, Kingsway‘s core gameplay hasn’t changed much besides some new difficulty options and seed customisation when you start a new game.

In Kingsway, you control a single character — you pick their portrait, class and starting items (if you can and want to buy any) — and traverse a randomly-generated world by clicking between points of interest and settlements. Purely by chance, you stumble upon nearly-identical dungeons, encounters, and a dozen or so fixed quests. Quests can lead to different outcomes and rewards depending on your choices, though not to the point that you’re truly role-playing. You pick whichever option benefits you the most at that point in the game because that’s all that really matters in Kingsway. Whatever choices you make are concerned with which skills to take next, which stats to toss points into, or what you’ll spend your gold on.

You only have so much time to figure this out, too, since the alien Sky Eater is gradually sweeping over the land and starving you of options. Starting from the west where you start the game and moving east, the shadow of the Sky Eater slowly creeps across the landscape as an overcast sky blocking out the sun and replaces random encounters with empty high-level Shadows that don’t drop loot. If you dawdle, you’ll eventually be forced into an unbeatable encounter against it. You have to spend your limited number of turns wisely; the Ascended update lets you slow down or speed up the Sky Eater’s arrival, but they’re always a descending threat.

You have a main quest in Kingsway to drive you forward: defeat the three bosses across the island so you can face the final boss before the Sky Eater catches up. There’s a few optional endings after this, where you can either end the game or progress to the Underworld to chase another final boss, and there also seems to be an alternate route involving cultists that I haven’t figured out yet. Either way, your only option is to head east and make the most of whatever you stumble upon until you either win or die.

Kingsway screenshot

This means that Kingsway is all about min-maxing. It’s about playing as efficiently as you can to craft the best build you can to survive as long as you can. Kingsway follows a strict, charmless template that makes perfect sense for its Windows 95 framework.

While Kingsway has little identity as an RPG and more in common with a typical roguelike, it’s how developer Morrish leans into and embraces the operating system that makes it memorable. There’s about as much menu bloat and micromanagement as you would expect from the premise, but Kingsway is — remarkably — defined by its most irritating and annoying qualities. You’re not just using an operating system to play, you’re using an operating system from the 1990s.

Like any operating system, you can (mildly) customise the in-game desktop to your liking. You can reposition and resize each window, as well as purchase hotkey shortcuts that quickly open and close “programs” like your item box or quest list to make your experience slightly more manageable. Otherwise, managing your desktop is about as tedious as you think that it would be.

There isn’t enough room for every window to fit comfortably, so you have to be selective in how you use your limited desktop space. There’s no automation besides the hotkeys, which means that you have to personally open and close every window. The game won’t remember the size or placement of each program, so every new window constantly overlaps everything else unless you find a specific space for it to sit and stay.

And that’s just the basic gameplay. During combat, this kicks up a few notches.

Kingsway screenshot

The core gameplay of Kingsway boils down to using an outdated version of Windows, but combat is more like using an outdated internet browser: pop-ups galore.

Random encounters are central to Kingsway and trigger while you travel from one node to another. Whether it’s in the overworld or inside a dungeon, travelling between locations will take a few seconds and there’s a good chance that an enemy or encounter will trigger between locations. It’ll appear on top of all your other programs like a pop-up, but it doesn’t stop there. Unlike the rest of the game, combat transforms Kingsway from a turn-based game to a real-time one. It escalates the discomfort of a cumbersome OS into onset panic.

As soon as they show up, enemy windows slowly (or quickly, depending on your settings) glide across your desktop to make it harder to click either attack, defend, use spells or escape; on the most basic level, enemies prevent you from taking any action at all. Meanwhile, their own attacks will continue to “load” and strike every few seconds. Sometimes enemies will throw up their own pop-ups like spells and poison knives that you have to quickly click out of in time before they land. Other times, multiple enemies will attack simultaneously or load in one after another. Unlike everything else in the game, Kingsway’s combat will suddenly demand both fast a reaction time and physical accuracy.

Fighting an enemy in Kingsway is like if Excel suddenly chose violence: it’s relentless. In a game that’s otherwise about careful decision-making with no real-world time limit, enemies flip this on its head and mercilessly toss you in the deep end. Fail to defend or avoid a single attack in time and your game could already be over. Bosses are even tougher, with one in particular summoning three high damage pop-ups every few seconds with no break. Even early on in a game, combat can rapidly snowball and leave you either dead or with few options left to continue.

Kingsway screenshot

Just like using Windows 95 in 2022, Kingsway is frustrating and uncomfortable… but I can’t help but love it, even if it’s more for the concept and less the execution. The gimmick is compelling, intriguing, tedious and annoying all at once, and I spent at least a dozen hours playing it. I do wish it leaned even more into the operating system gimmick, like dealing with the clutter of in-game pop-up ads and the slog of dial-up internet, or that it made a greater effort with story and characters — or that it just had more charm, period. But for its price tag and concept, Kingsway is well worth the time.

This article was originally published on Doublejump. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, you can support the site further by following us on social media, becoming a Patron, and/or purchasing some merchandise!