Typically when King rolls out a new game, they don’t make a big “thing" out of it. A new entry in one of their many Saga games comes along, gets cross-promoted among their many billions of installs of existing games, the fan base downloads and plays said new game, and the band marches on. They’ve practically got releasing new mobiles games down to a science. For their latest game though, things are quite different. King is stepping out of their hyper casual bubble and taking the plunge into the “mid-core" scene of mobile games with Legend of Solgard (Free), and they’re putting all of their incredibly mighty marketing muscle behind it.
Legend of Solgard is developed by Sweden-based Snowprint Studios, which was co-founded by Alexander Ekvall and Niklas Malmqvist. Ekvall was previously part of Fabrication Games which you might remember for putting out tons of quality mobile games over the years, like Ionocraft Racing, Piclings, Niko, Sprinkle, and Project Belle. Fabrication was bought out by King back in the spring of 2012. Malmqvist is a 30 year industry veteran who has been all over the place and worked on all kinds of games, but prior to joining Snowprint in 2015 he had been an art director at King for 8 years. So you can really see the synergy and how things have come full circle back to King in creating Legend of Solgard.
As for the game itself, it’s a matching-based combat RPG centered around a warrior named Embla who is trying to save her world from an icy invading threat. The game’s entire theme is fire versus ice, and trades on some well-established Nordic mythological tropes. King is known for making match-3 games and indeed the combat in Legend of Solgard is based around matching. In the beginning it feels like a pretty typical match-3 format, but slowly and steadily the game unveils new mechanics to you and by the first hour or so you can see that there is tremendous depth and strategy in the matching gameplay here, and I don’t mean that as hyperbole. There is just layer upon layer of mechanics and honestly it’s a bit overwhelming at first.
There’s a reason the matching gameplay is so good, and I’m just going to be blunt. It’s almost directly copied from Capybara Games’ Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, which was originally released on the Nintendo DS in 2009 and then remade in high definition for release on consoles and PC in 2011 with a mobile port being released in 2013. Clash of Heroes is a cult classic, mostly due to its extremely well-designed matching combat. I guess this is the part where each individual person’s moral compass will need to come into play. The mobile versions of Clash of Heroes have been pulled from the App Stores for years, and surprisingly no other developers (until now) have decided to build on those novel matching mechanics in their own game. No doubt some will see Legend of Solgard as just a ripoff and write it off immediately, while others will be happy that these ideas are able to live on in another form. I’m in the latter camp, mostly because Legend of Solgard is just a hell of a lot of fun to play.
So how do these wonderful and potentially controversial matching mechanics work? Well at its core, you’ll have your set of troops on the lower half of the screen with enemies approaching from an ice portal at the top. Your goal is to defeat any enemies that stand in your way in order to attack and destroy the portal, thus beating a level. You do this by making matches (duh). Match 3 of the same troops vertically to create a forward attack, and match 3 troops horizontally to make a defensive wall across those 3 spaces. Legend of Solgard is turn-based, and you can make 3 moves before the enemy gets to act. Any of your matched or defeated troops get sent back to a holding area where Embla stands, and you can use one turn to recall troops being held there back into the battlefield.
Those are the very basics, but as I mentioned there are many layers to the combat here. Early on you’ll learn how to withdraw troops using a turn. Normally you can only move a troop that’s at the bottom of a column, but withdrawing allows you to remove a troop from anywhere on the board, thus giving you many more opportunities to make matches. When you make a vertical match it creates a single troop that’s ready to attack, but if you match THAT troop with two more of the same troops, you can get what’s called a Merge Bonus making that troop’s attack even stronger. You can also produce different results by making matches in different shapes. For example, early on you’ll learn how to make a match in a square of 4 troops which will produce a huge troop capable of attacking a width of two columns with a stronger than normal attack. Learning how to best utilize your board layout and create these various types of matches is unbelievably fun and satisfying.
But wait, there’s more! The actual troop units all have their various unique abilities which you can learn to exploit. For example, the Grimchop troop has a special ability called Shield Strike, which means when you make a vertical match of those troop types he’ll send out a shield that will do damage to whatever is standing in front of him, before actually going out on his normal attack run. Or the Roughpaw troop who has a Battle Roar special ability, which grants additional attack strength to any troops adjacent to him when a vertical match is made.
These different troop types and their special abilities are really the meat and potatoes of Legend of Solgard. Unlocking new troops and their abilities and then utilizing them strategically is how you’ll be successful in combat, and again, it’s incredibly fun to experiment with different strategies as you play. To that end, one of my favorite features in this game is the ability to try out any unlocked ability in a little practice scenario whenever you wish. This is invaluable for understanding exactly how each ability works and is just one example of how polished Legend of Solgard is from top to bottom. That really shouldn’t be a surprise coming from King, as they’re known for taking as much time as is needed to get every little detail of a game right before releasing it, and this is no different.
Of course also being from King it should be no surprise that Legend of Solgard is a free to play game, and boy howdy does it use every trick in the book. Almost everything revolves around earning various currencies to unlock and upgrade your different troops, and it’s that sort of upgrade grind loop that I’m totally fine with. More concerning is the energy system that uses increasing amounts of energy to play or replay a level. As these things go it’s not much of a problem in the early goings, but becomes more substantial the more you progress. Also there is a heavy element of randomness to the battles in Legend of Solgard, and this was done on purpose according to Snowprint because they wanted there to be moments where it seemed like you were destined to lose only to come back in miraculous fashion thanks to the RNG gods.
When I asked if they were concerned of the opposite effect, that the RNG might work against a player and snatch certain victory out from under them in a particularly cheap fashion, they said that was a risk they were willing to take in order to have those grander comeback moments. Personally I don’t mind a hefty dose of RNG in my games for exactly those reasons they state, but when you take the energy system into account it can feel more than a little frustrating to have wasted some energy on a fight you should have won but ended up losing due to some random elements out of your control. Normally you can just pick up the pieces and try again, but if you’re out of energy then your only option is to wait or spend some of your precious premium currency to refill. This will no doubt be the free to play aspect of Legend of Solgard that will piss the most people off.
All that said, if you’re pretty comfortable with free to play games there’s nothing you’ll ever HAVE to spend actual money on in Legend of Solgard. Wait and grind, sure, but not spend unless you choose to. And there is A LOT of content on offer here. There’s a full story-driven campaign spread across 4 worlds each with 40 levels, for a total of 160 levels. There’s even a fifth world coming soon with an additional 40 levels, so lots to do here on the single player campaign side of things. Then there’s an absurd amount of additional game modes. Treasure Caves have you battling to earn Sun Gems to level your characters up with; Bounties have you taking on a contract to take out specific enemies in Solgard to earn gold; the Hero Arena is the PvP portion that has you taking on other players’ teams; The Dungeons have you teaming up with your Guild to take on enemies and bosses; and the Boss Arena is just like it sounds and has you taking on the various world bosses in different situations. This is a game you can easily play for months and even years into the future, and Snowprint already has plenty of ideas to continue supporting it for a long time to come.
Here comes the tricky part: How do you rate a game like this? Free to play games in general are tough to rate as they’re a living, ongoing service that can change over time, and they’re never really meant to be “beaten" in a traditional sense. Legend of Solgard does have a beatable campaign but its many extra modes give it legs well into the future. Mechanically everything here is super on point, provided you’re fine with the random elements that can hinder or help you in the blink of an eye. Also there’s the fact that the mechanics are uncomfortably close to Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, which may or may not matter to you.
Taking all of that into account, I have to say that more than a decade of covering mobile gaming has turned me into a cynical bastard, but that hasn’t stopped me from loving my time with Legend of Solgard. Yes it does some free to play stuff traditional gamers hate, but I find myself coming back to it over and over because the gameplay is just so compelling it’s worth putting up with the freemium stuff. I do worry that this is perhaps too complex of a game for the Candy Crush crowd, and to free to play for the hardcore crowd, which risks it not finding an audience at all. That’s what I hate so much about these “mid-core" games; either jump feet first into either end of free to play or paid but straddling the line is often a mistake that serves nobody.
All that said, this is a five star effort if I’ve ever seen one, and for me personally the biggest drawback is its somewhat limiting energy system that keeps it from achieving our highest rating. I’m very curious to see if this sort of game can break into the casual crowd that King has been serving so well for years, or if perhaps even the “real gamer" crowd might find a lot to love here when they want to diddle around with a mobile game. The bottom line is that Legend of Solgard is free and the mechanics and polish are all top-notch, and the game loop quite compelling, so there’s no reason not to give it a shot yourself and see which side of the fence you end up on.