Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit is a point and click adventure game developed by Lithuanian studio Tag of Joy and inspired by genre classics such as Monkey Island and Syberia. The game follows Milda Kovas, a young woman from Chicago who learns that she has inherited her grandfather's house in Lithuania after his passing. You progress through Crowns and Pawns by solving exploration heavy puzzles and piecing clues together to find the lost treasure of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Crowns and Pawns boasts brilliant art design. Each environment, from the grand halls of a cathedral to the narrow streets of Italy are beautifully represented in a hand-painted style. The icons on the screen are also tucked away when necessary to give the player full view of the incredible set pieces as much as possible. The only hindrance to the game's visuals come from the character models and their animations. I actually grew to enjoy how the characters look and move, but my first impression of the animations given to the cast was that they looked really stiff and robotic. This opinion slowly started to change as I talked with more characters and saw how faithful the developers were to their mission to honor the classics. Each character's facial expressions are vivid and colorful, they bring out the best of the voice performances and give fans of the genre the same playful interactions that make adventure games so beloved. There is a lot to enjoy here visually, and it’s a shame that it takes so long for the game to show the same charm as other modern day adventure games.
One of the more impressive parts of the game is its voice acting. The talent on display by the entire cast of Crowns and Pawns is the driving force of the game and I got excited for each interaction that I had just because I wanted to experience more of the great script and expressive acting. Erin Yvette steals the show as Milda, delivering a character that felt real and relatable. Every conversation is made more interesting with quips and fun moments only made possible by the performance given by the lead. I only have good things to say about the rest of the cast as well. I was especially surprised by the performances of Matthew Curtis as Joris, Stephanie Lewis as Milda’s mother, and Katy Johnson as Eva. Joris serves mainly as an expository device and Matthew still breathes life into their performance and makes each investigation scene more personable. Each time Milda had to confront her mother you could feel the tension in their relationship just in their voices alone which was more than I expected from a character that you only speak to a handful of times. And the library scene where Katy plays a cranky librarian is one of the most genuinely hilarious characters that I have seen in a game in a long time.
Let’s backtrack to the beginning of Crowns and Pawns. Something that immediately hooked me into Milda’s world was the dynamic character creation system. The game opens with you on your computer making an avatar of a character that will end up becoming your template for how Milda looks. This is a fun meta interaction that plays on the idea that you are creating a character that is creating a character, this also sets the mood of the game. You are then transitioned to a conversation with Dana where you answer some very good icebreaker questions as Milda and shape her personality. This form of character creation smartly gets you in character by asking things like “does Milda have a tattoo?” but overlays this with dialog options that ask “how does Milda feel about tattoos?” It’s a small thing but goes the extra mile to bring you closer to the main protagonist.
The gameplay of Crowns and Pawns is something that I went back and forth on throughout my seven hours playing the game. This game is spot on with its faithful revival of classic point and click adventure, the menus are responsive, and everything moves exactly how you would expect. The game features exploration based puzzles and that is where I come to my main impasse with the game. The solution to each puzzle tends to be different shades of nonsensical and rewards the player for thinking outside the normal box and clicking on everything many times. These solutions took me a while to figure out and there was even an occasion or two where I looked at the guide to tell me how to get through areas. It’s not my opinion that the puzzles are too hard, but they take a long time to complete and require having the same conversations repeatedly until you’ve found the solution. This comes with the intense satisfaction of having solved a cryptic puzzle, but banging your mouse at every item on screen until something happens can feel frustrating. I fully believe that I would still be stuck in front of a certain 3D printer to this very day if I hadn’t looked up answers at certain points. This is a hot take and I know it, the adventure game genres sweethearts were all built around the same idea, that puzzle solutions can be entertaining and comical rather than purely logical. There are tons of fans that enjoy this type of exploratory game play and you can mostly disregard my gripes if that includes you.
There comes a point in the story where you are allowed to travel to many different scenes at will in a segmented open world fashion. This feels really functional, but at times the momentum is lost as you complete a task and forget that to move on to the next part you have to combine two notes on your phone or something similar. This is not terrible because it is simple enough to remember if you think about the things you have left to do. Though feeling purposeless in those few moments really took me out of the experience and didn’t feel like it was the developers intent to have those sections feel disjointed. I think that the idea was that it would feel natural to always be checking your phone between activities, but sometimes I really racked my brain thinking about how to trigger the next step when all I had to do was answer my text messages. So my problem lies neither with the open world nature of the game or the phone as a tool, but rather the both of them together. If I was at a standstill in a single section and didn’t know what to do it might feel totally natural to check my phone. Alternatively, if I had a completely open world available to me I would naturally think that if I knew where to go then the location might just pop up and allow me to travel there to continue on the adventure. This is albeit a small gripe, but it led me to more than a few moments of feeling lost in what is mostly a structured experience.
I felt conflicted about the main plot of Milda’s adventure. The characters were so well-written and their personalities continued to shine through with every interaction, however Milda never found a way to fit into the narrative. This is such a shame because I love the mystery about the Grand Duchy and tracking down pieces of the puzzle is rewarding and makes you feel like a real historian at times. But from beginning to end I kept thinking, “Why am I here?” Towards the ending of the story Milda has a conversation with one of the games antagonists and they say “What’s your real motivation to go through all this trouble?” and for the first time in the game I really didn’t believe in any of the dialog options given to me. The main characters never got their strong call to adventure that propelled them through the final act. I think that the characters have so much life to them that it overcomes this, but there are many times when Milda is asked why she continues to do this dangerous thing and her response is always lackluster. Joris and Dana end up feeling the most genuine. Joris having his own motivations for helping Milda and Dana actually keeping distance from the main plot which allowed excellent moments of grounding the adventure to its modern day setting.
Crowns and Pawns is a game that I came out of feeling good that I had played it. The characters portrayed were all fantastically written and brilliantly voiced. The setting and plot that had you chase ancient relics was well depicted and full of intrigue. While the puzzle areas were frustrating at times they also offered hilarious scenarios that made me verbally laugh out loud at times. Even if you are not a fan of adventure games this game is still wildly enjoyable to experience and fun to play. I’d wholeheartedly recommend Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit to anyone that wants a game that will last them two or three afternoons with a good story and strong acting.
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