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Game Name:  Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown
Developer:  Cinemaware
Publisher:  Capcom
PC Release Year:  2003
Review Date:  December 29, 2013

If I have taken nothing else away from this journey into the past of PC gaming, it is that developers today are very cautious folks.  I cannot say I blame them.  The cost to produce a triple-A title has skyrocketed with the advent of more powerful consoles and computer rigs, yet sticker prices have only recently bumped up from the $50 to $60 mark.  As a result, volume determines the success of any new release.  This incentivizes studios to remain conservative, and they end up giving gamers what is safe, rather than daring to create something entirely new and innovative.  Sure, the indie market is capable of defying standard genre archetypes, but low budgets tend to result in ugly looking creations.  This is one of the reasons I love older games.  Turning to the past gives you the chance to have the best of both worlds, since lower financial risk on new releases meant more original designs from solid studios.  The best combination of wonky design and beautiful aesthetics, that I have yet seen, is Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown.  The mechanics may get repetitive and boring as the title nears its conclusion, but even today, the experience is entertaining and unique enough to warrant the price of admission.

Given its name, there should be no surprise that Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown follows the swashbuckling exploits of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.  On his return from the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart is captured and held for ransom in Austria.  Seizing on his brother’s misfortune, the weaselly Prince John takes the throne for himself and plunges England into civil war.  Where this game departs from popular mythology is exactly the role Robin plays in the ensuing conflict.  Egged on by Maid Marian and her nationalist rhetoric, Robin declares open war on the prince and marshals an army to retake the countryside in the name of King Richard.  As you work to unify England’s many hamlets, you will be introduced to a host of characters from the Robin Hood legend, including Friar Tuck (who works to collect money for the King’s ransom) and Guy of Gisbourne (who hunts Robin on John’s behalf).  While the story is typical fare for the outlaw of Sherwood Forest, there is a level of cheesy frivolity in the back-and-forth banter between characters, which makes the overall experience that much more enjoyable. 

If you missed the original Defender of the Crown back in the ‘80s, and are wondering about the gameplay in this Robin Hood reboot, imagine if the campaign map of the Total War franchise had a baby with the mini-games of Sid Meier’s Pirates! and you start to get the idea.  After a brief tutorial, which sees you kick the Sheriff of Nottingham out of Sherwood Forest, you are presented with a beautifully detailed map of 38 counties and five enemy factions that seek to put Robin’s head on a pike.  Your mission is to consolidate power, claim new lands to strengthen your army, and use those new forces to defeat your adversaries.  To do this, you are given an income every turn that is contingent upon the size and quality of your land holdings, you have the ability to construct castles in your territories to defend against enemy assaults, you have a spy in Maid Marian to ascertain enemy troop strength, and you have a general in Little John to raise an army on your behalf and lead them into battle.  If you are worried that this sounds like every other grand strategy game out there, fear not, because there is a fun twist to keep the formula from getting stale. While you can make unlimited defensive moves per turn, such as reinforcing your garrisons, you are only allowed one offensive action.  Typically this will be a march into enemy lands with your army, but you also have the option of kicking off a raid or hosting a medieval tournament. 

On the surface, these mini-games are merely a fun diversion from the more serious business of unifying the English countryside, but they actually have a substantial impact on the course of the game.  Take a castle raid for example.  Launching this specialized attack upon the fortress of an enemy will kick off a series of side scrolling sword fights in which Robin Hood can attack high, attack low, thrust, parry, and dodge.  The objective is to cut your way through the enemy forces to find the treasure room before sunrise.  If you succeed, not only do you get to keep this plunder at your opponent’s expense, but any soldiers you vanquish remain dead on the strategic map.  This gives you the option to think about how and when you want to make your move, since you can choose to fight a war of attrition and slowly wear down your adversaries instead of risking your army in large pitched battles.  Archery raids, which occur on territories without castles, work in similar fashion but kick off a first-person battle to test your mettle with a bow.  Jousting tournaments, though, are the real key to your slog across England.  As Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe hurtles on horseback towards the competition, he is engaging in a kind of high stakes gambling.  There are three rounds to the games.  Winning the second entitles you to prize money that is taken directly from the loser, while winning the third gets you one of their unfortified tracts of land.  Once your adversaries have pieced together sizeable kingdoms of their own and the game begins to bog down, you will find that this is one of the best ways to expand your territory.

For as creatively unique as the experience is, it is definitely not perfect.  One of the most fundamental shortcomings is how poorly the campaign map is at delivering essential bits of information.  For example, Prince John has the unique ability, with his control of the English navy, to launch assaults from the sea on any region that contains a port.  Unfortunately, this information on a region’s infrastructure is only presented as imagery on the campaign map.  There was a painful bit of trial and error on my end, as I struggled to correlate marine landings with the little brown docks that jutted into the sea.  A broader complaint with the title centers around its repetitive gameplay.  As in most grand strategy games, the player is a juggernaut and victory is a near certainty once you reach the final turns of play.  There is unfortunately nothing like the realm divide in Shogun 2, which sees nearly all remaining factions ally against the player, to keep things interesting as you work towards the final assault on Prince John’s capital.  Also annoying, are the overly simple battle mechanics.  There are three avenues of attack and each side launches waves of units at one another through these corridors until someone is defeated.  There is a tactical advantage in keeping your archers and catapults behind a meat wall of footmen and knights.  That is sadly about as deep as the combat gets.

All in all though, I had fun with Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown.  Serious strategy gamers are sure to scoff and say the game is too easy, since it was designed with genre newbies in mind.  There is a kernel of truth to this viewpoint, but I choose to look at the glass half full.  It was nice to be able to easily pickup and play the game without a need to read exhaustive manuals and help guides to understand the finer points of something like farm management.  Combine this with a colorful world and humorous subject matter, and it was more than enough to keep me going.  The unconventional mini-games, with their unique impact on the wider game world, were just icing on the cake.  This may not be the type of game you will return to time and time again, but it is definitely worth one playthrough. 

Verdict:  Recommended