Well, since this thread has been resurrected already, I may as well post my review (which I just put up on Lugnet 2 weeks ago).
Castle System / Knights’ Kingdom II
Vladek’s Dark Fortress
La forteresse des ténèbres de Vladek
Fortaleza Oscura de Vladek
Ages 8-14, 967 Pcs. (C)2005. 106 page manual: 1 model (1 battering ram, 1 horse-mounted catapult, 1 horse-drawn catapult, 1 ballista and 1 fortress), 276 steps. Building time, about 2 hours 20 minutes.
(Scale: Must-Have Excellent Very-Good Good Fair Poor)
: Excellent / Models
: Very-Good / Playability
The huge red and black fortress of evil Lord Vladek rises out of the barren wastes. The four brave knights of Morcia must storm the castle with the aid of their mobile siege weaponry, but how can their tiny band ever hope to breech such a fortress, with 3 elite Shadow Knights and Lord Vladek himself poised to stop them?
There are too many unique or rare elements in this set to list them all, so I’ll just gloss over a few of them. This is the only source for: 1 x 5 x 7 & ½ Doors in Dark Red, the 1 x 8 x 6 Door Frame (from Harry Potter) in Black, Octagonal shields with a white and blue diagonal stripe pattern, 3 x 3 inverted red-brown dishes, a ‘Scala Finial’ piece of any color outside of Scala sets (even if it is Trans-Mid. Blue), 3 x 4 33 sloped bricks in dark stone, double concave 2 x 2 45 slope bricks in red-brown, and one of only 2 sets in the past decade with black 3 x 3 x 6 wall corner panels. There are tons of other pieces that only appear in one or two other sets as well, but if you really want to know, just go look at the inventory on Peeron.com.
Before going into any details, I would like to mention two things that will influence what I write about this set. First, I was not impressed with the Knights Kingdom II line at all, and have only bought a couple of sets, mostly because they were discounted and I wanted a few of the pieces out of them. Second, I purchased this particular set at 50% off.
There are 9 minifigs with the Dark Fortress in all: 1 skeleton, 4 knights of Morcia, 3 Elite Shadow Knights, and Lord Vladek. We’re all familiar with the skeleton at this point (there are 2 additional evil-skeleton heads used to decorate the front gate), so I’ll move on to the factions at this point.
I like this round of ‘Jellybean knights’ much better than the first. While the armor may be less ‘generic’ than the first iteration, I find the color schemes and shields much cooler. For example, the new ‘Gold and Grey Wolf Head’ pattern looks better than Danju’s old ‘Yellow Lines’ pattern. Also, while I think the octagonal shields are very interesting, the old ‘Howling Wolf’ pattern with yellow outline pales in comparison next to the new matching gold/grey wolf head on an old style triangle shield. While the armor and shields may be an improvement, the visors are still the same bright, bulky helmets they have been. Not only are they huge (should a helmet really be as large as an entire breastplate?), but half of them are very loose fitting and flop around.
Lord Vladek probably had the coolest armor pattern in KKIIs first outing, so I won’t call his new scorpion pattern an ‘improvement’, but I won’t say its worse either! The black and silver scorpion on dark red armor and matching ovoid shield are really cool (the shield pattern, again, being a huge improvement over the graphic on the old octagonal one). Vladek’s helmet suffers from the same bulk problem as the Morcian’s (though at least not loose).
The Elite Shadow knights better be good, there are only three of them to defend the fortress! They all share the same face as Vladek, but all wear speckled plate and have speckled helmets and axes (the small variety, not the huge halberd, though one also carries one of those in his off hand, very elite!) The speckled look works well with the armor, but not so much the axe.
All torsos are plain, which is disappointing (but at least you won’t need to break out the Brasso to customize them), and if you haven’t already collected a bunch of KKII sets, there is a good variety of facial expressions and hand colors. Unfortunately, other than the Elite Shadow Knights, everyone wields a KKII style sword.
The weakest part of the set is the weaponry brought along by the Morcian knights. The smallest, and probably best, of their accessories is the two person battering ram. It is small, lightweight, has a method to hold shields while in use, and is pointy. Simple, elegant, this one works for me.
The next step up is probably the strangest of the lot; a horse-mounted catapult!? I do like that it is made with a saucepan (this is useful elsewhere) and is powered by a rubber-band (this works nicely), but a saddle mount catapult? I’ll move along now.
Third is a ballista looking contraption (labeled, humorously enough, a ‘blunt shooter’ by LEGO). The good? It isn’t powered by the generic spring-loaded cannon that usually fires these rubber tipped projectiles. Instead, it is launched by quickly spinning a gear, which in turn moves a 1 x 8 gear rack, which in turn pushes the projectile. Does it work? Well, sure, it just takes two hands to operate (or else the whole contraption will go rolling away). The bad? 2 large metallic copper shoulder guards are used for decoration (they look strange in the set, though I can think of other interesting uses for these pieces, if only they were a different color), and the overall construction doesn’t look very nice to me. This, like the other equipment the knights bring, is just spare parts.
Last, there is a horse drawn catapult. It looks very flat and plain. The only thing that impresses me about it is that when launching a boulder, the whole catapult does NOT flip through the air. Both this catapult and the ballista use 4 x 4 round bricks for wheels (the catapult in dark stone, the ballista in red brown). This has its ups and downs. While I would rather see wheels (ala old carts) used for this purpose, if you already have a bucket of wheels, getting these 4 x 4 rounds is probably more useful.
Finally I can move on to the REAL meat of this set, the Dark Fortress itself. While there are many things I can nit-pick about this castle, I will first and foremost say this – it is cool! From the first few bricks I felt that this fortress was something cool, and I wasn’t let down as I built on. Of all the castles I can think of, this one is probably the most imposing looking of them all. The dark-red and black color scheme looks evil (as it should), the dark red flags and large scorpion banners are nifty. The tan baseplates and red-brown BURP and LURP make it seem to rise out of the wastes (instead of from a lush green field like every other castle).
Since I’ve started with praise, I’ll move on to the negatives, from biggest to smallest, before finishing with more praise. First, while the castle folds, it does not fold completely into a closed structure. This is unfortunate, especially since it seems that it might only take some minor modifications in the sets design to accomplish this. Second, the big ‘fireball catapults’ are just silly. Again powered by rubber-bands, I will say that these things do work (which is cool), and they are constructed with cool SNOT bricks (1 x 2 brick with studs on opposite sides), but they are just silly, and silly looking (and besides, those large spears with the scorpion banners block half of their firing range!) They are easily removed, so just take them off and use the parts somewhere else. Third, what is with those two giant swords in front of the drawbridge?! Please, get rid of those and use the money saved to get the knights some real weapons.
Moving on to the small problems and nit-picks, I’ll start with the fact that the two ‘wings’ to the fortress are only connected to the central tower by a single Technic pin each! Even trying to turn the fortress on a hardwood floor, the pins cannot hold and the model comes apart. Next is the drawbridge mechanism. It is a neat idea, and I really liked putting it together, but in practice, it doesn’t work all that well. The chains bind and slip, and the drawbridge itself stops before being all the way up. Since the bottom of the drawbridge is so large and plain, the fortress looks the worse for it being up. Third, the huge arch and opening in the wall to show off the cauldron of fire seems like it should be closed up, hide the cauldron so it is only enjoyed from the rear of the castle. Last, there are a large number of pre-built pieces that I just don’t like in this set. There are two 3 x 8 x 6 Panel with Window pieces, and NINE 4 x 8 x 2 & 1/3 Castle Turret Tops! These pieces have always made me sad, and seeing such a large number of them in this set is disappointing. There are many more nit-picks I could go on with, ask if you want to hear them all, but they’re not really worth writing about.
Enough of the negative though, let’s move on to something more positive. From the front of the castle, with the wings in any position, the castle looks massive and thematically constantly evil. There are more levels to the fortress than there are defenders to occupy them.
At the bottom level, we have sloped rock wall pattern panels, 2 x 4 x 6 rock panels, and a BURP and LURP used quite well. Instead of the castle being on a raised baseplate (like every other castle recently), or an open base as if the fortress were built on pylons (like the Harry Potter sets), this castle has a good solid base that looks to be built around and upon the terrain. The drawbridge is pretty massive, being 8 studs wide (only 6 usable for riding across it, but still!), and if the silly giant swords are removed looks great. The double doors themselves are nice (and would only be better if they were brick-built) and are flanked by evil skulls in a wall that is 2 bricks thick!
The second level is full of good old classic-wall panels (the next best thing to brick built walls). The right hand side looks slightly unfinished in the spots where the spears jut out, but the left hand side is awesome. The black and red slotted wall is a great touch, and he massive pillars in front of it couldn’t be better outside of a MOC. The skeleton on a spinning wall is a ‘play-value added’ feature that I don’t care for, but backing the spinning panel with lots of bricks and a rounded grilled window more than makes up for it.
The third level is where the rest of the ‘play-value’ comes in. The fire-catapults, the drawbridge mechanism, the flame cauldron. These are elements of the set I don’t really need, though if the cauldron was covered from the front I wouldn’t mind it at all. But even if you take all of this away, you are left with a MASSIVE third level. There is enough floor-space to pull up a couch and a couple of chairs, and still have a sword fight or three! Something this fortress really excels in that most older sets don’t is the large areas of open space that you can PLAY with. The fortress actually has that ‘playset’ feel to it that most models don’t, especially when viewed from behind, but more on that later.
The fourth level is where the two horrible giant castle wall panel parts make their appearance, as well as the first two turret top pieces. But other than these parts, you are still left with a large area for placing troops (not that the set has that many of them, so use ones from other sets), a nice red door, and an easy mechanism for reloading the fire cauldron. Simply putting a few sloped bricks on the floor lets you drop pieces through into the cauldron with surprising ease!
The fifth level tops off the side towers, but the central tower rises one level higher (even though it’s a tiny little sixth level). Even this high, there is still room for a duel or two, which is mighty impressive. Even the Vladek mask featured prominently in the center of the tower, unlike the oversized swords and shoulder-pieces, seems to work well. Putting a giant visage of yourself on your castle is the type of thing that evil tyrants love to do!
Spinning the fortress around to examine the back side is where you really get the playset feel. Since the fortress has so many levels, and it isn’t built like a giant flat façade (the tower juts out further then the walls surrounding it, which stick out slightly further than the walls and towers at each end), it really feels like there are many different rooms and spaces to play in. The ground floor is filled with fun little details, including (gasp) two sets of stairs up to the second level. There is a firepit in one room, a fireplace in another (with a removable wall for the Morcian knights to break through, where they’ll find scorpions waiting), and a round table with crystal ball in another. While these neat furnishings don’t compare to those put in many MOCs, they are a great addition that livens up this set! The second level is sparser in these details, which disappear completely by the third level (which is fine, go build something more interesting out of the fire-catapult parts).
Like: Modular building bags in a set that doesn’t look over-modularized.
Like: Sturdy feel, no flimsy Hogwarts here!
Like: Figures accessories (minus KKII swords).
Like: Awesome color scheme and imposing size.
Like: Useable play area.
Dislike: Morcian knights’ extras (ballista, catapults), helmets, and KKII swords.
Dislike: Fire catapults.
Dislike: One piece turret tops and huge wall panels.
Dislike: Step 4 on page 64 nearly gave me a headache!
Along with the usual assortment of extras (Technic pins and 1x1 rounds) the set I purchased came with an extra of the small #1 bag! That means 7 extra armors, 3 shields, spears, axes, etc. Not all sets have this extra bag, but mine is not a unique occurrence, others have been reported as well. If you pick the set up, good luck to you (that is, if you WANT more speckled armor and helmets!)
Even with the detriments of ‘thrown together play-value added’ elements, this set is cool. At 50% off, this is a must have. I would even recommend the set at full price.
Review Written: 1/2/07
By: Brett Kingery (plucky)
Age 31 Favorite Lines/Themes: Castle, Star Wars
CA++++ #++++ CO LM+ LS++>+++ P++++ S- Hzl M- YB75mIC17
I do like Mark Larson's 'pictoral' reviews, maybe I'll move on to including pics of sets in the future, it's something I wanted to do anyway, and he's shown that it works