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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (356)

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Heroes of the Monkey Ta... 4/5
Lands of Lore III 2.5/5
Lands of Lore II: Guard... 1/5
Lands of Lore: Throne o... 2/5
Rage 2 4/5
EnHanced 3.5/5
Blossom Tales: The Slee... 3.5/5
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 2.5/5
Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5
The Incredible Adventur... 4/5
Fallout 4 3/5
Tomba! 5/5

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Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos   PC 

This Land is Your Land. Really, You Can Keep It.    2/5 stars

As a fan of the Dungeon Crawler subgenre of RPGs going way back, I was pleased when I stumbled upon an unknown-to-me series in that genre on GOG. The ‘Lands of Lore’ trilogy, developed by Westwood Studios and originally published by Virgin Interactive, begins with “Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos” (“LoL”), which immediately got my attention with the picture of my late paternal grandmother on the box.

I often hear PC Master Racists lamenting the consumption and digestion of Westwood Studios by Electronic Arts in 2003. Yet I have never really been cognizant of the games Westwood produced. As it turns out, the late development house was responsible for a number of franchises I’d actually heard of (like ‘Command and Conquer’), and even played (like ‘Kyrandia’), but only one I actually liked: ‘Eye of the Beholder.’ With a Dungeon Crawler pedigree like the ‘Eye of the Beholder’ trilogy under their belts, I was excited by the prospect of discovering some more lost Dungeon Crawling classics from that same developer…

Yet, sadly, “LoL” fell well short of my expectations, coming off not only as a poor follow-up to the D&D-based ‘Eye of the Beholder’ series, but as a generally annoying and not-particulalry-fun game in its own right.

Presentation
Graphics and sound are the high point of “LoL.” While the entire game is rendered in sprite-based 2D, it looks incredibly good, with a lot of depth and fine detail. Characters in cutscenes are highly stylized, but impressive for the technology used. Character portraits for party members are animated and show battle damage and other facial expression. Enemies during actual gameplay, however, are not particularly well animated, falling back on the genre’s traditional 2-4 frames of animation.

Audiowise, “LoL” features something quite unprecedented for a game from 1992: A full voiceover! Most of the voiceacting budget obviously went to Patrick Stewart, whose dulcet British tones provide the voice of King Richard, as the rest of the VA crew are unknown and of very mixed capability. The soundtrack is, of course, MIDI, and features a number of not-particularly-memorable tunes.

Technically, “LOL” is what you should expect from an old DOS game. It only runs in an emulator, it doesn’t feature any gamepad support, and would be a nightmare to get running if the good folks at GOG didn’t provide a correctly-configured DOSbox installation with it. Fortunately, I never experienced any crashes or other bad behavior from the game itself, but GOG Galaxy and Steam both proved to be mild pains in the rear. I wanted to play “LoL” using my Steam controller, which is essential for primarily-mouse-driven games with poorly-designed UIs (read: any PC game released before 2005). However, as a non-Steam game, I found it difficult to get Steam to recognize when I was running “LoL.” The solution turned out to be running Big Picture Mode and disabling the Desktop Steam controller profile while running “LoL” (via a non-obvious checkbox in the Big Picture controller configurator). Unfortunately, GOG Galaxy couldn’t cope with my launching the game from a Steam shortcut, and would cause DOSbox to crash if I tried to launch “LoL” through Steam while Galaxy was running. PC gaming, YEAH!

Story
“LoL” takes place in a generic, yet simultaneously bizarre, Fantasy world in which a hag named Scotia (who is pissed off about not getting into some magical society, according to the instruction manual’s extra lore) is trying to take over the kingdom from the Good King Richard. Scotia has a magical mask (not a magical throne, as the game’s title insinuates) that allows her to shapeshift and perform all sorts of other magical acts.

Our hero is one of a handful of preset Gary Stus (yes, they are all male), ranging from a Fat Warrior, to a Buff Warrior, to an Ugly Wizard to a Cat Burglar (who is actually a cat, and the character I chose). Kieren the Cat-Man answers King Richard’s call for a hero to retrieve the Ruby of Truth from a respected knight so that its power can be used to counter the power of Scotia’s mask.

Things quickly go sideways, as it turns out the Ruby of Truth was stolen by Scotia’s army of Orcs, and the hag herself managed to sneak into the castle and cast a hex on King Richard, rendering him unconscious and on the verge of death. The King’s advisors – all of whom are wizards of some sort… including the Dwarf – cast a stasis spell on him and send Kieren (or whomever) off on a wild-goose chase to find a counter for the hex in addition to the still-missing Ruby of Truth.

Not only is this story not particularly interesting and incredibly hackneyed, the game world’s lore and backstory is both vague and inconsistent. While generic Fantasy Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and whatnot exist, there are also bizarre Fantasy races unique to “LoL,” with no real exposition about them. There are giant, orange 4-armed ‘people’ (one of whom, Baccata, joins the party, and becomes the centerpiece in the player’s arsenal) that just kind of exist with no explanation. Likewise, there are red-skinned goblin/demon-looking folk and talking swamp lizards that are simply never explained. The swamp folk look enough like monsters that I ended up in a war with them because I attacked first and asked questions later.

What there is of expository storytelling isn’t particularly good or well-done, either. The writing and dialogs simultaneously take themselves Very Seriously in their ‘80s High Fantasy cheesiness, while also taking the time to throw in unnecessary and long-winded references to things like “Cheers” (the TV show about the bar).

I’m not 100% sure how long “LoL” is, since GOG Galaxy and Steam weren’t playing nicely with each other. I turned Galaxy off (and it’s gameplay time tracking with it) so I could use my Steam controller, but roughly 30-40 hours sounds about right… though it actually felt longer.

Gameplay
As a Dungeon Crawler, “LoL” was one of the earliest examples of that genre that actually tried to modernize and streamline their gameplay, eliminating unnecessary holdovers from the past, like hunger/thirst meters and weight limits, while also providing a number of quality of life boosters, like an auto-map. Unfortunately, most of “LoL’s” controls and interface are horribly designed, making the end result even more cumbersome than the older Dungeon Crawlers upon whose model it tried to improve.

For one thing, “LoL” features no keyboard shortcuts outside of using the numpad for movement and Esc to open the main menu. Looking at character stats, scrolling through the inventory, or opening the auto-map are all mandatory mouse-clicking activities, and it gets incredibly tiresome.

Worse than that, though, the inventory system is just ridiculously bad. While most Dungeon Crawlers give the player a page of space for each character and allow the player to play some ‘Inventory Tetris’ to make things fit, and even allow players to stuff items into bags and chests to make more room, “LoL” just gives the player a single strip of scrolling inventory, reminiscent of a more modern HotBar, at the bottom of the screen. This strip of inventory allows the player’s party of characters to carry up to a whopping 48 items of any shape or size, aside from the ones worn by the party. While that may seem like a lot, there are numerous situations where the player is burdened with numerous keys or puzzle objects. Then there’s the fact that healing items must be found or purchased – not crafted – making the hoarding of them essential for an uncertain future. Each character should also have ranged and melee weapons on-hand, since one never knows what combat situations will pop-up in the future. All of these completely predictable player behaviors combine to eat up a LOT of those 48 inventory spaces.

Further exacerbating this annoying inventory system is the fact that there are no item descriptions for anything outside of the item’s name. While many items are simple enough as to be self-explanatory, it would have been nice to be able to look at a more detailed list of weapon stats or magic item capabilities.

Character stats and skills are almost oversimplified in “LoL,” with only 5 with any player-facing meaning. There are Might and Defense stats that give the player a rough estimate of the character’s capabilities in battle, but Might is broken when it comes to ranged weapons, which all show a might of 4, so it’s impossible for the player to tell if a new bow they find is better than the bows they might already have. The other three stats are character levels in the game’s three class archetypes: Fighter, Rogue, and Mage. These three stats have meters tied to them, which slowly, incrementally fill as the character performs actions associated with each class. Melee attacks boost Fighter, Ranged attacks boost Rogue, and casting spells boosts Mage… all at a glacially slow pace.

Spellcasting is, mercifully, more streamlined and sensible than in classic Dungeon Crawlers or other games aping those classic Dungeon Crawlers. There is no series of nonsensical glyphs to decipher, nor trial-and-error involved. Instead, the player simply finds spell scrolls throughout the world and can add spells to the party’s repertoire by reading them.

I’ve mentioned the player’s party quite a bit, but it really isn’t the player’s party so much as it is the set of NPCs who join the main character throughout the game’s plot. As mentioned in the story section, the player only has the ability to choose from a handful of pre-made heroes, and specific NPCs join up at certain points in the adventure. Some NPCs leave (taking their equipped items with them), but others are there for the long haul. Oddly enough, the first permanent NPC who joins the party is by far the best character overall, and completely steals the player’s thunder at every opportunity. In the end, though, “LoL’s” maximum party of 3 is notably smaller than the party size in most Dungeon Crawlers, and the player’s inability to pick and choose the composition is something of a letdown.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about “LoL’s” gameplay, though, is the fact that the very dungeons the player must crawl are not particularly well-designed. Instead, each dungeon (or outdoor area, or what have you) suffers from a terrible case of horror vacui, in which it seems that the designers were terrified of leaving too much empty space on the map, and thus littered it with as many small, nonsensical dead-ends as possible. “LoL” is somewhat novel in allowing players to pick some locks with a high enough Rogue skill, yet some of these pickable locks have keys hidden in-game, while others don’t, leading to frequent excess keys lingering in the inventory. Secret passages/passthrough walls are likewise scattered about with little rhyme or reason, making the fact that the auto-map points them out by default somewhat essential.

The poor dungeon layout design is further compounded by the fact that most areas of the game feature ridiculous amounts of enemy SPAM, with respawning baddies appearing out of nowhere to clog up the player’s puzzle solving attempts. ‘The Dance’ – that traditional sequence of sidestepping and attacking that is so common in Action Dungeon Crawlers – is actually ineffective, as the enemies in “LoL” are too nimble for it, and groups of them will actually split up to box the player in and prevent them from moving at all. Numerous enemies feature BS skills that poison the characters (which can only be cured by a single consumable or by dying and being resurrected) or instantly destroy their chest armor, making the tiresome combat even more frustrating, and mandating the player to save almost constantly. This poor combat culminates in an incredibly trollish final boss battle which both requires the player to discover a gimmick AND locks the player behind a point-of-no-return which could screw over a player who was only keeping one save slot, forcing them to restart from the beginning of the game.

Overall
“Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos” is one of the many games out there, from the entire width and breadth of gaming history, that initially impresses with stylish visuals and cutting-edge technology, but ultimately falls short due to skimping on the fundamentals. While it tries to streamline and add quality of life features to what is traditionally a somewhat-clunky subgenre, “LoL” instead sabotages itself with an awful UI, cluttered layouts, and SPAMmy, tedious combat. Dungeon Crawler fans who enjoy the genre for clever puzzles and riddles should avoid this stinker, as there are very few of those to be found.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 2.5/5
Overall (not an average): 2/5

 

 


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