LANDS OF LORE / Westwood+Virgin / PC

I've always associated Westwood with the Command and Conquer series, Dune games and the Kyrandia series mostly, somehow I never realized that they made the first two Eye of the Beholder games as well. They bring that dungeon crawl experience to Lands of Lore, but set it in its own universe divested from the whole Dungeons and Dragons rule set, and what comes out the other end is a more polished and playable dungeon crawl than usual, and one that will likely interest people who aren't usually into hardcore RPGs.

The game is still basically a dungeon crawl, but it's broken up into lots of small different areas, and there's much more of an ongoing storyline than most of these types of games offer. In fact, if you get the CD-ROM "talkie" version, you can listen to Patrick Stewart narrate some overly long history of the Lands of Lore that sets the backstory. The designers had really grand plans out of the gate for this series, with eight games in the works, but only three of them ever actually made it to fruition.

The game also differs from most dungeon crawls in that there's a specific focus on giving you a smooth, helpful interface, and also on making the aesthetic qualities top of the line (for the time.) The interface is controlled entirely by the mouse, with all needed buttons on the screen in front of you. Everything is very intuitive and it's one of the best dungeon crawl engines I've seen thus far. The graphics are also phenomenal for a dungeon crawl, very high-res and great use of color. The actual game environs can be a bit bland, but are livened up by frequent cut-scenes that show interiors of buildings and well-animated close-ups of characters that you are talking to. Spell effects are also pretty impressive. Your party members also have a great range of facial expressions for talking, getting hit, sleeping, and etc. The soundtrack, by Westwood vet Frank Klepacki, is also really great, calling to mind the style of the Kyrandia games, and there's a lot of different tunes (some dungeons even get a new song for each separate floor.)

Voice acting is above par for the time on the whole. As mentioned, Cap'n Picard got involved as the character King Richard, but you don't hear a huge amount out of him since he ends up being knocked out for about 80% of the game. As far as I know, the rest of the cast is no-names, but they're mostly competent.

Though the game has a notable focus on story for a dungeon crawl, that doesn't mean the story is all that good. It's actually about as generic of "high fantasy" as you'll find. Dark Witch leading the Orc Army of Evil wants to conquer the Good Kingdoms, Noble Heroes go on a quest to make the Magic Potion that gives them the Special Power to kill her, etc. There's no real surprises here. It's competent enough to pass, I suppose, and the real focus of the game is exploration and careful resource management as you fight your way through the absolute reams of dark beasties the game throws at you.

The game is definitely more gentle on you than the average dungeon crawl. There can be very sharp and sudden jags in difficulty, where you're crushing monsters in one area and then just a little farther into that same area you run into new monsters that kill characters in one hit. There is a fair bit of challenge simply in that resources are very scarce in the game, there's hardly any shops, and you don't find much in the way of healing items or new armor lying about for the first few hours of playtime or so. One downside to this is that the designers really didn't implement enough anti-poison items to keep up with the copious amount of times you get poisoned, leading you to either hack some in with one of the "trainers" fans have made for this game, or let the character die and then revive them as a crazy alternative cure. Healing is still overall on the gentle side, however - you can camp anywhere for as long as you want with no penalty (unless a monster wakes you up, which only gives them one free swing at you), and dead characters can be revived with any heal item or even the lowest level heal spell.

One other little niggle is that the inventory system is a bit hard to manage and could have been a lot more user-friendly, a surprise given how well everything else works. This is still on the whole a very good RPG, however.

                          God damn Conrad that's cold

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* Gameplay Video
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