Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos

With Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos (LANDS), Westwood Studios has created another hybrid roleplaying-adventure game that sacrifices content for graphic beauty. While that might sound like a negative statement, keep in mind that graphics are what attracts most gamers nowadays. This is the kind of game which will have tons of people looking at the back of its box in the store.

The massive attention given to graphic detail has come to be a trademark of Westwood/Virgin games. Before LANDS, there was Sword of Excalibur and Vengeance of Excalibur, Dune, Dune II, and the now legendary (no pun intended) Legends of Kyrandia. The latter, however, earned a reputation for being easy to complete and uninteresting after a short period of time. Gamers who like games in its genre tended to stick with Sierra's Quest for Glory series. LANDS, with its realistic rat-men (?) and NPCs galore, is an attempt to fend off Kyrandia's curse and become the best game in its field. 

For starters, this is a BIG game, folks. It hogs a good 20MB on your hard drive (roughly 18MB of which is compressed graphics), and don't even think about running it on a 286. It needs a 386SX with at least 2MB of RAM. After begrudgingly wiping Star Control 2 (no, I haven't finished it yet. . . ) off my drive to make room for it, I installed and fired up the game. I was greeted by a wonderful intro sequence with fluid animation and, thanks to my ProAudio Spectrum 16, speech. The game itself lacks speech, but doesn't need it anyway.

LANDS gets started with King Richard of Gladstone asking you to volunteer your services to get rid of Scotia, the mad witch who plays the role of antagonist throughout the game. You can select any of four pre-rolled characters to play. There is a lizard-man mage, a catlike thief, and two human characters : a fighter and a balanced, average type. For me, this was the first real signal that I wasn't playing a true roleplaying game. There's no character creation. . . no re-rolling if you don't like any of the four. Nevertheless, I selected the mage, which I always played in my Dungeons and Dragons days, and found myself in the entrance hall of Gladstone Keep, free to explore. The user interface contains a view window with likenesses of the characters in your party below it, an inventory "strip" at the bottom of the screen, 6 mouse-driven movement panels, and accessories such as your map and spell scroll along the sides of the screen. It will remind many of SSI's Eye of the Beholder series. It should. . . Westwood designed that interface for SSI.

After 10 minutes or so of exploring the castle and visiting the weapon and healing shops that are commonplace in every roleplaying game, you approach Richard and get your first assignment : to recover the Ruby of Truth. When you return after completing the first phase of this quest, however, you discover that Scotia has stormed the castle and that Richard is near death. With the objective for the rest of the game now clear ("save Richard"), the characters search the wild outdoors and treacherous caverns of the Lands searching for a cure. Once outside, movement is quick (on fast machines, you can turn on a "smooth scrolling" option for realism) and there are many places, people, and creatures to find. . . most of whom are hostile (and ugly). And so, you'll be engaging in combat often. The simple mouse-driven system involves clicking on a character's weapon icon for hand-to-hand combat, or on a rune icon to cast a spell. Spells can be cast with four different levels of intensity, depending on how many magic points your character has available. Magic will quickly become your favorite method of attack. . . not only because of the greater damage, but because the special effects associated with the casting are extraordinary. Magic-crazed players must beware, though : "Level 4" spells drain many magic points, and until you get far along in the game and gain experience, casting more than one of them per battle won't be possible. Luckily, the game contains many NPCs that will join your party at various points in the game and can pull your fat out of the fire with spells of their own. And lastly, if one of your characters DOES happen to die, have another one cast a heal spell on him or use the magical abilities of various herbs to revive him.

NPCs play a large part in LANDS. There are two different types : the aforementioned type that join your party and that you control in battle, and the "actors" such as King Richard and his assistants, who will all help you in one way or another once you find them in the game. Oh, and speaking of finding things : items abound EVERYWHERE. Here's the first place where realism sort of slips out the window. You're bound to pick up a couple of daggers lying on the ground in the forest, healing herbs in hollow trees, and even lockpicks sitting on a cavern floor. And this is in the immediate vicinity of the castle. So much for the joy of discovery.

Also, LANDS lets you rest anywhere and rejuvenates your health and magic points at the same rate regardless of conditions. I'd like to think that the programmers would have enough common sense not to let you sleep and heal in an acidic, demon-infested swamp. At least not before drinking many cocktails, which there aren't any of in this game. Nor is there food of ANY sort. . . am I wrong, or should people who swing 40lb swords and climb 10 flights of stairs routinely have a snack every once in a while?

I'm getting carried away, though. Truth to tell, LANDS has what most adventure game players want : An extremely easy interface, a plot deep enough to keep one paying attention, the ability to save a game anywhere, and graphics good enough to knock a buzzard off a wagon. Those who look past first impressions will be slightly disappointed with its simplicity, but if it's looks you want, beauty isn't in the "Eye of the Beholder" like it is in Lands of Lore.