Posted – 12.04.2007
Freelancer, a space sim for the PC, tried to replace the joystick with mouse flight control and to the surprise of many players…myself included…it worked extremely well. Lair tries to be unique by making the Sixaxis controller the center of your flying universe but unlike Freelancer, it doesn’t quite do as good a job with the transition. But the problems with Lair extend beyond its forced controls and into the gameplay making it a title whose epic story is hampered by a flotilla of issues.
The story of Lair takes place on a medieval flavored world reeling under the apocalyptic effects of a devastating string of volcanic eruptions that have turned much of the land to ash and has split a people apart. The Mokai would go north, into the cold reaches and eke out a desperate life there, eventually learning how to tame the power of steam and bind it into the machines that would allow their civilization to survive. The Asylians would go south and discover verdant lands shielded from the eruptions thanks to a great range of mountains, driven by a faith that would explain the volcanic eruptions as divine punishment. The Asylians would prosper and centuries would pass until a surprise attack by the Mokai shatters the peace. But in this war, the real enemies are not always who they seem to be as you take on the role of Rohn, an elite Sky Guard for Asylia who is drawn into the conflict.
Much of what you’ll see is filled with everything that you would probably look for in high fantasy with treacherous villains, a desperate war, and a few twists to keep the predictable, if atmospheric, storyline moving along. Sharp graphics show off the cinematic visuals in the skies, especially the dragons that inhabit them, but the ground effects can be pretty underwhelming…especially when most everything has a muddy color palette of grays and browns. You won’t be spending too much time down there, anyway, and Factor 5 has gone on to create a menagerie of monsters for the unique world that they’ve created. Giant floating manta ray-like zeppelins carry soldiers to the front lines, mighty mammoths carry small, wooden platforms on their back into war, and even the dragons come in a few different shapes and sizes. Thundering sound effects, solid voice acting, and an orchestrated score polish off the rest of the often entertaining presentation.
In Lair, sky power rules the day and Asylia’s Sky Guard were formed around that concept thanks to domesticated dragons that they charge into the skies with. The dragons act as the elite cavalry of the clouds, smiting their foes from the air and rending steel armor with their claws on the ground, performing alongside the rider they choose as faithful partners in battle. Using the Sixaxis controller, you’ll learn how to fly your dragon and engage in melee battles both in the skies and on the ground as long as you dragon does what you want it to do and you’ll quickly learn that early on, the controller doesn’t do that bad of a job, but it really doesn’t give you the impression that you’re actually “flying” your dragon as opposed to mimicking it onscreen.
Imagine holding a toy dragon in your hand and pretending that it’s flying. That’s pretty much what it feels like here. At least Freelancer had the excuse of taking place in the future, where flying a ship by mouse made better sense as if you were simply pointing at where your ship wanted to go as a part of some sort of Syd Mead inspired design. Lair’s forced Sixaxis excuse just doesn’t come across in that context. You can probably imagine the controller as a sort of rein, only that your dragon doesn’t actually have one aside from the fancy chair that you sit on and the mace you use as a spur. If you’re a flight fanatic looking for an analog solution in order to simply jump in and enjoy flying a dragon such as in Drakengard or Panzer Dragoon Orta, you’re out of luck here. It’s Sixaxis all the way.
Most of the basics are simple, if not feeling somewhat sluggish, to pull off, such as turning, climbing, or diving. Landing is just as easy, but turning 180 degrees has got to be one of the most frustrating things to do in this game. Flicking the controller upwards should spin you around…in theory…or it might send you charging ahead instead. Combat actually brings out the worst that the motion controls have to offer. Some sequences will have you fly up next to enemy dragons allowing you to shake the controller left or right to “bump” them for damage. It’s a simple concept made difficult thanks to how unresponsive it can feel as you wiggle the controller to attack the enemy, pretending as if you had a stuffed dragon in your hand, smashing into a toy like a kid, only not as fun. Fortunately, not every move is tied into the motion controls.
Grappling with enemy dragons raises the excitement level as you see two mighty beasts of war tear at each other with tooth, claw, and fiery breath. When you’ve grappled with a dragon and are locked in, hitting your face buttons for attacks can come off as a slight relief at not having to wiggle the controller for everything that you need to do. Your dragon also has a “rage meter” that fills depending on whatever you do to damage the enemy whether it is chewing up foes on the ground or in fighting in the skies. Once filled, you can go into a “rage” mode which is almost like bullet time for dragons, as everything slows down allowing you to get in a few more good hits or initiate a takedown maneuver.
Takedowns are special attacks that trigger a Dragon’s Lair sequence in pressing the right buttons and moving the Sixaxis in the right directions to guide the animated kill onscreen. These look great and are fun to do as Rohn swings over to enemy dragons, kicks its rider off into the sky, and drives a weapon into the dragon’s head before leaping back off to his own. There are several different sequences to see and each of them are as brutal as the last. Finding enemies to fight isn’t too hard, but finding the one that you need to kill…now that’s another story.
There’s no radar, for one thing, not that you’d expect one to be in a fantasy game, and all you get is a single arrow at the top of the screen to direct you to your objective. But “dragon radar” used in Panzer Dragoon, Drakengard, Drakan, and even as far back as SSI’s Dragonstrike were an accepted part of their gameplay helping the player to maintain an idea of they would have been looking at if they were sitting in the saddle. It was probably left out because Factor 5 believed that it would take away from the feel of flying a dragon and make it too much like their Rogue Squadron series.
As well intentioned as that decision was, the final result will be a few more frustrating moments for the player to enjoy. It’s not as if a radar would have taken away from the fiction, or the general design of the title as long as it looked like it belonged there somehow. Most players are a forgiving bunch. Dragonstrike called its radar a crystal ball, while players could assume that Drakengard’s represented the hero’s ability to perceive the world around them, helping to keep the player aware of what was going on. Instead, Lair replaces the “radar” or the hero’s battle sense with a poor substitute called “rage vision” which turns everything onscreen black and white and highlights bad guys in red when triggered.
I almost never used this since enemies were easy to pick out if they were in your face, especially because firing at a gaggle of dragons allowed your fireballs to simply home in on the nearest badguy, although it was somewhat helpful in picking out enemies from against the muddy background. But certain missions required you to protect escorts that were along for the ride. Since there’s no way to cycle through enemies other than by facing in their direction and using the lock on feature, escort missions can quickly turn into a confusing mess if you can’t easily pick out which of your allies is under attack by what, allowing you to prioritize your targets. Radar could have helped in getting your bearings on enemy concentrations off from the edges of the screen, something that Rohn could have been aware of.
The game also has a tendency to often cinematically zoom in on certain events, such as zooming in on an exploding manta that you failed to protect and doing it again and again with other objectives. Imagine that someone is grabbing your armored head every few minutes and twisting it to whatever you should be paying attention to in the middle of combat, pulling you out of your fiery zen, and you’ll get an idea of how this was executed. This wouldn’t have been so bad in small doses, moreso when it’s at the start of a chapter or at the end, but Lair tends to do this with most everything that it considers important during the actual gameplay instead of simply relaying the information to you by other means, such as a comment by the hero, keeping you in the action without interrupting your fun.
The core of the game is divided into separate chapters, each of which can be replayed after you have gone through them. You can also earn “medals” depending on your performance in the game, with more valuable ones unlocking fight combos that you can use in grappling attacks or other items from the extras menu. Once you complete the game, there’s not much else of a reason to go back into it other than replaying the missions and improving your score. There are unlockable dragons that you can also use to look good in the skies overhead, but other than that, there’s not much else to look forward to once you’ve survived the adventure.
Even after completing the game, the first thought in my head was being thankful that I didn’t have to use the damn motion controls anymore. I was done. But the controls are far from being the only reason that Lair was a disappointment. Lair was considered to be one of the crown jewels in the PS3′s first batch of titles. Hyping itself with luscious graphics, the promise of an engaging storyline, and taking advantage of the Sixaxis, the final product isn’t the tragedy that some reviews have made it out to be as it can be fun when everything manages to come together. It’s also far from something that you might want to add to your gaming library because that doesn’t happen as often as it should. With half baked gameplay mechanics, motion controls that make you feel like a kid holding a toy dragon, and a story whose ending you can see before the first cinematic is finished, the sum of its parts has buried much of its promise beneath the ashen taste of disappointment.