From the ads of the past, CRPGs of yesteryear – Lands of Lore II: Guardians of Destiny

The citadel of the magic-happy Ruloi glares at players from this two page spread showing off a host of screenshots and impressive visuals. Lands of Lore 2 was an unexpected surprise four years after the first game.

The sequel to Westwood’s Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos wouldn’t come out until four years later in 1997. A lot of things have also happened since then in gaming from consoles to PCs as the 3D revolution sparked by examples such as id Software’s groundbreaking work with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom continued to steamroll through every genre.

Windows 95 had come out with DirectX. CD-ROM drives continued to fall in price and improve performance with packages boasting blistering 16x speeds making the rounds in systems like those from Gateway computers. Intel’s new chip, the Pentium, had also introduced the world to MMX technology. Sony’s and Sega’s CD-ROM powerhouses, the Saturn and the Playstation, fought it out while id’s Quake and 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem continued to drive companies like Matrox, Diamond, Intergraph, and Hercules into boasting bigger and better 3D accelerators. The Sound Blaster AWE 32 was 14-inches of great soundcard.

Bethesda had also pushed the CRPG envelope with their Elder Scrolls series, Arena and Daggerfall, immersing players within thousands of towns and generated NPCs scattered across seen from a first-person 3D perspective. SSI would also pick up the 3D baton with two TSR licenses set in the Ravenloft horror setting — Strahd’s Possession and Stone Prophet.

So when Westwood revisited the Lands of Lore, the sequel had also become a snapshot of PC gaming at the time. Guardians of Destiny featured FMV actors (with director, Joseph Kucan who players may know better as Kane from the Command & Conquer series), CG cutscenes, free ranging movement, real-time combat, a first-person perspective, came on four CD-ROMs, and recommended a Pentium 90 MHz machine with 210 MB of hard drive space. Oh, and MSCDEX 2.2 or higher along with 16 MB of RAM. Those were the days!

Lands of Lore II was a big step up from the first game in terms of production values. This was a huge, “multimedia” experience that Westwood used to merge together a number of different disciplines into a CRPG much like how Chris Roberts and his crew at Origin had done with Wing Commander III and IV for space combat sims. Westwood veterans, David Arkenstone and Frank Klepacki, provided the solid soundtrack while a full cast of actors provided the characters and voices. Tying it all together was a solid 3D engine bringing the Lands to full, poly-life.

In the sequel, players took on the role of Luther, the son of the evil Scotia. She had led the Dark Armies to near triumph in the last game until she was defeated by Gladstone’s heroes called together by Sir Patrick Stewart’s voice in the CD-ROM version. Before dying, she had sent the mysterious ancient power that she had used to nearly win, the Nether Mask, to her son. However, things were “mangled” in the transmission and Luther inherited the power of the Nether Mask instead of the relic itself.

Luther actually grew up as a decent sort of person who only had the bad luck of being Scotia’s son (he was born before she went completely off the rails as the apocalyptic leader of darkness, leaving him behind). Now he’s cursed with a power he didn’t want, one that randomly changes him into a lizard or a giant, twisted beast with the strength of a titan. It’s making his life hell and he heads to Gladstone to find a solution to it only to get imprisoned for his trouble. Thanks to his curse, he manages to break out of prison with the forces of Gladstone on his heels while on a quest to the far reaches of the Lands for a cure.

The manual’s story and the game’s lighthearted cheekiness might catch some players off guard when it describes the mythic backdrop to the world as the gods’ version of a “dude ranch” that they came up with when they were bored and wanted a terrarium filled with other living creatures that weren’t all powerful like they were. Of course, one of those gods, Belial, decided to upset things by giving one of the races in the Lands uber weapons and Ancient magic which they used to wage a war of genocide against everyone else.

In the end, another Ancient, Anu, stood up to Belial and equipped the threatened race, the Huline, with the same toys. Eventually, the other Ancients decided that two gods breaking their toy through interference was enough — Belial’s sentence was execution, carried out by Anu who had also broken the law despite his good intentions. Belial was ready to resurrect himself thanks to a “Mother Beast” that he had hidden within the City of the Ancients that would draw in Ancient magic in a long process to bring him back, a plan that was bound to fail when the Ancients had all unexpectedly decided to leave the mortal plane forever afterwards. All, except for Anu (voiced by Clancy Brown) who remained behind to ensure that Belial would never return.

It would have been all well and good if Scotia hadn’t discovered that darn Nether Mask in the first game which was a piece of Ancient magic that had awakened the Mother Beast and began the process of resurrecting the god Belial. And guess who will eventually have to stop that, too?

Elements from the first game, such as using skills to improve their levels as opposed to having a traditional level-up system based on experience points such as in other RPGs, were back in. Everything was still stripped down to just the basics — combat and magic with additional bar meters representing at a glance how much of an impact Luther’s equipment has. A drag and drop interface made equipping, clicking on objects in a scene to solve puzzles, operate items, or smash monsters in the face, easy to pick up although combat.

Luther’s face, which I’m guessing was the digitized face of Paul Bastardo, registered how healthy he was in bloody fashion above the health gauge. Imagine the Doom Guy’s face, only now it’s a real person’s. He’s also a font of spoken commentary with plenty to say throughout the entire game in being an army of one.

The magic system diverges from the original by featuring a few things that other games, like Sir-Tech’s Wizardry VI, have also touched on. In Wizardry VI, players could improve the power of the spell they were casting by selecting the power level they wanted to launch it at while paying a higher price in points burned.

In Lands of Lore II, spells were placed into groups and holding down the “S” key or hitting the appropriate number (1-5) for a selected group would launch more powerful versions of those spells within it. For example, at the highest “level”, a healing spell turns into a regeneration spell. This kind of power-up mechanic for spellcasting has even seen use in a relatively more modern title, such as Lionhead’s Fable II and III.

Gone was the grid-based movement of yesteryear. Players were now free to move about as if it were a first-person shooter and battle beasties, consume potions, poison weapons, and craft strange effects from the flora and fauna around them in real-time. This gave the game much more of an action-oriented feel, evolving the work Westwood had done with the Eye of the Beholder series and the first game.

Although I couldn’t map my keys to WASD, it was still fun to explore the Lands in this way. After so many 3D shooters, it was still a relief to see that other companies outside of Bethesda were expanding the concept into other genres with success.

The problems with Lands of Lore II, unfortunately, lie with this whole curse business. The Lizard and Beast shapes that Luther randomly changes into can be as much a bane to playing the game as much as they might help. This was a point driven straight home when I reached the City of the Ancients after raising it up from the ocean’s depths in a spectacular pre-rendered cut scene.

Unfortunately, when you transform into the Beast, and until you get the ability to control it to some extent, you have to wait it out. This wouldn’t be so bad if the creature forms didn’t also come with weaknesses. The Lizard can fit into small spaces like cracks, cast spells, but becomes a blood smear when faced with combat. The Beast can use no weapons or armor, but it doesn’t really need them.

It also can’t jump. Or, for that matter, raise a leg up to step up onto ledges. Or move very fast. I suspect that if it had to race a slug, the slug would win.

That was a big problem in a big open place like the City and other places where the Beast’s apparent lack of knee joints and lumbering movement had turned what was going to be fun exploration into incredible tedium as I waited for the curse to finally run down. See, the City’s streets are lined with these small ledges, and when you were the Beast, just getting around made what should have been an amazing experience one of the worst in the game. And then there was the ending.

Lands of Lore II actually has multiple endings, some of which come early in the game if you happen to do something incredibly dumb (such as trying to head back to the first cave dungeon and running into the Gladstone soldiers now posted there – surprise!). Others won’t be immediately apparent until the very end if you decided to be an ass to the wrong character or indulged in your evil side with certain decisions made during the game as Westwood dabbled with choices and consequences.

But what irked me the most was the horrid “good” ending. It was garbage, one of the worst in any game. Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have anything on how this epic ended. You’d think that after the all-but-missing ending in Eye of the Beholder I, Westwood wouldn’t do the same thing again.

So after braving the Beast’s lack of kneecaps, the incredibly dangerous, magic-using Ruloi who flew around their alien-esque ship casting death, and fighting a god, the only thanks I got was a cut scene showing Luther and Dawn beneath the covers and watching the last Ancient bid them goodbye. And that was it. For all of the lavish production value placed on the rest of the game, it was as if the budget ran out at the very end.

That made the journey to actually get to that point the real meat of the game despite the terribad conclusion. An epic story steeped in arcane lore, a terrifying threat, and solid game mechanics made it a fantastic if long delayed entry into the Lands of Lore series. The difficulty balancing, though, was all over the place. The mechanics made it easy to get about and battle, but the game also had a habit of hitting you with rough encounters that seemed to expect high levels of either close combat or magical ability at the wrong time…like the Ruloi.

Westwood’s effort didn’t spare anything in the packaging department. It was a “big box” PC version with an embossed, flyleaf cover. It even came with a neat plastic calling card featuring the City of the Ancients and five free calling minutes when connecting to Earthlink’s service. Five free minutes! No, Lands of Lore II had no multiplayer. The card was neat, though. EA, which would take acquire the studio in 1998, would later re-release the game in a smaller box as a part of its “Classics” lineup of games.

You can grab Lands of Lore II and its terrible “good” ending over at Good Old Games which also comes packaged with Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos which actually has a complete ending. Still, I have fond memories of LoL 2 as an action RPG wrapped in the kind of trappings that today’s big budget productions from BioWare to Bethesda and CD Projekt embrace in telling their own stories and in crafting their worlds, not to mention those from the console space such as then-Square’s Final Fantasy series. Yet while Westwood would enjoy the successes of its RTS line, its ties to CRPGs would be as short lived as its ties to adventure games.

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2 responses to “From the ads of the past, CRPGs of yesteryear – Lands of Lore II: Guardians of Destiny

  1. I was lucky enough to get this game and its strategy guide when they were still commercially available. It’s still one of the best classic RPGs ever made, even though unlike its prequel and sequel there is very little “town interaction” (no buying and selling, very few “town NPCs,” etc.). I like how the level design sometimes required you to use all three forms if possible, though mainly the Lizard was necessary to get into small rooms.

    Actually, I was personally able to map keys to WASD and use mouselook (a combination of finding the right keyboard functions and the “lock cursor to centre of screen” worked for me). Though I was used to the keyboard-centric controls that were the default for the game, I eventually played mouselook-centric games like Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight and found that I could duplicate that kind of control scheme in LOL:GOD as well.

    I’ll admit that the Beast form becomes less and less useful as the game progresses, especially since he can’t change back into a human at will. Furthermore, the Beast has no ranged attack (aside from using certain magic/pharmacopeia items), and aside from levelling and a specific pharmocopeia combination, there is no way to increase his melee power. You can get plenty of powerful melee/ranged weapons for Luther’s human form as you progress through the game, making the Beast’s melee power obsolete past a certain point. About the only truly unique thing (aside from its ability to move certain obstacles) about the Beast is that certain monsters are afraid of it when you get close, allowing you to pummel them mercilessly, but even that’s of limited use. I’m surprised that Westwood didn’t program in something like the Firespark spell group for the beast (a spell group that is difficult to obtain ordinarily), since it’s practically standard for monsters like the Beast to be able to breathe fire or something like that.

    The Beast can actually run, albeit a little slower than Luther’s human form. I’ll admit that the City of Ancients is a poor fit for the Beast, but having the “Dampen Change” spell in the “Control Curse” spell group (which stops an imminent transformation while Luther’s in human or Lizard form) really helps here, though it is difficult to find.

    What were you expecting to see in the good ending? Belial falling to the ground, Luther giving up the Mantle of the Ancients, the Ancient City sinking back beneath the waves (what happens to it after the game is a mystery, frankly)? That might have worked, but by then the journey is largely over. At least you see some nice stuff for the bad endings, such as Belial destroying the Huline Village and repaying the Draracle’s previous killing of him, or Luther becoming the evil god of the Lands, or the Draracle overcoming Evil Luther (showing that he was not just around to guide someone to stop Belial, but also to stop anyone who might want to become a god).

    There’s also the huge number of ingame CGI movies you can watch, including those accessible via “Speaking Stones” and the like. They contain that’s important to the game’s backstory (such as Belial’s execution by the Draracle, or the original inhabitants of the “Dark Halls” level), to stuff that’s completely optional (like the guy who’s upset he’s gotten Lamplight Stew “again”).

    The alien Ru-Loi don’t have much reason to be in the game, aside from “they’re here because the Gods left the mortal plane” (their backstory is expanded in the sequel) but at least they provide enemies that use primarily ranged attacks (and an enormous horde of useful items).

    Still, to me this is one of the best PC RPGs games around (despite not being very newbie-friendly). If they ever remake it (and they should) a journal with item descriptions and properties (like in the sequel) and the Draracle outlining Luther’s objectives between major level transitions would be great. Re-releasing the original soundtrack on CD would also be great.

    The best moments of this game came to me via the scenes where you ride a Dragon to the southern continent, the rising of the City of the Ancients, the Belial Statue’s battle with the Great Worm, and (surprisingly) the end credits and the ingame dedication to the late development team member, Robert Richter Parks. The end credits showed the developers in various funny and odd situations, which to me really humanized them beyond being mere names in a credits listing and helped me to realize just how much an undertaking the game was. The dedication video (does anyone make those in games anymore?) also showed just how much of a bond the developers had with one another.

    Will you be reviewing Westwood’s Blade Runner too? They put a huge amount of work into that game and made it one of the best licensed games made from a movie.

    • I guess after the game had already given players so much to enjoy in getting there, I was expecting the ending to go out in the same way. The journey in getting there more than made up for it, though! Watching the City of the Ancients rise up out of the water was an incredible scene and the first thing I wanted to do on arriving was to just try and explore this monument to the past — the adventurer in me wanted to pry and peek at all of the secrets buried there.

      I also agree with the end game credits — I wish more devs would take advantage of that space or just have fun with it whether it was doing something ‘in universe’ or sharing some insight on development with photos, sketches…anything really. As another example, Call of Duty 1’s credits, for example, was set up like a small in-game cinematic following one soldier across a battlefield set to somber music as the credits scrolled by, eventually joined by others along the way. It was like a mini post-game action adventure.

      I’ll eventually take a look at Blade Runner, too. I’ve still got my retail CD-ROM copy here and it’s an amazing adventure that I also enjoyed — an amazing companion to the film, so I hope to get to that when I can (and give it a proper going over).

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing your own experiences with the game!

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