By the time Lands of Lore III had come out in 1999 for Windows PCs, two years after Lands of Lore II: Guardians of Destiny, the rapid advance of game technology and design had created a number of iconic games in that time.
Valve’s Half-Life and BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate in 1998, Fallout in 1997 a few months after LoL II and its sequel also in 1998. New World’s Might & Magic series had also resurrected itself with a whole new engine in 1998 which was free ranging and crammed with crunch. But more importantly, for other RPG players, it had a party system.
Lands of Lore II surprised players with its focus on a solo-character instead of the party that they could build up in the first game. Lands of Lore III continues that trend along with the simplified mechanics set up by that game.
I liked the first two games if only because they featured a different approach to CRPGs in comparison to many of its peers with the exception of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series which did relatively the same thing — albeit with a lot more crunch and wide open world to sift through. They also had that Westwood panache for theatrics, storytelling, and music that accompanied them from their time with Eye of the Beholders I and II.
So when Lands of Lore III came out, I went in fully expecting another fun, solo hero, Westwood flavored take on CRPGs the way that Lands of Lore 2 had started in with for the series. Unfortunately, if the series decided to end with LoL 2, it might have been for the best.
Lands of Lore doesn’t really have an arc that traditional trilogies normally do in which an ongoing struggle is traced from start to finish. Instead, each game can be taken as a sort of standalone title encapsulated within its own little slice of the same world.
In this chapter, the player is cast in the role of one Copper LeGre, the illegitimate son of his father who is related to King Richard of Gladstone. That makes him fourth in line to the throne but with the way others aside from his father treat him, you would never know it. Copper’s also half-dracoid, the dragon-like humanoid race that his father had a brief dalliance with. Not only do his two step-brothers despise him for what he is, he also gets grief for being a “half breed” from everyone.
Things get worse when he joins his brothers and his father on a hunt where everyone is murderfied by strange beasts leaping from rips in thin air. Except for him, of course. Instead, his soul is stolen and he’s left beaten and bloody where he’s discovered and Dawn, the always-present spell caster for the royal court, manages to keep him “alive”…but only for a time. But not everyone is convinced of Copper’s innocence, especially now that he’s a step away from the throne, and the simmering hate for him from many quarters is now boiling over.
Things get even worse — the tears are also wreaking havoc in the land. It’s as if the fabric of reality is becoming undone, but they’re also where Copper has to go in order to find his soul as well as shut them down in shades of Ultima Underworld II where the Avatar has to travel through different worlds to save Britannia.
Installing the game from CD-ROM could take awhile, but to make things more interesting during the waiting, Westwood recounted the mythic backstory that led to the current Lands complete with art reminiscent of medieval wall paintings.
The gameplay is still the simplified, action-focused system that Lands of Lore II had evolved into from the one in the first game, changing it for a party of one and the free ranging movement that the new engine brought to the table. The solid automapping system is back and now complimented by a journal tracking your quest and any other important events that bear remembering.
There’s not much of a raft of stats in this solo adventure unlike that found in a game like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls: Arena or its sequel, Daggerfall. Instead, like in the previous games, the player only has bar gauges that give you an idea of how much protection, damage, or magic pieces of equipment will give you.
This time, LoL 3 mixes things up with a guild system which covers the four basic classes: Fighters, Magician, Clerics, and Thieves. Copper can pick one guild to specialize in, or a mix of two, three, or all four, keeping in mind that experience earned will be divided by how many he’s a part of. There’s also a familiar companion that he can pick, each familiar specializing in whatever guild it’s a part of though Copper can pick whatever familiar he wants regardless of membership. They act as the only extra body accompanying Copper on his solo adventure.
And then there’s the food. Copper will have to eat from time to time because hunger. There’s no real reason for this to even be in the game, or to have food take up precious inventory space, other than to scratch at a reality itch that the series never bothered with until now.
Enemies were often seen as pre-rendered 3D critters/NPCs sprites much like how Daggerfall had also used in 1996 before going full 3D with their Elder Scrolls Adventures title, Redguard, in 1998. But LoL 3 also mixed in poly-modeled monsters at the same time, making for a curious combination.
Gameplay-wise, it banked a lot on action and mouse clicks, especially when it mobbed Copper with bunches of dim but powerfully equipped enemies. Remember the Ruloi from the last game? They’re back and they’re actually aliens, injecting a little sci-fi into this fantasy the same way that Jon Van Caneghem’s Might & Magic did especially in its later iterations such as Mandate of Heaven in 1998. They’re also just as overpowered as before.
One of the things that the game allowed the player to do was store up stuff by dropping items down somewhere in Gladstone, the “hub” where all of the other worlds connected through. The only bad thing about that was when Gladstone was utterly wrecked later on in the game, destroying the place where I had left a large chunk of stuff I had stowed away for sale or just to free up space in my inventory.
In the end, the main cause of all of this trouble was a being named Jakel, servant to the Draracle. The Draracle was an Ancient who was a key character in the first two games. After the events of LoL 2, he left the world forever but in so doing, a relic that bound the world together had also shattered. After a few adventures, Copper manages to find the Draracle through one of the portals and discovers how to fix it.
On the other hand, Jakel, the cloaked servant of the Draracle left behind when he left, eventually reveals his true colors. He doesn’t want the relic repaired because of the Ancient magic it would dissipate when it is — at the cost of the Lands.
Jakel is kind of a tragic figure pining away for Ancients that will never return and would literally die if Ancient magic were severed from the world forever when the Draracle’s Cave collapsed. Not because of heavy rocks falling on top of him. More along the lines of being tied to its existence.
If the Draracle had found a way to bring him along away from the Lands in the first place when he left, all of this could have been avoided. Instead, he’s hanging around the Lands like an orphaned god. For a wise Ancient, the Draracle certainly didn’t see this coming when he tossed away his faithful servant. Either that, or he didn’t care a whole lot.
In the end, Copper has to defeat him and recover the last piece of the relic, repair it, and save the world. This time, Westwood flexed its CG muscles in providing a full fledged ending to top off the journey’s end making the “good” one in LoL 2 look like a total fluke. It’s as if they saw reactions to that and swore never to make that mistake again. Copper returns home and King Richard himself takes him on the same hunt that his father and step brothers started the game with, so a happy ending all around.
That wouldn’t get made. Lands of Lore III was the last game in the series and the weakest one out of all of them. It just didn’t seem to dazzle with the kind of awe and wonder that the epic quest in LoL 2 had brought out throughout the course of its adventure.
With Might & Magic’s return with Mandate of Heaven along with a number of distinctly non-3D CRPGs, or those with lone wolf heroes such as Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series and connected tangents, it was much harder to convince players hungry for deeper stats and mechanics to give the stripped down solo act of LoL 3 another look. On the other hand, the story was too bad and Westwood’s small touches to present it such as trying to make the boring installation procedure something interesting helped. They also weren’t shy on using the whole multiverse approach to drop in bizarre places such as NOD Temple from Command & Conquer and sci-fi.
The year before, 1998, also saw EA acquire Westwood Studios for a cool $122 million. Given EA’s treatment of Origin and the debacle that became Ultima IX, Westwood’s own future didn’t seem quite as bright, either, and LoL 3 would be the last CRPG that the studio would build before churning out Command & Conquer titles as if there were no tomorrow. Five years later, it would be liquidated with its staff scattered either to internal EA studios or elsewhere with other studios handling the C&C property. Today, you can pick up LoL 3 on Good Old Games for a few bucks if you’re interested in checking it out if only to complete the series.
Westwood’s Lands of Lore distilled their Eye of the Beholder expertise into a simple approach for real-time CRPGs. FTL’s Dungeon Master pioneered many of the concepts that they explored while Westwood’s artists and designers put their own personal stamps on both the Lands and their mechanics. It might not have been a ‘fresh’ approach, but it stands out as the end cap to the design work Westwood first started tinkering with in all the way back in 1991.
Lands of Lore hit up the broader audience with its accessible, real-time combat while retaining ties to high fantasy and a competent challenge. It was simple to dive into and it could be swearingly brutal with the combat. It also wasn’t for everyone, and it didn’t quite go out on a triumphant close — an ominous sign of things to come in 1999 for the studio that did more outside of the RTS genre than simply help define it.