In March, 2001, Sega announced that the Dreamcast would end production signalling the final nail in the coffin for their last, albeit technically advanced, push for a piece of the console pie.
That made things a bit awkward for a game like Record of Lodoss War which came out just a month before in February in North America (it already came out in Japan in June of 2000), an uncomfortable distinction shared by the last few titles for Sega’s ill-fated Saturn from a few years earlier such as Panzer Dragoon Saga. Published by Conspiracy and Crave Entertainment in North America and developed by Neverland (Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny), Record of Lodoss War didn’t get a lot of press at the time from what I can remember — a few people were surprised to even see anything out for the Dreamcast at that point with Sony’s PS2 kicking into high gear after arriving in North America in late 2000.
Yet it had three things that made it a surprising game — it was an action RPG, it played a lot like Diablo, and it was based on an epic fantasy classic in anime.
Record of Lodoss War started out as a “replay” in 1986 by a role-playing company in Japan called Group SNE. A “replay” was a Dungeons & Dragons session written out and published in Japan. In Record of Lodoss War’s case, Comptiq was the magazine it appeared in. Replays were popular as they bore some resemblance to more dedicated works of fiction such as light novels drawing in varied audiences. Record of Lodoss War, in particular, proved to be quite popular and the session’s dungeon master, Ryo Mizuno, began adapting it into a a series of fantasy novels in 1988. Two years later, an anime series developed by Madhouse (Death Note, Ninja Scroll) and spread across thirteen episodes came out in 1990. Even before that, a game had come out in 1988 for Japan’s PC-98 and MSX computers from Humming Bird Soft, an overhead-viewed RPG similar to Enix’s Dragon Warrior in ’86 or Square’s Final Fantasy in ’87.
The series was set up around a classic fantasy world Mizuno had created (Forcelia) inspired by Dungeons & Dragons though when Group SNE went to create a tabletop adaptation, had to abandon the D&D ruleset and come up with their own which they did in 1989 with Sword World RPG which, from what I could gather, became Japan’s own D&D phenomenon. The vast island of Lodoss was part of Forcelia’s world.
Record of Lodoss War still contains many recognizable tropes from TSR’s famous world, itself inspired by Tolkien’s work, with evil wizards, wicked dragons, magic elves, classic fighters, and a rogue or two. Centered around a dishonored young knight named Parn as his quest to clear his family’s name, he eventually forms an adventuring troupe that sees them rise against unspeakable odds to challenge an empire.
More Lodoss games would eventually arrive over the next few years most of which were available on the PC-98. Titles also appeared on the TurboGrafx CD, Sega CD, and even the SNES. Alas, none of them would be localized and emerge officially from Japan until 2001’s Record of Lodoss War for the Dreamcast a little over ten years after the first anime series came out.
So, with the Dreamcast leaving the show and a game based on a series that largely kept itself in Japan aside from a few pieces like the anime from ten years earlier, finding players willing to take a chance on this could have been a bit tough. Still, it did shake enough familiar things out from the action RPG tree, something that was sorely lacking on the Dreamcast in comparison to peers like the PS2 (and its backwards-compatibility with the PSX).
If you didn’t know anything about Record of Lodoss War, the manual helped out a bit profiling a few of the characters in the game and providing a brief (very brief) background of where you’ll be heading — Forceria (manual’s spelling).
Gameplay was a lot like Diablo — isometric third-person view (although you could pivot the camera around) centered on our amnesiac hero. Amnesiac, because at the start of the game, you were just brought back to life by the wizard, Wart, for some secret purpose. On the plus side, you were apparently a great, heroic fighter since you take to swordplay like a fish to water. The first few tutorial lessons guide the player through the basics of combat before setting them off on their first task — to kill a goblin commander and take over his fortress.
The fortress acts as a hub in the game with all of the other goblins now yours to give occasional commands to such as looking for treasure. There’s also a blacksmith who will take up residence at the fortress, a display room to show off any rare treasures that you might have found, and storage chests to keep precious loot in to keep your inventory free of expensive clutter.
Combat’s pretty simple as it is in Diablo on the surface — you point our hero at an enemy, hit the attack button, watch him swing, and watch enemies (hopefully) die. He’s not quiet as snappy as our heroes in Diablo animation-wise, but he gets the job done regardless. Record of Lodoss War’s world is also pretty big with a lot of open spaces and dungeons just waiting to be explored. A portal system later opens up allowing you to zap around and save some time in getting to certain regions, but there’s also nothing keeping you from pushing as far from the fortress on your own and getting mauled by creatures far too powerful for you at the moment.
The game kind of relishes that to some extent especially in the late game when you get mobbed with one-hit killers. While Diablo wasn’t shy about sending batches of enemies at you, Record of Lodoss War can be quite a bit more ruthless. Certain boss battles could also be brutal affairs, especially against a mighty dragon much later on, no matter your level requiring you to think on your feet as opposed to just standing in one place hacking away. Some enemies can dole out brutal levels of damage so quickly that you don’t have time to throw back a potion.
Fortunately, you also have a number of neat advantages thanks to our genius blacksmith. Ancient inscriptions can be found all over Lodoss written on monuments that you can discover and these provide runes that can infuse weapons and armor with special powers ranging from increased strength to sucking the life out of enemies with every hit.
However, each runic phrase takes up so many spaces and both weapons and armor can vary in how many spaces they actually have. So if you have an inscription that takes up ten spaces but the sword you want to apply it to has only eight, that’s not going to work. The inscriptions are also permanent and require mithril, a collectable metal in the game dropped my monsters or which can be mined if you have a pickaxe.
The blacksmith can also transform your weapon into something else, duplicate it, or just break it down into valuable mithril. You’ll be seeing that guy a lot throughout the game and it can take a little getting used to experimenting with what inscriptions you want to permanently affix to your gear. Thank goodness there’s a save crystal nearby.
Our hero also has access to magic to give him an offensive advantage, potion slots for instant healing, and disposable lockpicks for getting into locked, metal chests.
The last battle was filled with tears — it was against Kardis mentioned in the subtitle for the game (Advent of Kardice) that was omitted in the Western release. This was a black dragon of incredible power that, along with a few other boss battles, pointedly reminded the player that the difficulty scaling could be flat out inaccurate when it came to comparing them against the fights actually leading up to them.
Still, I had managed to somehow win — after grinding a lot more mithril, levels, and generally just trying to improve my chances — and witness the ending.
Aside from the difficulty scaling quirks and mobs of death that could occasionally swarm our hero just for looking around, Record of Lodoss War was a tough but survivable experience with a keen weapon upgrade system that was fun to experiment with. There was also loot — loot such as special armor and weapons that you just had to get — and all of those inscriptions to find to turn you into a walking juggernaut until the next boss squished you in a few seconds flat. But fans of the anime, or of the manga, could also get a lot of extra mileage out of the game as an indirect thank you to them around the world especially when the twist of your true identity was finally revealed.
For the time, Record of Lodoss War looked great on the Dreamcast, was also backed by a great soundtrack composed by Kuniaki Haishima, and sported some solid voice work. As for Neverland, they continued on to make a number of games for the PS2 such as Sega’s Shining Force Neo which shares a lot in common with Record of Lodoss War (which likely helped provide some of the lessons learned as a foundation) with the mass obliteration of groups of enemies but wasn’t quite as good…especially the voice acting (“Hot stuff, coming your way!“).
Neverland would also go on create the popular Rune Factory series for Nintendo’s DS handheld, but in 2013, filed for bankruptcy and closed. However, the Rune Factory team managed to land on their feet at another developer, Marvelous AQL.
Unfortunately, Record of Lodoss War is also one of those Dreamcast exclusives that never went beyond the console it called home. It was never ported to any other platform, PC or otherwise, which is too bad. For one of the Dreamcast’s last titles, Record of Lodoss War’s Diablo-like aspirations and occasionally brutal difficulty propped up with an intriguing story make it one of the unsung favorites on the system for a number of action RPG fans. It had stats, it had loot, and it had plenty of action.
And it still holds up — just watch your step around that dragon if you dive into this dungeon crawler.