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Lands of Lore

(Westwood Studios)

Thanks to the wonder called eBay, I have both game I and II now. I only played the first, and that no more than half-way, because some strange game glitch prevented me from mixing the ingredients for a life-saving potion essental to the plot. Now why would this be: because the game was given to me on a set of copied floppies by a friend? Before anyone starts ranting about illegal copies and how they kill the game industry: I was also given Zork I and King's Quest V as copies by friends, and in the first case, since I got it from a computer science student and I had just bought my first computer, I didn't even realize that this was a copied commercial game: at any rate, without these copies I would never have bought the Zork Collection and the Kings Quest Collection years later. But the Lands of Lore games were bought second-hand, so I owe Westwood. May this review at least partially reimburse the debt, and I'll end this opening paragraph with a plea to all game studios: please, please, please realize the commercial value of retro. A game is new and all the rage, then it is forgotten, then it is unearthed and people start Googling the web searching where to buy copies of it. Obviously, a retro game can't sell at the ramped-up price of the newest latest games (which drops dramatically within months of its release, as I found when ordering a second copy of a game of which the disks had gone walkies) but I think a dedicated "abandonware" company could sustain itself nicely on selling legit copies of old but unforgotten games that will otherwise be either illegally distributed, or lost to mankind; and I think that any worthwhile creative effort, including an old computer game, has a value beyond money, and it's worth breaking the law to preserve it. (Having said that, I know full well that a lot of game copiers are either Chinese bootleggers or gamerz who want all the latest stuff for free.)

(Also, I now know that there is a company that sells these old games: Steam, and I don't like this company for its assumption that anyone who plays old games should need an account and 24/7 online connectivity. Game companies are getting far too intrusive in this age of internet.)

A worthwhile creative effort. That would sum up Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos very well. At the time, computer game genres didn't mean much to me, and they still don't mean an awful lot, as games tend not to stay within one genre, but adopt whatever format is popular at the time; which is how King's Quest changed from graphic half-text-adventure to point-and-click to real-time 3D. As the Ultima series shows, RPGs were subject to different formats too. The reason for bringing up genre is that this game is not a real RPG, but a hybrid of RPG and adventure. There is a main character who can be joined by other characters, but the player can't chose who will join, or when; it's the plot line that adds and removes them. The player can choose a race (including lizard-man or cat-person) and a class, but only in the form of one of four heroes which belong to a specific race and class. Each member of the party can be equipped with armour and weapons, and has magic and hit points that can be regenerated by resting, and there is a rudimentary form of levelling. There is one single dungeon, the Urbish mine, but the objective is not to gather loot, but to finish a quest to save the life of king Richard. There are orcs - as enemies, of course - and various types of monsters to be battled, there are dungeon-type areas to clear out (or not, as with the Gorkha swamp), and there are shopkeepers to trade with, but, again, it's completely plot-driven and doesn't have the freedom of choice of a real RPG. This hybrid format, adding RPG elements into a first-person adventure, was quite popular when games started to improve graphically (at the moment of writing, the popular format is hybrids with sim elements, or outright sims) and I have a pile of bargain bin rescues of this format, still waiting to be played.

My first impression of this game was: eye-candy. It didn't have 360-degree view and total freedom of movement, but my game character walked upright and looked straight ahead rather than being a blob on a landscape seen from above. Despite being 256-colour material, it was barely blocky. I liked having the view you get when looking right in front of you and seeing that view change when turning around. I liked the character design and what little interaction there was with characters. I particularly liked the animated sequence where the player and companions take a ride in a mine cart. At the time, this was all very flashy and advanced. And, although it could be installed under Windows, its actual platform was MS-DOS. It even had a specific DOS-related problem: at the start of the game, when the player meets Scotia outside Gladstone Keep, the game hangs. The solution is to increase the stack size in CONFIG.SYS.

The story goes: King Richard needs a champion. His enemy, the evil sorceress Scotia, has recovered a shapeshifting ring from the Urbish mines (to be exact, she had some little minion bring it and then blasted the poor thing to ashes for taking too long) and must be defeated. You will meet her along the way, disguised as a beautiful young woman, asking to be let inside. She's furious when you refuse and instead finds her way in as a bird. She poisons the king. His court magician, the mystic Dawn, freezes him and seals him in a magic container to stop the poison spreading. You must now find the antidote and collect the four "keys" to open the container. There are four loyal servants - Dawn is one of them - and they each have a key, which they will use when you find a cure for the poison and then bring them together. But first you must seek out a mysterious being called the Draracle to ask him what the cure is. And Scotia will have to be killed, because there's more and more trouble coming out of the Urbish mines and she is somehow behind it.

(Side note: this ring, called the Nether Mask, lets Scotia change into a young woman and a crow. Anyone familiar with Irish mythology will recognize the reference to the Badb, the warrior-witches who could take the shape of maiden, crone and crow. I wonder if her name is also intended to be a reference, as the Scottas were an Irish tribe who emigrated northwards and gave Scotland its name.)

Now that I have Lands of Lore II: The Guardian of Destiny, I can add what information I've found in the booklet. From before the time when she joined the Dark Army and called herself Scotia, the villainess has a son: Luther. This is the player of the second game. No choosing a race, but since his mother tried to send the Nether Mask to him but he received it as a shape-shifting curse, he is three races at once, and the two extra races also represent two classes, warrior and mage. Levelling is more sophisticated now, Luther develops the skills he uses most and will not gain experience points fighting monsters weaker than himself. The Guardian of Destiny referred to in the title is again the Draracle, who also helped out with a cure in the first game, and whose role in the greater scheme of things is now explained. The second game booklet shares with the first a touch of dry wit, slightly more prominent now given the absurdity of the situation: poor Luther who is completely innocent and only came to Gladstone keep to seek a cure for his sudden transformation tendencies, is imprisoned to pay for his mother's crimes and has to fight and flee his way out. Last game featured a hero; this game features an anti-hero.

Now that I've got the original versions, I'd love to install and play them again. Right after I finish playing Morrowind. Which could take a while.

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