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*GROOOOOOOOOcoughcoughHACK!* Ummm... *meow*?
By: Steven Bellotti
Hyped as being published by the acclaimed developer Black Isle, Lionheart was actually developed by Reflexive Entertainment. Reflexive is perhaps best known for their arcade-style shareware games, and RPGs are new to them. For what it's worth, they've captured some of the major tenets of the genre quite well. But... well... Lionheart plays like an action game developer's first try at an RPG- a little too fast, furious, and twitchy, with a number of mistakes a more seasoned developer would know to avoid.
So, here's the deal. In the 12th century, en route to Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, King Richard the Lionhearted laid siege to the city of Acre, overcame the Muslim leader Saladin, and captured the city. About a month later, feeling that Saladin had failed to honor the surrender agreement, he put 3000 Muslim prisoners to death, then marched on to Jaffa, won a resounding victory at Arsuf, and eventually signed a treaty that earned Christians visitation rights to Jerusalem. That's real world history. But in the world of Lionheart, the mass execution at Acre was used by a treacherous villain as fuel for a ritual that tore the fabric of reality, releasing hordes of monsters and demons upon the world. After 400 years and several Crusades against the supernatural, the Inquisition and the Knights Templar have brought a measure of peace and security to Europe. But only a measure, for a foreboding prophecy speaks of a renewed conflict and an illegitimate descendant of Richard- you, natch- who will decide the fate of the world.
Lionheart starts out so promising. After escaping from a besieged slave camp with help from Leonardo DaVinci, you find yourself in the proud city of Nuevo Barcelona, trying to find out who wants your head, amongst other things. The first act of the game is spent in the city, meeting various 15th century historical figures and trying to get in with one of Europe's major power groups. The reliance on real-world history is what makes Lionheart unique. The politics of the time- especially the looming war between Spain and England- are significant. Later on you'll cross swords with Assassins and Druids. You meet various 15th century historical figures, including Shakespeare, Torquemada, and Cortez, and they're all pretty well realized. On the minus side, the dialogue is also pretty underwritten. It's pretty obvious that every line of dialogue is either directly related to some quest, or just general exposition. Persuasion is a matter of having a high enough diplomacy skill, nothing more. Still, there is some style and flair in the writing, and the characters are interesting. Overall, the plot is on the high side of average.
But once you get out of Barcelona and into the wider world, Lionheart falls flat on its face. The characters and setting of the previous act are all but ignored, and the game instead becomes one overlong dungeon after another. It all leads up to an ending that is a total cop-out, postponing all but the most simplistic answers until the sequel. Now, this isn't a bad approach per se- in fact, the Baldur's Gate games did much the same thing- heavy character development and sidequesting in the first half, followed by one epic confrontation after another, finishing with a hook for the next game. But Lionheart gets it wrong. There's no appreciable narrative thread running through the second act- mainly you're fighting whichever army happens to hold the area you're currently trudging through en route to the next plot point. Since the fights aren't tied heavily to the main plot, the story is effectively put on the back burner, forcing the combat engine and level design to carry the game. And these areas are where Lionheart is weakest.
Not that you'd know it from the game system. Lionheart's stat system has been copied, with some fanfare, from Fallout's SPECIAL system- skill-based with levels and character traits, plus special perks every three levels. It's implemented very well- the system accounts for a number of different approaches, all of them with advantages and disadvantages. You can use brute force, stealth, diplomacy, and several different kinds of magic. Ah yes, magic. Magic is a big part of Lionheart- more than half the skills you have to work with are magical skills. Mostly they're buffs, attacks, and the odd summon, but there are some nifty ones- raising enemy corpses as undead soldiers, a Shaman's Eye to scout out areas, and of course the all-important healing spell. There are even divisions within different philosophies of magic, making for a wide variety of characters. For example, a Pyromancer-type character will attack his opponents directly with magic, and can pick up perks and bonuses to do extra damage. A Thunder Wizard will also attack his opponents directly, doing less damage, but getting a paralysis effect that will leave them open to melee attacks. There's quite a bit of variety among the viable character types, and advancement is very smooth as well. Only two issues prevail. One, the perk lists aren't anywhere near as extensive and varied as in Fallout. Two, magic items are almost universally blah- randomly-generated enchantments with uninspiring names. An accurate sword is a "Sword of Fleshseeking". A sword that deals extra damage is a "Sword of Carnage". A sword with both enchantments is a "Sword of Fleshseeking and Carnage". Ugh.
So, the character creation system is great. The problem is, even the best characters mean nothing if they're boring to play. In Lionheart, you have only one hero. Others will join you occasionally, but usually just until one specific quest is completed. Even when you do have a companion, they're often more trouble then they're worth. They don't have inventories, so you can't give them potions or new equipment. You can't give them orders either, and while the combat AI isn't horrible, it's pretty one-dimensional. When you come close enough to the enemy, they charge in beside you and fight until they die. Retreating to recover, sniping with distance weapons, or charging and eating the damage while you snipe, are all strategies that are alien to them. So you generally fight alone. And it sucks.
See, there's only so many skill points a character can use effectively. With a party, you can specialize characters and divide the various jobs. But the solo adventurer has to do everything himself. If your game has multiple paths or simple enemies, this is no big deal. But in a game like Lionheart, you'll find the game either impossibly difficult, or you'll fall back on the same strategies endlessly. In this particular case, there are five strategies you have to know: 1) buff up, charge the enemy, waste them all, loot, heal, repeat. 2) buff up, approach the enemy slowly, get one enemy's attention, lure him back to a safe area, kick his ass, loot, heal, repeat. 3) run and gun, letting the enemy chase you around while you blast him with arrows or fireballs. 4) Snipe. 5) Sneak around and backstab. Pick one or two of these, depending on the type of character you're playing, and that's all you'll be doing for the rest of the game. There is little, if indeed any, creativity put into the various strategic situations you encounter.
Furthermore, combat is too fast and twitchy. Enemies move fast and attack repeatedly. Although the controls are intuitive enough, you can't issue commands while paused, meaning battles are very much a matter of fast reflexes. More seriously, the screen shows too little of the playfield. Although the sprites are pretty much in the same proportions as, say, Baldur's Gate, the characters move a lot faster, you can go from one side of the screen to the other in a third of the time. Ergo, the area displayed is functionally much smaller. Jerky, inconsistent panning is another annoyance.
The dungeons don't help either. Not only are they all 100% generic concepts- the city sewers, the crypt, the enemy stronghold- they're also too darn long. Oh, yes, the motivation in making large dungeons in completely understandable- give the player more bang for his buck, so to speak. But the equation doesn't really work in such a linear fashion. See, in essence, a dungeon is an action scene between two important plot points. You enter it with a purpose, and resolve that purpose, or find a new one, at the end. If it goes on too long, it's like the talky scenes in a Jackie Chan flick- the player starts wanting to just get on with it. (No, that's not the best analogy in the world, just roll with it.) The player only typically faces only a few types of challenge in a specific dungeon. A crypt will have skeletons, coffins, traps; a giant spider's lair will have webs and smaller spiders, etc. etc. This means that as the challenges come on, there's a point by which the player can handle the dungeon with few problems. After which, the dungeon becomes tedious. You can't run a dungeon that goes on for three or four maps, because by the end of the first, the player has figured out how to rise to the challenges and wants something new. Another idea which doesn't really work out is the fact that you can't rest in dungeons. In fact, you can't rest anywhere. On paper, this might seem like a good thing. It never really made sense in games like Morrowind that you could just pitch a tent in a dungeon and hang out for a few hours, recovering your health. But another problem, just as silly but more annoying, arises when you don't have this option. Instead of resting with a click of a button, you find a safe corner somewhere and twiddle your thumbs for a few minutes. Or, more commonly, find a safe corner then leave the keyboard and do something else for five minutes are so.
About the presentation, there isn't much to say. Both graphics and sound are okay, but nothing memorable. Voice acting for the characters is okay, but overdone. The player doesn't have to hear every word printed onscreen, usually he just skips past it once he's done reading. Unless you're doing a real dramatic moment, you should go easy on the voice clips.
Lionheart should get points for trying some new things, small innovations of the "Why didn't I think of that?" variety. Your choice of spirit is not just cosmetic- the three spirits have distinct personalities, and each adds a different feel to the game. Likewise, your choice of faction is not purely cosmetic either- you get stat bonuses for your rank. There are other items, mainly quest rewards, which will likewise give you bonuses and special perks. The game is uncommonly friendly to thief characters. Dungeons are replete with secret doors- some of them highly effective shortcuts- locked chests, and traps. You can also gain experience for sneaking past enemies instead of killing them. And my favorite little touch- during conversation, little icons pop up to tell you where certain threads of conversation will get you- A red sword indicates something that will get you into a fight. An open book signifies a dialogue option relating to a quest. There are also icons that indicate whether a certain option is available because of your stats, so you can see what effect your social stats are having. Unfortunately, when the main body of the game is so repetitive, little touches like this can't make things interesting enough to extend the playtime. The experienced player will blow through Lionheart in a week and have no reason to go again.
All in all, Reflexive does have potential- Lionheart is at least a competent first effort, and the concept is compelling. But they'll have to do a lot better if they hope to capture the imaginations of gamers. Let's hope the sequel shows more promise.
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