Developer: Black Isle/Reflexive
Release Date: August 13, 2003
Buy 'LIONHEART: Legacy of the Crusader': PC
Long renowned for such legendary titles such as the Fallout series, Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape Torment, as well as the Icewind Dale series, Black Isle studios has become synonymous with the role playing genre. So when Interplay announced that Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader was on the way, and that Black Isle was involved in its development, gamers everywhere eagerly waited for the next great thing from one of the best in the business. The excitement became even greater when it was learned that Lionheart would use the SPECIAL system of character creation and development made famous in 1996’s Fallout, which is regarded as one of the better systems in the genre.
Lionheart’s best feature is its premise, which creates an alternate human history starting around 1192, in which King Lionheart is tricked into killing 3000 prisoners of war, causing what became known as the disjunction. During this disjunction, a rift opened up between Earth and the nether world, allowing horrible monsters, spirits, and magic to enter our domain. Although King Lionheart and his once great enemy Saladin joined their armies together to rid the world of these horrible creatures, many of the spirits escaped into our world, using fellow humans as hosts, and giving them the ability to use magic. This brought happiness to some, and great misery to others.
As humanity slowly tried to adjust to their new predicament, fear and mistrust began to take over. Magic became evil, and anyone thought to be possessed by a spirit and capable of magic was quickly whisked off by the Inquisition, which, in the game, is a branch of the Spanish government dedicated to the rather ruthless removal of magic from our planet for the sake of humanity. For many decades, the Inquisition took it upon themselves to root out magic wherever they felt it existed, using whatever means necessary to achieve their aims.
At the start of the game, your character learns that not only that they possessed by such a spirit, but that they are in fact the last in a line of direct descendants of King Lionheart himself. Upon learning this your character is then tasked with establishing themselves within one of Spain’s many societies, and learning all they can about their situation and whatever fate it may bring them.
Everything seems good so far. Along with the story, the interface is decent, containing everything you need to know about your characters status. The SPECIAL system, in all its open ended glory, seems lifted directly from the Fallout series. The first main area, Barcelona, seems like a great starting point for a memorable story, literally teeming with quests, sub plots, and side trips. You get to mingle with some of the greatest extropolians in history, including Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Nostradamos, and even assist them through some pressing dilemmas.
But it’s after you’ve seen the sites in Barcelona and journey to some of the surrounding areas in the game that things quickly start to degenerate. You realize, with some disappointment, that once you leave Barcelona, most of the role playing Lionheart offers is over, and is replaced by never ending streams of monotonous, mind bending, often times ridiculously difficult combat.
The actual act of combat in Lionheart seems pretty simple and straightforward. You simply left click to attack something, and your character then attacks it, with either a melee or ranged weapon. Spells can be cast using the right mouse button. From there, that’s really it. Both sides simple go at it until one falls, and rest assured, unless you guessed right during character creation and developed a really good character, you’re going to fall. A lot.
As good as the SPECIAL system is I’m not so sure it was the way to go with Lionheart. Although this system, like most other systems of this type, is based on a main set of attributes, those attributes can be heavily affected through the use of traits and perks. Traits, which are optional, essentially give you more of one thing while taking away from another, such as a greater chance for a critical hit but with less damage overall. Perks on the other hand generally offer you something useful, like the ability to carry more weight. As your character levels up, the gain skill points that can be applied to a vast number of different abilities, everything from fighting and thieving, to the games three main branches of magic. Around every third or fourth level, you’re allowed to choose from a list of perks that further round out your character and make them more capable, in one way or another.
The reason I question the use of this system with Lionheart is that the very nature of the game calls for a rather specific type of character, with fairly specific abilities and requirements. Failing to fulfill any of these requirements during character creation can weaken the character, or at least limit an aspect of their abilities. Obviously, you’re not going to know the specific type of character to create if you’ve never played the game, so this becomes a problem. Suffice it to say that there are some abilities your character is going to have a hard time living without, but you’re not going to know what those abilities are until its too late. Sadly, this can be bad enough to the point where you might actually have to start the game over, and believe me, you won’t want to do that. For all that the SPECIAL system offers, the style of the game really limits some of its more appealing traits and perks. A lot of the fun with games like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, or any RPG for that matter, is creating the type of character you want to play and then guiding them through the chosen world, exploiting their strong points while trying to hide their weak ones. Unfortunately, Lionheart misses this aspect of role playing, to the point where some insurmountable balance issues can arise. It’s not by any means an imminent problem, and the average gamer with either a fair amount of RPG experience or enough patience to read the manual should be fine, but the sheer fact that you can create a character with this game that isn’t capable of surviving through the quest from start to finish is unacceptable, and frankly a cardinal sin for an RPG.
Most of the quests you receive are resolved through combat, and combat is usually required just to get the quest in the first place. There are entire areas where wave after wave of monsters keep coming at you, and there is no escape. No going back to town, no setting up camp, no resting away your wounds. You can wait around and heal at your normal rate, which is quite slow, or you can journey forward, hoping to get yourself a few critical hits while avoiding any further damage. Unfortunately, I ran into a few areas where that philosophy became all too real, as I found myself dealing with a few extremely difficult, boss level type monsters that as far as I could tell required several critical hits before they would expire. I spent one whole night reloading a save game with the sole hope of getting a critical hit on a certain monster. And the sad part is that once I did manage to kill that monster, there was a whole platoon more of them waiting for me up ahead. All I really did was kill one monster so that I could get to the next one.
To make matters all the worse, the graphics and overall presentation with Lionheart leave a lot to be desired. For starters, the game is locked in at 800 x 600 resolution, and I don’t even need to tell you what that causes. Everything feels shoved right into your face, and with the constant combat, requires a lot of scrolling and flopping around. The rather encumbering interface that gobs one quarter of the display certainly doesn’t help much either. The screen area has this weird little bobbing affect, and when you scroll it feels like you’re spinning a really heavy globe that creeps just a little bit before it stops. That’s how it felt to me anyway, but maybe the combat got to me more than I thought. Many of the games characters, including your own, all have this weird, slanted look to them, almost like they are standing on their tippy toes with one foot. Does that sound right…tippy toes with…yeah…yeah that’s it. That’s exactly what it seems like, like they’re standing on their tippy toes with one foot. The maps of the various areas, of which there are quite a few, all tend to look alike, and have a further tendency to be too dark. Sound is of an even greater problem, largely because, well, there isn’t much of it. What few ambient sounds the game uses are really, really generic and many of the areas are played through in total silence, which isn’t going to cut it for an RPG, especially one released in 2003. There is a tasty little ditty that would show up once and awhile, but it was accompanied by skips, pops, and similar phenomenon.
Unfortunately, as bad as all of this is going, Lionheart is also one of the buggier games I have dealt with in quite awhile. Along with the aforementioned sound issues and several crashes to desktop, I experienced a few broken quests, corrupted save games, and some rather evil slow downs in game play. A patch has been issued that seems to correct many of these problems without creating any new ones, and the game does seem a little more stable since I installed it. The patch also adds a speed slider that allows you to slow the game down, but frankly I didn’t notice much of a difference. The game flies right along all the same.
Overall however, Lionheart really feels like a game that you would have played around the Planescape era, and perhaps even before that. The locked resolution, dark maps, lackluster sound, and constant combat are all issues that hide the games much bigger problem with character balancing. What is truly unfortunate with Lionheart, and probably its biggest fault, is that its alternative environment and awesome premise simply didn’t come close to its potential. I can’t help but thinking there was a great story in here somewhere, something that could have been developed and expanded on ten fold. It would have been nice to see a new RPG series come along that didn’t feature elves, gnomes, and a thirty plus year old set of rules, but it’s not to be, at least not with this initial version of the game.
It does serve to note that, as my research leads me to understand, Black Isle was really a middle man with the development of Lionheart, overseeing a company called Reflexive Entertainment, who did most of the leg work on the game. When you consider Reflexive’s past works are generally with action oriented titles, it is easier to understand how Lionheart managed to stray from its RPG billing, and where its focus on combat comes from. While Lionheart is a missed opportunity, at the same time Reflexives involvement with it is something the company can learn from and apply to any future offerings, and that could be a good thing.
But for the moment, the time is now, and I’m afraid I can’t recommend Lionheart to anyone but the most forgiving of RPG enthusiasts, and only then with an understanding of everything you’re reading here. If you should happen to find it in a bargain bin next spring, when gaming is generally slow, then by all means give it a shot. Other than that, you’re better off to look elsewhere.
Score : 7.2/10