Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader Review

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Publisher: Interplay and Vivendi Universal Games
Developer: Reflexive Entertainment

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 700 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 8 MB video card

Long ago, magic suffused the Earth, and supernatural creatures such as spirits, goblins and titans made of rock wandered the verdant forests. But mankind's facility with magic quickly outstripped his wisdom. A mage of surpassing skill recognized the danger, and inundated the world with water, in an event that became known to all cultures as the flood. For thousands of years, non-humans were banished from the world, and humans had little knowledge of magic. In the closing years of the twelfth century that changed, as the conflict between Christianity and Islam seeded the possible destruction of the mortal world.

Pope Gregory the VIII called for a Third Crusade, ordering Western Europe to seize Jerusalem. Richard "the Lionheart" (King of England) joined Philip of France, ultimately laying siege to the city of Acre. Disaster set in when one of Richard's advisors (a disguised demon) convinced Richard to gather together holy artifacts for a ritual to bless the crusaders and curse their foes. The advisor also convinced Richard to slay three thousand prisoners when Saladin failed to pay tribute. Together, the two acts began a demonic ritual that brought about the Disjunction – a catastrophic return of magic to the mortal world. Thus, in the summer of 1191, history branched, creating a world in which dragons torment the populace, demons and daevas stalk the land, the islands of England are shattered and citizens of the world are increasingly tainted by magic and exhibit unnatural traits.

Now the year is 1588. Expeditions sent to the New World have been repelled by powerful magics and returned broken. The Inquisition is working to eliminate practitioners of magic, and humans with obviously magic-tainted heritage are scorned and abused. The Spanish are assembling an Armada to assault the English, who refuse to completely denounce magic and embrace the Inquisition. Mongol hordes have pressed across Europe, and their goblin-comprised forces have nearly reached the walls of Barcelona, Spain. For all the despair in Europe, even darker forces are rising in power, assembling ancient and powerful relics for their own nefarious purposes. According to Nostradamus, the fate of the world depends upon a "spinning coin," by which he means a distant descendent of Richard the Lionheart, who hosts a spirit that aided Richard nearly four hundred years earlier.

Kyle Ackerman

PC gamers have been waiting for an epic role-playing game (RPG), particularly a new one with the Black Isle Studios label, whether set in a post-apocalyptic desert (the Fallout series), focused on fantasy combat (the Icewind Dale series), or filled with complex story (Planescape Torment or Baldur's Gate II). Now there is Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader. While these games have typically been developed in-house or by BioWare, Lionheart was placed into the hands of Reflexive Entertainment, previously known for games such as Zax – The Alien Hunter. Using some of the fundamental mechanics of the Fallout games, such as the SPECIAL system, and the familiar isometric (above and to the side) perspective, Reflexive set about to create an RPG that could satisfy this demanding audience.

Reflexive's biggest success is the world they created. Their alternate history is carefully crafted and rich. The story is sufficiently fleshed out that every event has an explanation that may have a supernatural tinge, while remaining grounded in a familiar history. There's also the titillation of interacting with historical figures such as Leonardo DaVinci (Signor Leo initially saves you from slavers), Joan of Arc, Machiavelli, Cortez, Torquemada and Nostradamus. Don't expect strict historical accuracy – Lionheart's depiction of the Cathar heresy mostly focuses on vegetarianism. At the same time, many mainstays of RPG games, such as mystical teleportation devices, are part of the world's history. While battling dragons in 1201, encouraged by Richard the Lionheart, powerful mages banded together to cast a great spell. A side effect of this sorcery was the sprouting from the ground of magical crystals throughout the world. Some offer helpful magics, others can be used for rapid transportation, and still others summon foul undead.

A Very SPECIAL Person

When you first load up Lionheart, it seems your choices are nearly endless. There are several pre-generated characters, or you can choose between four races, pick from myriad skills, choose special attributes and allocate points to your seven attributes (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck – hence SPECIAL). I've always been a proponent of the SPECIAL system, as it turns character creation into a series of considered choices, rather than an exercise in stubbornness, as you try to re-roll statistics as highly as possible. You can choose to be a pureblood human, or tainted by magic. If you choose to play as one of the tainted breeds (Demokin, Sylvant or Feralkin) and have any visible sign of magical taint, you will be treated by nearly everyone as a leper, and persecuted by the Inquisition. Despite the pariah problem, you will also have access to special traits that will allow you to better customize your character.

Over the course of Lionheart, you gain skill points that will let you improve your skills, but as with other SPECIAL games, you can only rapidly advance skills that you designate as "Tag Skills." You can choose three Tag Skills from a wide selection of thieving, combat or magical skills. Unlike the Fallout games from which the concept originates, most of the skills are for combat, be they one-handed weapons, a divine smiting skill or protective thought magic. This emphasizes the point that in Lionheart, you need to be prepared for a lot of combat. There are necromantic skills that allow you to raise or explode corpses; fire magic that grants you the power to hurl fireballs; and a ranged weaponry skill for would-be marksmen. Because of the skill distributions, you could allocate a Tag Skill to a thievery or diplomatic skill, but you'll need to spend at least two on combat related skills. The fact that all but one of the pre-generated characters have a melee skill should be a clue as well. There are plenty of creatures that are resistant to a specific field of magic (electrical or fire), and if you encounter one of those with a necessarily specialized mage, you'll be desperately wishing you had brought a companion. If Reflexive had kept the old "Tag!" perk from the Fallout games that would allow high-level characters to add another Tag Skill, all the specialization problems might have been avoided.

The skill system has some other problems than just specialization. Many of the thieving skills are made unnecessary by the quick-save function. With many chests, traps and even some encounters, you can keep reloading and retrying until you've picked the chest's lock, found the trap or met a monster you can destroy. Money is plentiful, so diplomacy is the only non-combat skill that will serve a character especially well. Combat is real-time, and although it is pause-able, ranged magic and missile weapons aren't nearly as entertaining as they are in a turn-based system. Enemies close so rapidly that using distance attacks is just an additional challenge. Worse yet, diplomacy becomes outmoded after the early part of the game.

A Sharp Wit Won't Get You Through France

Much of the early game feels like other Black Isle titles. You can choose to side with different factions, and there are plenty of hidden deposits for thieves to find. Throughout most of Spain, you can maneuver your way through sticky situations (even the Goblin Mongol Horde) with words rather than weapons. There are also useful artifacts to help you out if you don't have the right skill set, such as a hammer that does massive damage to goblins – regardless of whether you actually hit with it. Many of your adventures throughout Spain (the game begins in Barcelona) seem carefully designed in this way. As such, the first ten or more hours of game play can involve a great deal of conversation and story. Then your adventures begin to take you abroad – to France, England and beyond. At this point, it feels like the developers were simply trying to extend the play of Lionheart, and you can wade through tens of additional hours of the same foes with the same limited repertoire of weapons or spells. And if you chose the wrong skills, you have a long path to restart. By the time the druids assault Barcelona, combat becomes monotonous.

The sad thing is that Lionheart seems to be very close to being an excellent title. There are simply far too many things that feel like shortcuts. The little bits of music that exist are excellent, but there is far too little sound for the epic scope of the game. The little bit there is reused over and over, and sometimes loops oddly. The maps are beautiful and hand-drawn, but are often reused (with a pristine and then a demolished version). Also, the game resolution is limited to 800x600 – while the game will run on many systems, it would be nice to support higher resolutions for more powerful systems. There is also a great game mechanic that could introduce tremendous replayability, but is virtually ignored for the bulk of the game. When you generate a character, you must choose the type of spirit that has bonded with your character: Demonic, Bestial or Elemental. Early on, the three spirits have different messages and tones. The Bestial Spirit is gruff, encouraging and primal. The Demonic Spirit is sarcastic and sinister, with lines such as "I doubt the throne of England will feel the weight of your flaccid buttocks." Most players will only hear a few lines at the beginning of the game. If this continued throughout Lionheart, you might replay the title to see what the different spirits do. As it stands, this is largely a wasted device.

Reflexive did a great job with the background and story, but their shortcoming was an inability to capture that delicate balance between combat and dialog that is the hallmark of games such as Baldur's Gate 2 and Fallout. After the early hours of the game (once you leave Spain), which are well-scripted and fully developed, it seems that a particular character paradigm is favored, and that plenty of skills and perks won't overly benefit your character. If you want to try one of the many magical paths, you'll need to get some friends and try the multiplayer component so you can work with a team. For all of its issues, there is still more gameplay in Lionheart in the hours before it devolves into constant combat than in many recent first-person shooters. There is a good deal to enjoy, but if you try, take at least one melee skill.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on August 26, 2003 5:07 PM.

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