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Blast from the past: Lionheart Review
Review - posted by Vault Dweller on Fri 9 July 2004, 22:25:31Tags: Black Isle Studios; Interplay; Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader; Reflexive Entertainment; Vault Dweller
Yep. I said I'll do it and 3 months later I finally did it. So, since you're all obviously dying to know what kinda game Lionheart was, without further ado, I present you The Lionheart Review!
Lionheart is one of the things that I "don't get". I would really like to see the design doc for this one.
According to the Black Isle announcement, Lionheart was destined to be a stunning new epic RPG that utilizes the character development system from the critically acclaimed Fallout series in an atypical fantasy setting. It had many components of a great game: an interesting, very detailed setting, famous SPECIAL system, unique characters and well known NPCs, yet somehow Lionheart failed to live up to the expectations it created.
Lionheart wasn't a good game by any standards. There was too much click fest combat to make it a good adventure RPG. The combat itself was poorly implemented and thus failed to meet the standards of today's action RPGs, and Lionheart definitely didn't qualify to be an RPG in a role-playing kind of way. So, why write a review if the game clearly sucked, you ask? Lionheart should have been a very good, if not a great game. It took a lot of talent and skills to bury that promise. Let's follow each choice and see where and how it went wrong.
Lionheart's world is based on an alternative history that started in 1192 when Crusades were all the rage, and Richard the Lionheart, King of England took part in one accidentally tearing the fabrics of reality and thus allowed magical forces to enter our realm. As a result many things changed. Richard and Saladin joined forces, the Mongol invasion reached Italy, the Crusades switched their attention to dragons, necromancers, and spirits, Columbus' and Cortes' expeditions were defeated, and most importantly people began to bond with spirits and cast magik spellz!11. The game itself takes place in the 16th century and puts you in a role of one of Lionheart's descendants sending you on a quest to stop the evil from taking over. To add some alternative history flavor, anybody who was somebody back then, i.e. Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Cortes, Nostradamus, etc, was forced to make a cameo appearance for players' amusement.
Overall, the setting was the best, the most developed part of Lionheart. The timeline and events were well developed and presented, but served as a background for an arcade game. It reminded me of one of those pinball games with different cool backgrounds that have nothing to do with the game.
The Character system
So rather than develop a new system from scratch, we opted to use a system that had worked, and worked well, in a number of games for us. Since we understood how everything worked, adjusting it to work in real-time and with magic wasn't that much of a leap. - Chris Parker
Obviously the understanding was flawed as the new and improved SPECIAL had very few skills and forced players to pick 3 skills and stick with them until the end. Although Lionheart featured skills like sneak and diplomacy, these skills couldn't help you in every hostile situation for some reasons, thus forcing you to specialize in something more effective then persuasion. So far, it was ok. There are many games that encourage narrow specializations and resolve everything through mortal combat, and some may argue that even in Diablo 2 players use 3-4 nicely developed skills, but, and that's a critical error No 1, each combat discipline was represented by one general skill that didn't lead to other skills or sub skills but gave you a pitiful +1 for every 25 or 50 points you invest into the skill. There was no information associated with skills so you couldn't really tell how much the skill of 200 is better then the skill of 150. A good solution would have been to model it after the magic skills: to have new sub skills open up as your skill grows. In that case you would at least have different melee options available to you, and choosing an appropriate attack would have introduced some tactical element into an otherwise painfully boring and monotone gameplay.
It's worth noting that such a basic and expected skill as steal didn't make it into the game. It didn't make sense as it clearly penalized item-gathering ability of sneaky characters and perhaps it was one of the first signs that despite all the claims Lionheart will feature mostly an arcade gameplay not unlike Reflexive's other games Ricochet and Zax.
The Magic System
And now that we've added real time combat and magic, we think the system is even better than before! - Ion Hardie
The magic was introduced via spirits who reside in you and thus help you to cast spells. Sounds interesting, sounds unique, sounds like something that has a potential. Unfortunately, this idea just like any other good thing about Lionheart was twisted and transformed into something stupid. Instead of being a source of information about the gameworld, instead of being an advisor and memorable companion, the spirit was modeled after the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock: it shows up to tell you what you already know. When you create a character you choose one out of three spirits that offer respective bonuses to each of the three magic branches, and give you different lines in the same situation. That's about it. Another wasted opportunity and disappointment. Not the first, and definitely not the last.
Originally Eric Dallaire suggested a system where you actually interact with the spirit, bargaining for spells and making deals with the spirit. Unfortunately Reflexive thought that this would be too complicated and decided to go with good ol' "Cast spells as long as you have mana! Comes with a bonus spirit" system.
The spells were unimaginative and anything unique was ripped off from different Blizzard games featuring spells like Mana Shield, Corpse Bomb, and Shaman's Eye (that's Warcraft's Eye of Kilrogg). I'm surprised that Reflexive didn't try to borrow Blizzard games' gameplay as well, a straight forward Diablo-clone would have been a much better game. Speaking of Blizzard, I'm curious, whether or not somebody at Reflexive ever thought of thinking what made Diablo 2 so popular and wrote these things down trying to match them with Lionheart's features. It's clear that Lionheart ignored the experience of other more successful games before it, but I wonder if an attempt to analyze that was ever made.
Some of the neat advantages, for me, revolve around melee combat, which under a real-time basis, really helps to draw the player into the world and make it feel more like a fight for your life. I personally like the real time feel quite a bit. - Ion Hardie
If I had to use one word to describe Lionheart's combat, that would be "chaotic". If I had two, I would have added "painful". You see an enemy and you have about a second to target him/her/it with a huge grapple and start whacking away. Why huge grapple? Because the enemies are so damn fast that even a huge grapple doesn't guarantee successful targeting. Now combine that with one or two skills you use to battle enemies, the lack of a "click and hold" attack feature, unimaginative weapons with relatively low damage, lots and lots of enemies with many hit points, and that should give you an idea about combat. There is a slider that regulates accuracy vs speed ratio, but once your skills are reasonably high, there is no reason to play with the slider. Once again I was wondering whether or not the developers played the game, because when you're playing it's very obvious what exactly is missing: an option to hit multiple enemies, and an option to deliver more penetrating attacks to resolve endless combat faster. These options could have been easily introduced in the game as melee sub skills, and would have made the game if not more enjoyable then at least less painful.
Another thing about combat mechanics that was noticed by many is the damage system. Since Lionheart used SPECIAL I expected it to use the damage system that came with it: damage resistance and damage threshold. Instead Lionheart offered us more familiar and lame 3 damage types system.
I wasn't surprised that Reflexive made a poor RPG as this area takes skills, thoughts, and a lot of rarely appreciated work, but I couldn't understand how they could screw up the combat so badly. It's not really a rocket science, after all, and it's especially important in an action game because that's what they are all about. It makes perfect sense to throw in a couple of combat moves to avoid the boredom of mindless clicking, yet it was ignored and we were reassured by many that the combat is incredibly fun and engaging.
Each of these companion characters is controlled by their own AI, but you can give them some instructions during the course of play. - Chris Parker
NPCs were another feature gone wrong, terribly wrong. First, they lacked any personality and despite what Chris Parker said they lacked AI unless of course the AI was set on "stupid". Second, you couldn't give them any items Diablo 2 style, and third, you could not give them even the basic "stay close to me" command. So, gameplay wise it looked especially weird, one moment you are having a somewhat intelligent conversation with Cortes, one of the most interesting famous people in the setting, the next moment, he's a mindless zombie running around you in crazy patterns. Instead of providing companionship and an extra hand in combat, they provided a non expected and rarely appreciated challenge of keeping them alive.
It would have improved the gameplay a lot, if players had an option to develop and control NPCs in combat Infinity Engine style. Sure given a choice I'd prefer a true Non-Player Characters but if Reflexive was having problems to do it right, they shouldn't have done it at all. Even an option to develop NPCs as you see fit would have given players a few more extra skills to spice up the gameplay and make it more fun.
So there are literally thousands of different items - Chris Parker
The fact that Reflexive managed to screw up even the items was the biggest surprise of all. I mean, how difficult could it be to introduce tons of cool looking items so that people have something to look at when they are bored with gameplay? Yet Reflexive once again proved that everything is possible if you try hard enough. The items were as boring as the gameplay itself. Where were the wondrous, wicked, magical, awe-inspiring, cleverly constructed, glowing in the dark items? Many players played through most of the game using items they got at the beginning. That's gotta tell you something. Even Fallout, a game focused on role-playing, featured a nice selection of items becoming readily available as you progress through the game. Diablo 2 turned items gathering into a cult that Dungeon Siege followed. Bioware redefined the concept of ph4t l3wt in DnD. Reflexive either figured that the items are overrated or seriously overestimated their random item generators. As a result the game became even more boring.
I think that Lionheart is going to feature the same aspects that have made other Black Isle role-playing games great. - Chris Parker
I don't know what really happened there as there are different versions of the events, but the fact remains that there was Barcelona and then there was anything else. It felt like 2 games merged into one. Barcelona was good, but felt really outstanding comparing to other areas. Some dialogue lines were good, some options provided different solutions to the quests, but most of the dialogues and quests were very straight forward with little role-playing in mind. There are several obvious situations where the lack of actual choices is painfully clear. For example, there is an Inquisitor who is looking for the magic wielding faction, when the location becomes known to you, you are never given a choice to tell him that. I guess Reflexive assumed that you are a nice guy and that was the line you'd never cross. The game features 3.5 factions: the Templars, the Inquisition, the Wielders (wizards), and the Order of Saladin. For some last minute reasons you can't join the Order, but you can still do all the quests and receive appropriate rewards. Joining a faction isn't as interesting and well presented as that in the Spiderweb's games. You're given no moral choices to make, and basically you pick a faction based on what type of character you're playing to augment your abilities via faction perks. One other fine example of role-playing Reflexive-style is thieves vs beggars conflict. When you enter the sewers, you see thieves fighting some beggars, when the fight is over, you are asked to choose whose side you're on. If you expect to hear some background on the conflict, some arguments and points of view to convince you to join the thieves, you're mistaken. Just flip a coin and pick one. If you chose the thieves and the Templars, they would ask you to find a lost knight. He's in the sewers near the thieves area. Once he joins you, the thieves turn hostile and even if you've done all their quests and got Thief Comrade perk, you can't talk to them and handle this encounter peacefully.
As an unexpected side effect, Barcelona proved beyond the reasonable doubt that an average gameplay time of a game reviewer is about 30 minutes. There were a lot of reviews praising Lionheart's role-playing, dialogues, and non-linearity that were found only in Barcelona. There was another small town that had a quest involving a moral choice but that was about it, and there wasn't any non-linear activity in that place.
After you leave Barcelona's pseudo non-linear areas, the game becomes an extremely linear and straight forward hack & slash. One area heavily populated by monsters replaces another one. You move in, kill the monsters, and move out. Repeat as necessary until the game is over or your mouse is broken.
So, Reflexive screwed up everything and you'd think that the ending was equally bad. No, it was actually much worse. One of the worst endings I've ever seen in games, and I've played a lot of games. I don't want to spoil much so think of a big room, no, let's make it really fun, think of a small room, a big dragon with a knockdown attack, add a summoning trap that you may or may not see, and you'd have an idea if you gave up before that. Once again, it reminded me of some arcade games I've played decades ago.
And in Conclusion
It's a shame that both Reflexive and Black Isle wasted such an opportunity to create a solid game that would have put Reflexive on the RPG map, and perhaps, helped Black Isle to stay on it. Reflexive lived up to its name and proved that they should only stick with games like Ricochet that require only reflexes to play. Lionheart is now a testament to the lack of vision and understanding of basic design principles in the gaming industry. As much as I'd like to blame only Ion Hardie for that stupidity, it took a lot more thשn one guy to screw up the promise that was Lionheart.