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Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance (NES) artwork

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance (NES) review

"In Heroes of the Lance, traveling was more like wandering. I had no idea where I was at any point, where I was going, or how I was going to get to the unknown goal. I'd try a random door and hope what was beyond it didn't massacre my party. From there I'd try another random door, and another, and another in the hopes of reaching the mysterious goal. "

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance asset

There came a day when I accepted the truth about myself: I was, and still am, a nerd. I liked settings that involved medieval times, dragons, and castles. I played Magic: The Gathering obsessively. I also watched more science fiction, however cheesy, than any person I knew. I understood Star Trek references despite the fact that I was only a casual fan. There was one thing that nerds loved that I had never tried, and that was AD&D. I had to break into that magical realm and not just see what all the fuss was about, I had to force myself to like it. That's what nerds did, right?

A problem arose. None of my friends would dare touch a pen and paper game. I had nerdy friends, sure, but none I knew well enough to hang out with. I thought deeply while staring at my NES, and that's when the idea hit me. I had to rent an AD&D video game. I hopped onto my bike and made haste to the video store where AD&D came in two flavors: Pool of Radiance and Heroes of the Lance. "Pool of Radiance?" I thought. That sounds like a romance novel. Now this... THIS! Heroes of the Lance. Lances are cool, right? And so are heroes. Oh, I'm totally getting this one!

My long trip to hell truly began there.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance screenshotAdvanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance screenshot

I didn't know what I was expecting, but a side-scroller wasn't it. Regardless, I commanded my small army of fantastical brutes with funny names and charged into the fray! Yep, right off a ledge strategically positioned at the beginning of the game and into a bottomless pit. That's one character down. Not even a minute into the game and I'd already lost a character. "Maybe I'm not cut out for this pen and paper stuff," I thought. I still gave it my best shot. There were a couple doors next to the pit, so I thought I'd try those out.

It took me several minutes that felt like hours to figure out how to go through a door. How can something so simple be so difficult? I pushed 'Up' or 'Down' numerous times, mashed buttons, tried various combos. Nothing doing. Turned out I had to hold either 'Up' or 'Down.' That seemed fishy. Why would I have to hold 'Up' rather than tap it? If going through a door was so counterintuitive, what other basic mechanic could this game muck up? Things got worse, believe me.

My first opponent appeared, a random shirtless man with a sword and shield. I ran forward and mashed 'B' until he transformed into a poof of fairy dust. For most of that battle, I didn't know if I was even dishing damage out. I came to the next enemy and decided to try something out. Since Heroes of the Lance was a side-scroller, I thought I could do the old strike-and-run technique. With the controls as clunky as they were, even strike-and-tiptoe was out of the question. I'd creep in for an attack and try to creep away. In the time it took me to turn around, the enemy landed several shots. Fighting from afar, or at least from a safe distance, was out of the question. In order to engage an enemy in combat, I had to be close enough to take damage myself. Amphibious creatures, some wielding swords, picked off my party easily because of this. I could only heal so many times, and eventually the beatings got the better of me.

No matter. I'll just dust myself off and try again.

I was no stranger to RPGs. I tended to stay away from D&D games because they looked intimidating. I would peek at one at the rental store, usually featuring some badass warrior on the cover that seemed to taunt me. A conversation would play out deep in my psyche:

"You must be this awesome to play this game! Are you awesome enough, punk?"

"I... What? Uh..."

"No, you aren't! Put me down! Play Legend of the Ghost Lion instead. And don't worry, you can get your little sister to help you with the hard parts!"

I knew how RPGs worked. Killing = experience = leveling up = stronger characters. So I went on a killing spree in Heroes, avoiding amphibians and picking off the smaller enemies. I'd view the score and notice that it kept track of what I'd killed, but didn't list any information regarding experience. Then something godawful and rotten occurred to me. I thought, "What if this is a D&D game without leveling up?" If you took jumping out of Mario, what would you be left with? Take speed away from Sonic and then what? Take experience and leveling up out of D&D, then why bother calling it D&D?

I still tried my best to get through the game after learning that horrible truth. I avoided battle, grabbed whatever items I could, and searched the complex arrangement of drab hallways for clues of where to go. The problem is that avoiding battle is easier said than done. Heroes of the Lance was a clunky game. I had to walk for ages before my character started to run, and I could only jump while running. The controls themselves were stiff, so just getting around was a task. Avoiding combat, while possible, was not easy. More than anything, it wasn't worth it. Enemies got free shots on me either way.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance screenshotAdvanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance screenshot

I discovered one major thing about Heroes of the Lance when I made an earnest attempt to finish it. With most old school dungeon crawlers, you can see where you have and haven't been. Most include a little map, and those that don't at least show you enough of the game on the screen that you can see the basic structure of the dungeon. Heroes featured horizontal walkways that were difficult to map, could only be shown one at a time, and had no discernible rhyme or reason. In other (read: better) dungeon crawlers, traveling around to find the goal could be called exploring. In other dungeon crawlers, I got a kick out of walking around, looking for loot, secrets and fights. In Heroes of the Lance, traveling was more like wandering. I had no idea where I was at any point, where I was going, or how I was going to get to the unknown goal. I'd try a random door and hope what was beyond it didn't massacre my party. From there I'd try another random door, and another, and another in the hopes of reaching the mysterious goal.

It didn't help that it was difficult to tell one hallway from the next. Most were bereft of landmarks, and consisted of the same dull gray color scheme. It felt like I was running around in the forest from Friday the 13th, except with goblins and skeletons taking the place of zombies and wolves.

After a few hours of playing, I tossed my NES controller to the ground, shut the game off, and said, "To hell with Dungeons and Dragons!" I wrote off an entire franchise full of some great material all because of one game. I returned Heroes of the Lance and thought, "Man, if this game was terrible, I bet Pool of Radiance was absolutely abysmal."

Got to love the fallacious logic of youth...


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (July 12, 2012)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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dagoss posted July 12, 2012:

That Ghost Lion reference is hilarious!

Out of curiosity, did you ever get around to trying Pool of Radiance. Between PoR and HotL you basically have the best and worst of what AD&D had to offer. After the Black Isle's infinity engine games, I'd say PoR was the best D&D game ever made. The NES port is missing some features from the PC version, but it was a lot more user-friendly (and the music was catchy!).
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overdrive posted July 12, 2012:

Pool of Radiance might be the best computer-to-console port of that era. About all that was deleted from the computer version were:

a) Outdoor monster lairs -- about 6-7 small dungeons with a couple battles and some loot.

b) Battles were on a bit smaller scale...7-8 monsters instead of 12-15, for example.

c) You don't get all the loot monsters had. By which I mean all the leather armor and daggers they were holding. In the computer game, if they held it, you could get it, even if it was all mundane junk that wasn't even worth taking the time to pick up and sell.

d) Can't remember PC AI for followers, but all the computer NPCs you could recruit were pretty much useless on the NES. The only one that mattered to me was the cleric who helps you with the Temple of Bane quest because at least I'd have another healer for after-battle curing. And I guess it was kinda helpful to recruit Genheeris for the final battle.

In a way, I think the NES version was actually better, because a lot of what got cut was more of the filler sort of stuff that only really probably pleased the true diehards who wanted to do ANYTHING they'd do in an actual tabletop dice-rolling get-together.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted July 12, 2012:

Thank you! Never played Pool of Radiance, though I intend to one day. I'm not big on most early console D&D games, but I've heard PoR is great.

That actually makes me want to play PoR even more. I was worried that it would be a subpar port, but it sounds excellent.
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dagoss posted July 12, 2012:

I thought to myself, "self, why haven't you reviewed PoR?" So I went to the game's page to see if there were any other reviews. Turns out I already reviewed it. Four years ago.

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