Lost Kingdoms (GameCube) review
"From the Nintendo-Pokemon school of Collection Mania springs Lost Kingdoms, (LK) the Gamecube's sparkly debut RPG set in a world of fairies, runestones and collectible enchanted cards. High on fighting and the loving management and evolution of your army of creatures, low on plot and extraneous detail, LK can entirely consume the player in the short term as time away from the game is spent fantasising about turning your dragonoid cards into black dragons, or your blood bushes into vampire..."
From the Nintendo-Pokemon school of Collection Mania springs Lost Kingdoms, (LK) the Gamecube's sparkly debut RPG set in a world of fairies, runestones and collectible enchanted cards. High on fighting and the loving management and evolution of your army of creatures, low on plot and extraneous detail, LK can entirely consume the player in the short term as time away from the game is spent fantasising about turning your dragonoid cards into black dragons, or your blood bushes into vampire bushes. Essentially, a great time was had by all (namely me) for many weeks, but somehow the uniformity of the game system from start to finish stops me just short of elevating LK into the echelons of the 'really great', as much as I feel I might want to.
When the Five Kingdoms of Argwyll are under threat from the mysterious black fog of death, who you gonna call? The answer apparently is Princess Katia, the heir to the throne of one of those kingdoms. With occasional guidance from an old woman who looks like a piece of furniture, you get to control this little babe as she runs around solving the mystery and saving the world, armed with no more than a deck of cards. Of course, it is significant that this deck isn't UNO, but a deck of summonable creatures - animals, spirits and demons - who will fight for Katia's cause when their card is played.
When it's time to go adventuring, you steer the leisurely-moving Katia through a rotateable Gauntlet-esque view of this prosaic but strangely spartan world. The 32-bit era of gaming had got me used to plenty of lived-in clutter in my fantasy environments. LK harks back to the 16-bit era in design terms, with startlingly few objects in its rooms and areas, feeling somewhat like an Ancient Land Of Ys with higher-res graphics. It's not unattractive - in fact it's very attractive - but I don't think I ever fully overcame my self-consciousness at watching the small heroine owning these vast open spaces.
Fortunately there are good reasons for all the spaciousness. When you hit a battle, you enter a separate battle mode, but
(a) The environment and its handling by the game engine remain exactly as is, and
(b) All of your opponents materialise in what was previously miles of vacant lot.
Now is the time for all good princesses to throw playing cards around. Katia herself cannnot harm anyone or anything directly, but four cards are available to be played from her deck of a potential thirty at any time, keyed to the four main controller buttons. Some cards can be frisbeed across the battlefield with the d-pad, where they'll turn into helpful creatures who start fighting and making decisions for themselves. Others are summoned into Katia's being temporarily, taking her place for one or more (usually) spectacular attacks, or producing special effects like healing or retrieving played cards. This all happens in fairly hectic real time, and it's very exciting and quite strange. Playing cards costs you magic gems, which explode from wounded enemies like G-rated blood, and must be snapped up by Katia herself while she ducks and weaves amongst friend and foe trying to avoid injury. Running out of gems leads to cards sucking directly from your hit points, which in turn leads to a quick death.
There is a healthy dose of strategy, timing and familiarity to be acquired for every card in order to be able to know when and how to use any particular creature effectively. Screen-filling dragons might toast everyone they hit in one move, but their huge breathe-in time means nimble enemies will easily scramble out of the way before it happens. Smart skeletons run rings around dumb goblins. Fast whipworms execute slow catoblepases (?). Frail sirens are pummelled by sasquatches, and immobile dragons are sniped by banshees. There are also obscure creatures which adjust elemental affinities, slow foes down, speed friends up, charm and protect each other, etc.
Life acquires a new level of fun (and complexity) when Katia visits the apothecary, the card-swapping creature-breeding institute run by the old woman who looks like a chair. Here, the experience points earned by creatures in battle can be used to evolve them into new cards, or to make copies of cards you've already got. The other main ways to acquire new cards are by finding them in chests, earning them at level's end based on your performance, or by the tricky business of capturing weakened monsters during combat.
It's in ye olde apothecary that you'll spend hours browsing and rearranging your cards, planning and dreaming of creature evolutions and admiring the fantastic, detailed artwork of the cards themselves. This aspect of the game has all the compulsiveness about it that real-life battle card games have, leaving out only the tactile sensation of handling the cards and the punishing financial expense of buying them. The twangy Ry Cooder style music that plays in the background here is hardly what I would have predicted anyone to compose for this environment, but was another element of the game which would start to follow me around in my non-leisure time.
It must be pointed out that when you're not rolling around in your precious cards or yelling at monsters, the rest of the gameplay is incredibly simple. Whether it's a marvel of simplicity or just undernourished will sit differently with each player. But consider for starters that ninety-nine percent of the NPCs in the game don't move. Calling them NPCs is pretty generous, really. They spit out a few lines of cutesy or occasionally atmosphere-enhancing dialogue when clicked on. You almost never need their text to progress, and you never have to make any choices or choose different paths. Katia faces such travails as finding troublesome beehives, putting gems on pedestals to open doors, or following a scaredy-cat soldier through a dungeon. LK plays out like a wide-eyed kid's bedtime story... which I enjoyed a lot, because there's nothing I detest more than RPGs with plots I don't care about. There is no nightmarish web of familial betrayl here. It's just a fairy-winged kid saving the world, and talking to red fairies who say 'Mwaaah!' when you click on them, or chasing after tinkly blue fairies in hide-and-seek style for power-ups.
I do, however, have one problem with all of those fairy-wings. Katia of course has a cape of pseudo-fairy wings on her back, and she pumps and flaps them quite flatteringly now and then, but the bottom line is that the girl can't fly. Given the physical sparseness of this game, this factor often got me down. Katia 'runs' like a plodder, and I think she suffers from asthma too, as you can hear her gasping on the soundtrack at the first whiff of injury or a mildly steep hill. The amount of programming that has gone into making her move like different kinds of slug up different kinds of gradient is alarming, as if to compensate for player panic that the console might not seem to be doing anything else in exploration mode.
How I longed at times for her to take off! To soar past all those random encounters, and to make the screen scroll quickly! FLY LITTLE BABE, FLY!
In the final analysis, there's no denying that LK's card combat system is a marvellous achievement. With more than a hundred cards to be collected, there is a tremendous amount to take onboard ultimately, yet the system possesses an immaculate logic and gives you as much time and space as you want in order to learn it. When you are killed or opt out of a level, you retain everything you had gained in the level prior to that point. There are no exceptions to the rule amongst the cards, or killer cards that are guaranteed to destroy everything without cost. There's an enormous balance and intuitiveness, and a use for every card at one time or another. Players are guaranteed to develop personal attachments to some creatures over others (I love the banshees) and will cultivate their deck to reflect their tastes and combat style. And it's a rush to watch the small armies of highly varied monsters running around, cutting each other up, breathing on each other and otherwise molesting and interacting with each other.
The brilliant design in the card system uniformly overshadows the rest of the game. The levels never become any trickier to navigate or more puzzling - they're just filled with bigger enemies. Collecting fairies, opening chests, and running slowly through pretty, empty scenery is what you'll be doing from go to woe. The intricacies of card-hoarding and creature-fanciering managed to completely dominate my imaginative life while I was playing LK, but in the back of my mind was the nagging feeling that, yes, everything else about it was just a little too basic. The experience still stretched to more than the twenty promised hours for me, as I played through very carefully and in a fairly rapt state. Gamers who play more RPGs could probably cover the same ground as I did in half that time, but I've read reviews from people who managed to squander this in five hours. Note that collecting all the cards and clearing the game's story for the first time are separate goals which are not totally dependant on each other.
LK is unique, totally compulsive, charming, and features the stat-watching fun of an RPG without any of an RPG's plot heaviness or portentousness. It also offers a more mature and 'greener' (I.E. Without rampant feelings of consumerism involved) take on the creature collection and evolution joys of Pokemon. The catch is that the gameworld that hosts these features is nowhere near as sophisticated as they are, and it remains hard for the critical gamer in me to gauge LK's charm and simplicity in terms of these elements that may simply be lacking. All I know is that I'd like for the sequel to provide more to do in the game's environment, so that the gameworld becomes a bit more than just a space-filled cypher for finding new cards.
I also hope that if Katia comes back, she will have learned to fly. Nevertheless, she's a neat gal in a fine game.
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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