Heroes of the Lance (Sega Master System) review
"If you wish to study the phenomenon of 'binary gamer polarisation', one of the classic case studies is the 1988 cross-platform fantasy adventure Heroes of the Lance. "
If you wish to study the phenomenon of 'binary gamer polarisation', one of the classic case studies is the 1988 cross-platform fantasy adventure Heroes of the Lance.
There are gamers who will tell you that 'Heroes' is undeniably the worst game in the universe. I find that view hard to fathom. There are others who swear by 'Heroes', place it on a pedestal and kiss its toes. I can't totally abide that either. I'm sure these two groups of people are feeding off each other's reactive energy! Crazily enough, I think both groups have got points. Here's my thesis - I think Heroes is a mess, but it's neither consistently appalling nor great. It's hellishly ambitious, detailed to a fault, frighteningly faithful to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD+D) source material, and veers wildly between atmospheric adventure and unplayable wreck. Most people's worst memories of this game are of a rotating compass that confuses the hell out of them, and of many bizarre, cheap, soul-destroying and/or unintentionally hilarious mass character deaths.
Dragons of Despair
Heroes' origins lie in the ultrafamous and much-loved Dragonlance series of fantasy novels. The novels and the AD+D roleplaying campaign for Dragonlance grew side by side initially back in the early 1980s, and the first game module or adventure in the series was called 'Dragons of Despair'. I own this module and I'll be making many references to it throughout this review. The module closely follows events from several chapters of the first Dragonlance novel, 'Dragons of Autumn Twilight', in which the central eight heroes meet and venture into the ruined city of Xak Tsaroth. There, they learn of the threat posed by the evil draconians to their world, face the ancient dragon Khisanth and retrieve the Disks of Mishakal.
Still with me?.. Great!
The game opens with some unspectacular heroic music (by the Master System's standards which I think are pretty good, it's poor), but don't worry about that because the title screen featuring adventurers locked in combat with the dragon is really striking! The artwork is a terrific adaptation of the cover of the real-life AD+D module. When you hit the button you are treated to some finely wrought character portraits introducing you to each of the eight heroes, and you feel at this point you're in for a deep experience. During the game, you'll be able to switch at will between any of the 8 (who always stay together), though you may only play or see 1 character at any time onscreen.
Let's quickly meet the heroes:
Goldmoon is a princess who brandishes the Blue Crystal Staff, an artifact whose powers she seeks to fully understand.
Sturm is a powerful and solemn knight who is so righteous he won't even use missile weapons, but happily brandishes a two-handed sword.
Caramon is a not-so-bright warrior, but he's a great bloke and also your truest all-around chopper in combat.
Raistlin is Caramon's brother, a sly and brilliant but frail mage.
Tanis Half-Elven is the 'natural leader' of the heroes, and mean with a bow.
Tasslehoff is a Kender (sort of a cross between a halfling and a rogue). He's also a cheeky little kleptomaniac who fights with a bizarre sling weapon known as a hoopak.
Riverwind is Goldmoon's betrothed. He's noble, wise, and was always far too serious in the Dragonlance novels for me to like him very much. (Both he and Goldmoon interested me little as I recall!) He's also solid as a warrior.
Flint is a grizzled dwarf. Sure he's small, but when angered he cuts people apart with an axe, and he's actually your most hardy hero.
As you can see, you have eight quite distinct personalities here and eight different sets of skills and abilities which can all be brought to bear on your adventure. Well, in theory. I cannot deny that the game achieves the ultra-impressive feat of cramming in all of these characters and their powers. But it then squanders this achievement by being too savage for you to feel safe enough to play around with them all.
Entering Xak Tsaroth...
With the introductions completed, the game is afoot. You're presented with a side-on view of the grim Xak Tsaroth dungeon interior. Flagstones, archways and crumbling structures make up the core of the terrain. Detail is quite fine, and your character is a pleasant contrast of bright human colour in the darkness. In short, the graphics are always very nice. You'll now toy with Goldmoon and find that she moves solidly and is vividly animated, if also a little clumsy control-wise. There's something of the human factor in the way she turns slowly or lopes into runs. Obviously it's not an arcade game - they're going for verisimilitude here. An attractive display at the bottom depicts the sepia faces of your eight heroes alongside meters for their hit points, and reveals the order in which they're queued up too. And to the left of that... the dreaded compass!
Your reactions to this first scene are most likely to have been positive. You're thinking how intriguing it all looks. 'I can't wait to explore!'
But once you've lined yourself up with the first doorway, it's time to say hello to the %100 original and %100 anti-intuitive navigational system that was probably never used again after its debut in Heroes of the Lance - for good reason. In fact we can think of this doorway as a metaphorical doorway to many pains. On that first screen it all looked so good! The possibility of unfettered greatness lay ahead!!! What really lay ahead is a game that's all over the damn place. Greatness is ahead but so is hysterical disaster.
Sin 1 - Every step through a doorway in this game causes a 90 degree rotation of both perspective and the compass. You will always view the action from the side, but the game map extends in both the X and Y axes. So to turn a corner, I enter a doorway which rotates the world, then I read the compass anew, screw up my face, and start toddling sideways again. It just feels wrong, even to veteran navigators like myself. Obi-Wan Kenobi is not your only hope. Making a map is your only hope. And in making that map you will be swivelling the piece of paper around all the time.
''There's a draconian! IT'S HEADED RIGHT FOR US!!!''
This dungeon is crawling with monsters who are an enormous threat to your wellbeing. There are winged draconians, human thugs, midget and giant dwarves (Aghar), wraiths and spectral minions, spiders and dragons. It's an impressive lineup. And apart from the midgets who are just a little too comical when they're slaying us, animation and design are always attractive. Draconians breathe fire, spectres run wildly towards you, and the spiders are icky and rear up to bite. Dragon hatchlings rush you in a vibrant animation that cleverly captures both their aggression and their 'agitated newborn' quality. It's very good stuff! And all monsters will make a beeline for you when they see you.
Now, in melee combat, you hold the button down to start attacking then push up or down for higher or lower blows respectively. Your characters each have their own weapons and different attack rates, not to mention they're of different heights and so are the monsters. The high variety of combat factors should have made for exciting battles which we could get better at with practice. But there's actually little skill involved at all. You see, it's mostly a ruse - this is %100 RPG style combat, fuelled entirely by the characters' relative strengths and abilities and invisible dice being rolled, masquerading as an arcade fight. You hold the button down, the enemy hacks back, hit points splash away on both sides and eventually only one of you is left standing. Apart from aiming at the appropriate height, there's not more you can do. If it wasn't pretending to be an arcade style fight so much, maybe I wouldn't mind.
And your heroes are just plain frail! While Caramon has a solid 36 hp, his brother Raistlin the Mage by way of contrast has 8. If you've half a brain of course, you'll never have Raistlin at the front in combat. Party management is a key to success in this game, harking back to its AD+D roots. This game honours the source game module 'Dragons of Despair' to astonishing, even chilling lengths. The stats and hit points of each character and their abilities and weapons are lifted absolutely verbatim from the module, the exact same numbers. Purists will be delighted, and in a way I'M delighted! And yet practically this is not a playable formula in a quasi-arcade RPG.
Death on a stick
How can it go awry? Here's just one example. You might be playing frail-boy Raistlin, having used his floating ability to cross a chasm. BAM suddenly an arrow trap launches and hits him. An invisible die is rolled. The result is greater than 8 and Raistlin dies instantly.
This is just ludicrous. Sure, Goldmoon will now use her Blue Crystal staff to resurrect Raistlin. In real AD+D, resurrections are HUGE deals! But in this game, you will resurrect party members every 5 seconds due to the onslaught of monsters and traps, at the drop of the proverbial hat even. It just feels stupid and shouldn't be that way. Somehow Heroes manages to both adhere to AD+D lore more strictly than any other game on the planet, and make a mockery of it at the same time.
Goldmoon's staff can be used almost an unlimited number of times, so long as you don't use it to shoot fireballs, er, spiritual hammers. You have potentially unlimited heals, unlimited resurrections. So in that case, they should have made it that one heal restores a character fully, just to speed things up. But NOOOO! They have to roll the exact same dice used in real AD+D to determine the random value of every healing operation. Not enough healing? Well who cares, we'll just click it again! Inversely, no amount of resurrecting can save you from some incredibly abrupt assaults, traps such as cave-ins, or best of all, falling into a chasm.
When a character does die, the next member in your party immediately moves into the front position and takes over onscreen. This occurs instantaneously and faster than you can contemplate, with no message or audio warning at all. Your dead member is shuffled to the rear and everyone else moved forward. This is extremely painful in itself, as rearranging your party must be achieved by endless visits to the game's tedious menu system, and individual swaps of character pairs. Someone dies, you resurrect them, then you groan and manually rearrange all of the characters back into the previous order. A real chore the makers should have anticipated and designed out.
It's actually very rare to have just the one death. If you're being hacked at on both sides by nasty monsters, you'll typically go through 2 characters in 5 seconds. If you meet a dragon and it starts breathing fire, you'll go through a character a second in that barbecue. 'Wheel 'em in then bodybag 'em out!' It's insanely harsh, but can also induce an hysterical laughing fit. Watch all 8 of your characters scroll from life to death in moments, then face a dour screen telling you that you 'failed'.
'I NEVER HAD A CHANCE!' you'll scream.
Just pray that Goldmoon survives such a 'mass death' situation and can start resurrecting and healing the fallen like crazy. You cannot save the game either on the Master System, which is unforgivable.
Many other fine and remarkable details from the Dragonlance novels are figured into mortality rates, but ultimately to detrimental effect. One post-combat flourish which is recreated with reverent accuracy is the way the draconians will either dissolve into acid or 'explode' when they're slain. Cool! Also consider the character relationships. If Goldmoon starts getting hammered, her betrothed Riverwind will actually leap to the front of the party to protect her. And because of Caramon and Raistlin's twin brotherly link, injury to one of them will cause minor sympathetic injury to the other. Wonderful ideas!!! But the game was hard and uncontrollable enough already, thanks!
3rd Level Human Magic-User
Let's look at the good side of magic! You have a genuinely impressive arsenal of spells and powers at your command here. Once again, they all featured in the AD+D module. Goldmoon's staff can be used for a prayer effect, to find traps, to hold enemies in place and to deflect dragon's breath. Raistlin takes care of the mage spells. He can do stuff like send monsters to sleep, charm them, web them, shoot magic missiles at them, detect magic and detect the invisible (well, detect invisible is pretty useless). He even has a suicide move called 'Final Strike'. And they weren't kidding you know! This spell torches all monsters onscreen, as well as your whole party. It is in effect a 'game over' that allows you to drag the bastards who were pissing you off down to the grave with you. There's a zen-like peace to be gained from staring at the post-strike screen, where fireballs, lightning and jets of acid squirt about endlessly until you press the button.
Don't forget about the alternate attacks of your regular characters either. If you have a bow, Tanis can fire at monsters before they come into range. Caramon can throw a spear - and then pick it up later. Nice touch, that. Ditto Flint and his axe. Tasslehoff shoots little rocks (I think) from his slingshot style hoopak. The attention paid to the powers and features of each character is, frankly, touching. They all move and handle uniquely. The differentiation between them in all areas is exceptional. So it's a real tragedy that the game just mauls you so much that you're rarely brave enough to break out anyone but the toughest 3 fighters as a leader. No-one else will survive the job for very long.
Your party seeks the Disks of Mishakal, but en route they will find many other items in chests such as gems, coins, golden chalices, rings, scrolls and potions. And the scenery will always intrigue you when you're not being 'daunted out' by the bizarre navigation. It really does look and feel like a whole ruined city. There is destroyed furniture about the place, many varieties of doors and corridors, cul-de-sacs, rubble, grand archways, crumbling ledges and pits. There are several levels of the city and each one has a unique visual style and colour scheme. In a clever reversal of the norm, the city becomes brighter and clearer as you descend and reach more intact areas.
A shame that the atmosphere doesn't benefit too much from the endless and not-remarkable-enough 'adventuresome' theme music. Though I guess I can be thankful that it consists of pure tones, and has none of those 'KCHHHH' Master System drumbeats slapping it along. They wear you down in the long-term. Something else to note about the soundtrack - the bad guys make footsteps, but your own characters do not. I find the silence of my own movements a bit peculiar.
Those PITS!.. Whatever paranoia you've experienced in the past about falling off ledges in platform games is magnified tenfold here. After you first plummet to your doom you realise that you just can't tell what the game considers to be 'the edge'. Characters who fall down bottomless pits are not recoverable... understandably! More shock-horror instant deaths. Though also potentially funny, in keeping with the whole overkill theme.
As for those items you find, what's disappointing is that %80 of them are for score value, not practical use. Your score, in the pure AD+D style, is measured in experience points. You don't gain levels though. This might be harder for more recent generations of gamers to understand, with their concepts of what an RPG is being quite narrowly prescribed. 'Heroes' could really be considered a real-time RPG. You don't travel from town to town. This is about eight heroes and several life-or-death hours for them in one hellhole of a ruined city. You wouldn't expect them to become suddenly more proficient at anything in a few hours of real time. You also gain experience points for slaying monsters, but you'll generally be trying to minimise combat just to survive.
The items will come back to haunt you in a different form, as to pass them around your party so that no single person becomes overburdened you'll have to hit the annoying menu system again. Click button, select 'Give', select item, click, select target member, click, select exit, click. All menu operations are like this. It does get on your nerves because you need to use it every 5 seconds, which coincidentally at times is also how often you'll need to dig up the 'Raise Dead' spell from the Blue Crystal Staff menu.
''The Disks of Mishakal! We've found them!!''
'The walls shake; pillars in the room sway and topple. The cracked ceiling begins to crumble. Above the falling ceiling, the cavern walls themselves begin to collapse.'
You have just read from the 'Dragons of Despair' game module the description of what happens when the Disks of Mishakal are retrieved. I can just imagine the creators of Heroes of the Lance rubbing their hands gleefully as they programmed this deadly finale into the game on top of all the other fatal hazards they'd already included, priding themselves on their unflinching loyalty to the source material. Once again, I'm both impressed with their obsessive madness, and laughing hysterically and screaming as my whole party gets splattered by slabs of falling masonry just at the moment I thought I had completed the game. This final trap seems to perfectly sum up the bizarre nature of the problems that have plagued the whole experience. (By the way, it IS possible to survive the falling masonry.)
PROS OF THE LANCE
- It's VERY Hardcore AD+D.
- Attractive graphics and completely atmospheric presentation
- Astounding attention to detail - 8 characters with all of their traits, powers, skills and physical features recreated in full glory from the Dragonlance novels and game modules
- Tons of spells and several weapons to use
- Scary well-animated monsters
- A serious challenge for the explorer
- Nice introductory character profiles
- Uniquely styled, to say the least
CONS OF THE LANCE
- It's VERY Hardcore AD+D.
- !!!! INSANE ALL-AROUND DIFFICULTY !!!!
- Crazy and frequent multiple character deaths
- Most unintuitive navigation system ever conceived
- Arduous menu controls and painful character-swapping mechanisms
- Punishing RPG combat pretends to be arcadey
- The cheap bottomless pit deaths
- Disappointing music
- No character presence or footstep sounds
- Many of the wonderful characters cannot be used much at all
- Unlimited healing capability is necessary but feels cheap and nasty
- Most items feel useless
- Under-rewarding score system, and disappointing ending
- On the Master System, you cannot save the game!
My final score in the middle of the scale represents a fluctuation between '10' features and '1' features. This game is by turns extraordinary and abysmal, inspired and unplayable. Its almost religious reverence for the novels and games it was born from is both a blessing and curse. Its ambitions make it worth checking out, because I think it's definitely a memorable experience one way or the other. This Master System version is the most attractive of the 8-bit editions, and yet you can't save the game! The final double-edged sword? But if you can play this on an emulator, 'game freeze' will do just as nicely.
I urge you to try the most polished 8-bit flavour of this very wild and infamous game!
-- Heroes of the Lance -- 6/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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