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Lufia & The Fortress of Doom (SNES) artwork

Lufia & The Fortress of Doom (SNES) review

"Out of nowhere there appeared a floating island. Four superhuman beings of evil claimed it as their domain. Wielding the powers of Destruction, Chaos, Death, and Terror, they sought to throw the earth into darkness. The Sinistrals, they were called; armies mustered against them, nations allied to save the world from their iron grasp. And yet none succeeded. Finally, four of the world's most renowned warriors were called on to bring down the island. Lead by Maxim, a red-haired warrior wielding th..."

Out of nowhere there appeared a floating island. Four superhuman beings of evil claimed it as their domain. Wielding the powers of Destruction, Chaos, Death, and Terror, they sought to throw the earth into darkness. The Sinistrals, they were called; armies mustered against them, nations allied to save the world from their iron grasp. And yet none succeeded. Finally, four of the world's most renowned warriors were called on to bring down the island. Lead by Maxim, a red-haired warrior wielding the legendary Dual Blade, they destroyed the Sinistrals in four epic battles. The floating island crashed down on the ocean, and the Sinistrals were never again heard of. Peace was restrored, and the Battle of Doom Island, as this daring triumph was later called, entered the realm of legend.

Such is the thrilling prologue to Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, Taito's RPG offering for the SNES. Both an awe-inspiring climax and enchanting introduction, this fully-playable scene also provides an overview of Lufia's gameplay. Years later, Lufia II: The Rise of the Sinistrals will chronicle the events leading up to the Battle of Doom Island in one of the most overlooked and underrated RPGs of all time.

The original Lufia, however, picks up ninety years after Maxim's triumph. Nearly a century of long peace has long since eradiated any sense of danger that the people had; militaries were lazy in training and reluctant to protect their homelands. When the kingdom of Sheran was invaded by monsters, few knights of neighboring Alekia thought it appropriate to lend their help.

The hero of the game, freely named by the player, is one of the exceptions. The descendant of Maxim, he is one of the few who still knows of the Battle of Doom Island and the era of darkness preceeding it. Though just newly dubbed a knight, he proposed to the king to send aid to Sheran. When refused, he volunteered to help out Sheran himself. The king, annoyed and losing his temper, gave him permission.

Thus the tale of Lufia begins. The Sinistrals once again rise; the world once again is threatend with darkness. Predictably, our hero must follow his ancestor's footsteps and once again bring down the Sinistrals. But this is not just a simple tale of a young nameless boy's rise to the savior of the planet; Lufia, the eponymous heroine, figures just as prominently into the plotline. Starting as just another stereotypical love interest, complete with a love for flowers and talent at magic, Lufia eventually involves into one of the most intriguing female characters seen in an SNES RPG. Her mysterious past (she simply turned up in Alekia one day when she was a young child) is a major factor in the fight against the Sinistrals; as the story begins to pick up speed, a cruel twist of the plot near the end will doubtlessly leave the player wide-eyed in shock.

This may be Lufia's greatest asset. Its plot feels effortless, wonderously paced and told. Melodramatic cutscenes are forgoed for short yet effective bits of dialogue, getting the point across without tedium. Although some plot twists may be quite suspicious (here, we finally collected the precious metal needed for the scientist to fix our ship - what do you mean he was kidnapped!?), the plot still seems to move at a quick pace. Every dungeon traversed and every boss defeated will mean something in your adventure - you are not just helping innocent citizens for the heck of it.

The actual adventure proceeds in traditional role-playing style; exploring towns, buying new equipment, and talking to townspeople are routines familiar to anyone who has played an RPG. In dungeons, you move about, randomly running into monsters. Defeating the monsters yields money and experience; enough experience will allow you to gain a level, your character getting stronger as a result. Business as usual, it would seem.

As you play through the introduction as Maxim and his companions, it would certainly seem that Lufia, though unoriginal, is fairly playable. Oh sure, the walking speed may be a bit slow, but it's not that much of a problem given how small the dungeon is. More importanly, the monsters are all easy enough to dispose of - what's to complain about?

Lots. You're using super-powered characters in the prologue; the enemies are virtually defenseless. This serves to mask the flaws of Lufia's hideous, hideous battle system. It is a system that I am not even sure what to call, for ''traditional turn-based'' simply cannot convey its essence. Calling it the traditional turn-based system will imply that there is some sort of order and method to its madness, but I can discern none. You will input your commands for an arbitrary amount of characters (maybe all four, maybe all but one, maybe only one), then see them execute the commands in arbitrary order. Enemies will attack at arbitrary times, and you will arbitrarily be given the option to input commands for future actions.

Utter chaos. You will only have a faint idea of when your character will attack, and whether the enemy will kill him before that happens. Thankfully the order of attacking seems to remain constant for the same battle, but that means you must re-learn the attack pattern for each. What's even more astonishing is that the developers managed to combine the chaos with the characteristic sluggishness of your typical turn-based battles, meaning that you don't even get the satisfaction of being entertained by pure anarchy!

That is combined with some downright antiquated mechanics. Apparently, being able to target individual monsters is a tad too advanced for the designers of Lufia; instead, you must now target groups of enemies, then hope that the character will hit the appropriate memeber of the group. What's worse, characters will not automatically retarget in the case that the group he's targeting is gone; when that happens, he simply strikes at air and misses. One must go back to the NES era to find more examples of this phenomenon.

Thus, every battle you encounter in Lufia is a fine display of Murphy's Law. Perhaps you will gamble that a nasty enemy group will go down in one cast of magic; the entire group survives and proceeds to pound your party. The next time, you assign your characters to attack the enemy group together with the magic spell; lo and behold, the spell kills the entire group, and the next three attacks are wasted.

Overexaggeration? Perhaps. In fact, this ridiculous system is usually tolerable - tolerable, not enjoyable. This degree of randomness may even be exciting - can you cheat Lady Luck? Will this healing spell be cast before its target is annihilated? It may even add a trace of strategy to the mix - am I willing to bet that this attack will kill the enemy, or should I risk wasting a turn by having another character target it? As you get used to it, you may even not mind the battles as long as they are there in moderation.

But no, Lufia seems determined that you intensely despise its battles; either that, or it does not realize how wearing the battles are. You are plunged into a battle every four or five steps in Lufia, and the enemies are difficult - never are they reluctant to use their best attack magic, and later on several enemies even gain the ability to paralyze your entire party in battle. To make things worse, the dungeons are not linear, get from-here-to-there affairs. They are giant mazes, with mediocre healing items or equipment at dead ends just to taunt you. Attempting to navigate these brutal labyrinths while attempting to keep even with the enemies is a recipe for headache, if not insanity.

A real shame, actually. For, if you manage to look past the random battles a bit, Lufia is actually quite an interesting adventure. The mazes really take some thought, and they are always perfectly paced - just when you think you'd snap, the exit will be in sight. What's even more magnificent is that wonderful sense of adventure that Lufia exudes - the game doesn't drag you from one place to another, it just sort of nudges you to your next destination. You must find seven pieces of a rare metal - instead of having you go to seven caves to pick up seven pieces, it gives you a few during other quests, has you go down a cave to find a few, then finally has you perform a certain task to get someone to give it to you. When you have all seven, it feels like you've accomplished something truly grand.

The land of Lufia is not much to behold - simple shades of your typical green and brown predominate, and the characters are ridiculously pudgey - almost as wide as they are tall. Yet the colors come together perfectly, making everything bright and vibrant and alive. The characters are far more expressive in this overweight form, full of energy and personality. This makes up for the music, horribly generic and repetitive. Most are tolerable, but all are repeated far too many times. In particular, Lufia has one of the most vile battle themes ever heard on the SNES, its grating notes making battles even more annoying than they already are.

Lufia has big ambitions. Its story is just short of greatness, its dungeons show careful design, and the battles seem to be made for strategic thought. Yet these elements fail utterly in coming together - in the end, the battles will likely drain all of the gamer's stamina, leaving no room for appreciating its dungeons or story. A more hardcore gamer may enjoy its unabashedly relentless battles, but the rest of us should just steer clear of it. Lufia II, a game far more enjoyable if with a somewhat more rushed story, also offers a tale of the Sinistrals minus the tedium.

Lufia, Lufia, what can I say about you? How I wanted to like you; how I wanted to enjoy your gameplay and be captivated by your story. And yet ceaselessly you drove me away - battle after battle of tedium, maze after maze of vexing crossroads. All I wanted was to have a good time - is it too much to ask?

lurkeratlarge's avatar
Community review by lurkeratlarge (June 10, 2004)

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