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Lufia & The Fortress of Doom (SNES) artwork

Lufia & The Fortress of Doom (SNES) review

"Would you believe this was my first SNES game? And also my first RPG? Hard to believe, considering it's not all that popular. But it was, and I quite enjoyed it. I was practically obsessed, and the Lufia series is still one of my favorites. Looking back, though, I find it hard to believe I could stand it. The game, so promising in story and direction, is almost unplayable. Which is extremely sad, because it is a charming, well thought out idea that deserves far more respect than this game..."

Would you believe this was my first SNES game? And also my first RPG? Hard to believe, considering it's not all that popular. But it was, and I quite enjoyed it. I was practically obsessed, and the Lufia series is still one of my favorites. Looking back, though, I find it hard to believe I could stand it. The game, so promising in story and direction, is almost unplayable. Which is extremely sad, because it is a charming, well thought out idea that deserves far more respect than this game can give it.

100 years ago, the Sinistrals appeared. Maxim and three others fought them off using the legendary Dual Blade. 10 years ago, a girl showed up in Alekia, the home town of an unnamed descendant of Maxim (we'll call him Bob). Her name was Lufia, and she and Bob became quick friends. Now, however, monsters have suddenly attacked a neighboring kingdom. To Bob's surprise, it was Gades, one of the Sinistrals, who spearheaded the attack. The Sinistral let Bob live after Lufia showed up. So your journey begins: a quest to destroy these evil super beings. You are helped by Aguro, a soldier disgusted at his army's apathy, and Jerin, a young half-elf who seems to have a crush on the hero.

Simple, perhaps. And it is - you move from one town to the next searching for clues to find the Sinistrals. Fortunately, that is always the priority - you aren't just moving around gaining experience. For instance, you spend about 1/4 of the game looking for Elfrea, and another 1/3 or so trying to reach the sunken Doom Island and retrieving the lost Dual Blade. Thus, you always have a clear goal, and always feel like you're making progress. I guess it's not that big of a deal, but it's nice to see.

But the key is a sudden plot twist about 2/3 of the way through the game. If you've never played any of the Lufia games, there's no point in spoiling it. But wow, is it a shocker. Suddenly, your entire perspective changes, and the simple "save the world" plot suddenly gets a whole lot more meaningful. Rather than a detached bemusement about the whole plot, I immediately began to care, to worry about what will happen next. This is a story worth telling, a rare event in the videogame world (even within RPGs!), and a story that will stick with you. And the ending, with the painful decision the hero faces, was touching and made me actually care. Even jaded RPG haters like me can appreciate this plot and this idea.

And to complement the wonderful story is some truly wonderful dialogue. It's not epic, it's not amazingly translated, it's just very human. The characters banter, trade insults, and just plain talk amongst themselves. Yes, this staple of the Lufia series started here, and done quite successfully I think. Imagine a conversation around eating slime, test driving a faulty submarine, or catfights between your two female characters. Don't take it too seriously, and the experience can be quite fun.

Or at least, it should have been fun. But thanks to the worst battle system ever conceived, it wasn't. Suppose you get in a fight with, oh, two archers and two wolves. Not too tough, right? But you can only target either the archers or the wolves, not any specific ones. So if you have everyone target the archers, you have no idea who will hit what archer. Watch helplessly as your characters attack the wrong ones, causing your enemies to stay alive an extra round and dishing out more damage to you. Even worse, your attacks don't automatically transfer to the next group of villains if the one(s) you targeted dies. So if you have everyone attack those archers and they both die before Jerin fights, she won't aim at the wolves instead. So much for the idea of loading everyone against some enemies, you'll just end up with a bunch of misses. No RPG from the SNES era should have these mistakes; why does Lufia?

Perhaps it would have been possible to ignore these faults, if they weren't brought up so bloody often. Yes, you will be fighting a ton of battles, as it seems every 5th or 6th step invites a random battle. Even worse, they aren't that random when you get in them. I noticed battles would often occur exactly the same as the last, with the enemies doing the exact same moves and attacking the exact same people. And these attacks do a ton of damage - don't be surprised to find yourself healing after every battle or every other one. No problem; just level up, right? Well, leveling up is slow and almost irrelevent. It appears to be a linear progression - you're still gaining merely 6-7 hp and 2-3 strength when your levels are in the 30s or 40s. In other words, one little level up barely makes a dent in your stats, and you'll have to do a ton to make yourself into anything resembling a powerhouse. I don't mind difficulty in an RPG, but this is just too much and for all the wrong reasons.

And no, there's just nothing else in the gameplay department to reccommend it. It is a very simple, basic RPG. There are no special attacks or power bars or anything to make battles more than just the standard attack/magic/item. Equipment is basically just upgrading at each new town, with very little customization outside of the rings (which themselves aren't all that deep). And magic is simply learned automatically. It is your basic RPG system, stripped down to its roots. And that, I am sad to say, is boring - even without the extra frustration due to the cheapness mentioned above.

All of this means, of course, that it is very difficult to push yourself through the game. The designers tried to make it worth it, they really did. In fact, some of the level designs are quite impressive, focusing on being unique and special. Imagine three towers, with a stone in each one that must be placed in a pedestal - but in the correct order. Or there's the massive hunt for Alumina, which will bring you across numerous caves (some of them interconnected by warp points!). Moreover, the towers and caves are all crammed with minor treasures, allowing you to feel some sense of accomplishment and reward. The mazes are all daunting, but not hopeless, and you can always get help from a kindly old man if you can't figure out what to do next. So it's not as if the gameplay's all bad. It's just very, very difficult to concentrate on these positives when the game annoys you so much. Although challenging mazes and long levels may be fun in other games, here the annoying random battles and slow pace only creates frustration and ennui.

In the end, that becomes the trick. Can you stay away from boredom for the entire length of the game, gritting your teeth through the pain while looking for the good spots? The truly important story elements are few and far between, your characters don't banter (much) while dungeon crawling, and the interesting levels are destroyed by the constant battles. And don't count on the atmosphere to save you either. Oh, it's charming enough, and all the sprites look cute. But you'll see all the important ones in the first hour of the game, and the lovely charm of the Lufia world wears off by the time you leave the first continent. And there are quite a few good themes, from the shrines to priphea flowers to Doom Island to the incredible opening theme. But these are heard in few places, and so you must deal with the songs that can occasionally get on your nerves (or are just plain annoying, like the painful battle theme). So yes, the challenge here is endurance. The good stuff's a nice reward, but you'll be wondering whether it's worth it.

It's a shame that, in this era of remakes and ports, that this game will not be redone due to its lack of popularity. For out of all those games being remade on the GBA, none deserve it more than this one. Here we have a concept that is good and wonderful - a charming, pleasant atmosphere to a provacitive and worthy story, delightful characters and witty banter, good music, and excellent pacing. Yet this cannot truly be enjoyed, thanks to the atrocious battle system. And yet, that is the easy part; it should be simple to fix and make at least decent. It would be a cinch to remake the game into something worth playing, as all the key elements are there. But until they do, then the game's strong aspects will only remain in my memory. No matter how much I love this game and the nostalgia that it brings me, I often find it far too painful to relive once again.

mariner's avatar
Featured community review by mariner (October 25, 2005)

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