Lair (PlayStation 3) review
"The gamer in you will probably wish that your mount didn't take so long to turn, but consider how unrealistic it would be if you could maneuver through the air like a sports coup with wings. You might argue that realism went out the door the minute mythological monsters entered the equation, but one fact remains: riding on a beast's back should feel... beastly."
You shouldn't believe everything you hear. Rohn, an Asylian warrior who spends his days soaring through the skies astride a massive dragon and his evenings dreaming of peace and prosperity for his people, learns that lesson the hard way when fierce armies from the north raid his home. He's always understood that the Mokai people are evil and barbaric, that their heresy is to blame for the desolation that has begun to spread across the land. He just never thought they'd launch an unprovoked attack. As he learns more about his enemies and their actions that fateful morning, though, he realizes that not all is as it seems. Before his adventure ends, his whole world will change.
Lair, the first project from Factor 5 for the PlayStation 3 hardware, is the story of the adventure that brings about that change in Rohn's perspective. Released nearly a month ago, the game has received a host of negative reviews from a variety of respected outlets. Critics have warned you to stay away from the game, have suggested that it's one of the worst titles in the system's diminutive library. It just goes to show: sometimes you can't believe everything you read, either.
That's not to say that the other critics are liars, or that they wrote inaccurate reviews. They related their experiences with the game, and they did so beautifully. The thing is, some people share a relationship with Lair that is considerably more positive, even pleasant. They cross the same unfortunate checkpoints--awkward controls, frustrating combat, occasional slowdown and other cinematic blunders--but are impacted differently. More here than in most cases, your mileage may vary.
To appreciate Lair, you must first appreciate dragons and the fact that they're big and slow. A typical stage usually involves flying around a lot, breathing a lot of fire, and wishing that you had more room in which to maneuver. The gamer in you will probably wish that your mount didn't take so long to turn, but consider how unrealistic it would be if you could maneuver through the air like a sports coup with wings. You might argue that realism went out the door the minute mythological monsters entered the equation, but one fact remains: riding on a beast's back should feel... beastly.
In Lair, it does. That's because you control your mount using the Six-Axis controller's motion sensing capabilities. Instead of pulling this way and that on the analog stick, you'll simply tilt the whole apparatus to dive, dodge, swoop and soar. Other buttons allow you to spew fireballs or adjust the camera. They also enable you to lock onto your adversaries, though that could definitely have used some tweaking. Often, you'll find yourself in a position where you need to target a particular object or foe. Unfortunately, you don't have that luxury. Instead, you'll focus on whatever the game decides is appropriate. Sometimes, it decides poorly and you have to turn back around for another run. Such instances can even cause you to fail a mission.
Your dragon's response to boundaries and obstacles can also prove confounding. Let's say you're gliding through a narrow canyon, spewing fireballs to knock down power cables so that spotlights can't turn you into a target for gun turrets. As you unleash a flaming assault, you also happen to bump into a stone column rising from the undulating waves below. At this point, just about anything could occur. Perhaps you'll pass through it. Maybe you'll glide around the side. Alternatively, you could shoot upward, then suddenly skim the canyon wall to your left and fly rapidly toward the level entrance. You just never know, and that's a bit of a problem. Whatever happens, it's probably not what you wanted. Thankfully, such moments grow rarer as you adapt to the control scheme.
There are also aerial duels to enjoy. You see, you're not the only one riding through the skies on the back of a dragon. Other warriors are doing the same thing and sometimes you'll meet up for hostile get togethers. Failure is fatal but victory justifies the risks involved. You simply follow the on-screen prompts at key junctures then watch as your warrior brings down the enemy (sometimes by taking a leap of faith from one creature to another, Pursuit Force-style), mount and all. Another option is an all-out brawl between two dragons. Teeth, scales and flame will fly. Talk about heart-stopping!
The game's art direction makes it all more exciting. Polygons bring your dragons to vivid life, while the world you're battling to save is gorgeous. Lush prairies stretch toward a turbulent sea. Jagged mountain peaks rise over swirling mist, toward high plateaus where stunning architecture showcases mankind's ingenuity. Lair convincingly depicts a large-scale war in a world ravaged by years of volcanic activity, but it's not all brown or gray. Sometimes the sheer splendor is almost more than the system can handle. Even when dragons swarm through the skies and the frame rate drops below its usual level, though, things at least feel smooth. The visual design here is truly outstanding.
For that matter, the soundtrack itself is no slouch. Music has an epic vibe to it, with dramatic swells when combat grows fierce, or haunting beauty during moments that call for it. A game less certain of what it meant to accomplish would probably have included some generic rock music meant to fuel the adrenaline junkies, yet here the emotion Rohn feels when he and his dragon attack an enemy complex (to cite a striking example) is made surprisingly tangible. If not for the annoying commands your superiors bark out every 3 seconds or so, the game's audio would be nearly flawless.
It's worth noting that the aural and visual refinement extend quite nicely to the narrative and accentuate the intriguing tale's impact. It's not Shakespearean in its scope, but it doesn't need to be. The notion of a reluctant warrior seeking answers amidst a devastating series of military operations is pure gold. Rohn isn't the most likable of protagonists, but he feels genuine. So do the antagonists, despite their tendency to sneer wickedly. No one went to bed a saint one night and woke up evil in the morning. Characters have credible reasons for what they do.
For Lair, the rewarding plot is the cherry on the cake. It's easy to hear from a few trusted sources that the game is best left on the store shelves. Thanks to the unconventional (and sometimes clumsy) control scheme, those sources could even be right. Still, this isn't as black and white a situation as you might suppose. Spend some time and get to know a little bit more about the game before making a final decision. You might be surprised.
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 27, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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