Lost Kingdoms (GameCube) review
"It's got none of those elements that make someone sit up and notice. Instead, Lost Kingdoms relies on that 'diamond in the rough' sort of theory. If you can get past the somewhat rough exterior, what lies inside is a true gem. The problem is that getting past that exterior takes enough effort that the overall experience isn't as rosy as it might otherwise have been."
In some third-world countries, a tradition still exists known as the cock fight, in which men will unleash their prize cocks in a flurry of feathers and pecking. The winner is the one who's cock doesn't lie in a motionless, bloody heap when things are over. This violent tradition serves as a great metaphor to use in relation to Lost Kingdoms, the action/role-playing game published by Activision that, while light on both counts, manages to impress the diehard fan.
Perhaps the reason for the metaphor isn't entirely clear. Imagine that you live in a third-world country. Skip all the unpleasant stuff and imagine that you're about to put your cock in the ring against the other guy's. In this case, the cocks aren't of the two-legged variety, but rather they are games in the role-playing genre. If you are showing off Lost Kingdoms, you're not going to get many appreciative cheers. That's because it makes a bad cock. It's got none of those elements that make someone sit up and notice. Instead, Lost Kingdoms relies on that 'diamond in the rough' sort of theory. If you can get past the somewhat rough exterior, what lies inside is a true gem. The problem is that getting past that exterior takes enough effort that the overall experience isn't as rosy as it might otherwise have been. While there's no one thing that really dooms the game to its fate, a million small details add up to mean that if this is your cock, you're the only one who truly will appreciate it.
Let's begin with graphics, since those are what most people will look at. Lost Kingdoms features graphics that fail to make you pay much attention. They're far from awful. Grass is vibrant where it should be, decayed where it should be. There's not a single environment where you fail to get a sense for where you are. Lava pits blast their molten content, water surges through underground passages, fog rolls over a graveyard. Throughout the whole game, in fact, the graphics do a wonderful job of setting the scene. The real problem lies in the battles themselves--which, incidentally, are the heart of the game--where you will use your card for often mixed effects. Some of the monsters you summon to help you will look fantastic, with stunning animations accompanying their entry. Others are just blobs that flash briefly across the screen and are gone so fast you almost wonder if you ever saw them. That sounds bad, but it's not so bad as you might think. See, often battles are so hectic that you really don't have time to admire the scenery. You're busy fighting for your life. And there's a lot happening, to the game's credit. In the most chaotic of moments, there might be as many as ten moving forms on the screen and (depending on the cards used), some pretty massive forms. Throughout all of this, the game manages to look next-gen, and slowdown is kept to a minimum most players are hardly apt to find intrusive.
Then there's sound. I would describe it, except there's not much to say. Voices in this game are kept at an absolute minimum. There's perhaps a combined total of two seconds of dialogue in the whole game, spread out in the form of grunts and laughs directed your way from the various characters you will meet. For the most part, you'll have to read text across the screen. And then there's the music to discuss; it sucks. That might not seem fair, but then you have to remember I'm not looking for something groundbreaking. Rarely do I even pay attention to this department in a game. Lost Kingdoms forces one to listen, though, by virtue of the fact that you're hearing the same thing almost the entire time you play.
Which brings me to another of the game's weaknesses, its length. On the back of the case, Activision promises 20 hours of play. To this I say 'nonsense'. Whoever played this for 20 hours must not only have gathered every one of the advertised 105 cards in the game (if this sounds like Pokemon, it should) but also leveled up each card to its maximum several times over. There's just no way a single trip through the game can remain fresh for more than 10 hours, meaning you'll have to start a third trip through the title to reach that 20-hour benchmark. Not likely to happen, yet possible.
I say it's possible because now that we've gotten past the unpleasantries, it's time to take a look at what makes this cock so worthwhile: its content. There's a load of gameplay here, partitioned off in such a fashion that once you complete the thing, you're quite likely to want to try another round. That, or you'll have given up before reaching the end even once, and therefore a second play through is academic.
Perhaps what makes the gameplay so engrossing is the card system. You start the game with two or three cards, which you use to battle your opponents in the training area. This is easily accomplished. You'll find that your character (in my case, Princess Jason; be careful to give the girl a female name) moves around quickly most of the time, controlled by either the d-pad or the analog stick. As you move, carefully avoiding your foes, you'll look for chances to lay down a card or two, out of the four you can have in your immediate possession at a time. These cards can heal your character directly, attack your foe for one hit, or summon a monster that will stay and fight for so long as it has magical energy remaining. That's very cool, and often you'll get good at using several in conjunction. Complicating things is a system which requires you to have magic to do well. When you play a battle, your use of cards drains magic gems. To get more, you have to dash around and grab the precious stones that appear when you strike your foes. If you don't have enough of these, you're close to sunk. Also, there's no way to tell which four cards you'll have. Your character enters the level with a deck of cards of your choosing. There can be as many as 30 in a deck. From there, options are removed. The game will randomly choose which cards to give you. Sometimes you'll have perfect choices, other times you won't.
Perfect choices aren't always evident, either. A player trying to plan ahead must constantly consider what likely lies down the path. Use all your good cards early in a dungeon and you're screwed come the boss encounter that almost certainly awaits you just prior to completion of the level. So you have to plan for that, but that's not where the planning starts. Because each card has an elemental alignment, you have to constantly remember which monster you can summon will do the most damage in a given situation. There are gems and such on-screen to remind you, but unless you have the system memorized--something difficult to do in the brief 10 or fewer hours you're likely to play this your first time through--they are of little or no use.
Fortunately, despite the frustrating side of all this, it makes for some gripping gameplay. An enemy encounter isn't a nuisance, now; it's forcing you to make some resource management decisions. And you have to think on your feet. All of this makes for a high-action role-playing game light on the role-playing. Basically, the whole game consists of a map, which lets you know what dungeon you're visiting next, and the actual dungeons. Beyond that, there are a few items screens and such disguised as areas. So what this really feels like is an action game with role-playing elements.
Now, when I say role-playing elements, I'm not suggesting an epic story. A simple paragraph, in fact, can sum it all up (if not a sentence). Essentially, you are a princess looking to save your world by catching up to your father and joining the runestones in opposition of the dark, mysterious fog creeping over the land. Late in the course of the game, you find there's the inevitable 'more to the story'. Suffice it to say that this is another area of the figurative cock that feels a bit hollow.
If I've made this game sound utterly worthless, allow me to apologize. There are a lot more things I could say, because really this game has more depth than it first seems. The monsters make for a lot of fun. There are 105 of them, most very unique from one another, and there's the optional task of collecting all cards. Random encounters are fairly infrequent, puzzles nothing that will truly tax the amateur, yet the overall challenge level in the game is quite high. You won't coast through this unless you're really good at thinking on your feet. In short, this is a pleasant gameplay experience, but not the kind that will impress your friends unless you let them borrow it over a weekend. Not something I recommend for a purchase, necessarily, but I'm sure that out of those who rent it, more than this review might lead you to believe will decide later to buy a copy of the game. A good game with a rough exterior.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 20, 2002)
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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