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SummaryDraracle, shmaracle, as long as he loves his mother
The GoodWestwood is fondly remembered by many as a developer with plenty of passion and creativity, though hardly always with impeccable design logic. Guardians of Destiny, the follow-up to their "light RPG" Throne of Chaos, is in many ways a typical Westwood game. It may not be the perfect representative of its genre, but it has so much warmth and charisma that you stop caring for that.
Guardians of Destiny attempts to combine RPGs with the fast-growing FPS genre, opting for a 3D world with free camera rotation and action-oriented gameplay. It also takes queues from adventure games, with several tasks that resemble inventory-based puzzles and an amount of items that play a key role in the plot. In fact the game can be considered a hybrid, since the RPG elements are decidedly downgraded, leaving only a few core elements. However, this can hardly be seen only in negative light. The fast, smooth gameplay harmoniously combines the different genres and prevents fixation on a single aspect that has plagued so many games. It is one of the few games where exploration and combat are served to you in nearly perfect portions, without either overloading you or lacking in quantity.
The RPG concept is quite simple, but although you won't expect too much in the beginning, the game gradually uncovers its customization possibilities. You become stronger by repeatedly executing same types of attack, and it does pay off in the end. There is a plethora of weapons and armor with different properties, as well as all sorts of exotic items that can either modify your parameters or enhance your equipment (such as, for example, an ingredient that makes your sword poisonous). There are diverse magic spells which can be leveled up, and scrolls you must discover to learn them. Much of this stuff is optional, and the game greatly encourages exploration if you want to gain the upper hand.
The exploration here is among the best I have seen in a small RPG with a fairly linear structure. Even though there is no continuous world you can explore from the onset, each level offers plenty to discover. You can spend many hours in each of the game's main locations and still not map them to the full or find everything they have to offer. There is an abundance of secrets, ranging from powerful weapons and items you'll certainly want to acquire to entire vast optional areas. You are always driven forward by the desire to venture around the corner and find out what lies there. You eagerly anticipate an introduction of a new area to sink your gaming teeth into and get to all those hidden goodies. Despite its modest size, Guardians of Destiny is packed with content, which, in the end, is what really matters most in role-playing games.
Even though the engine shows its age and is technically behind the most advanced first-person shooters of the time, the game's world is beautiful and detailed. In a way it is an antipode of Daggerfall: whereas the other game has a huge world with mostly the same stuff repeating itself many times, Guardians of Destiny is small but exquisitely varied. Every single location is interesting and memorable. From the haunting Draracle Museum to the lush jungle, the lovingly decorated Huline Temple, the awe-inspiring City of the Ancients - you'll want to explore every nook and cranny of these locations and re-visit them again and again. There is so much individuality in each area, and everything has been designed with great care, each level being integrated into the game and serving a purpose. In this respect Guardians of Destiny resembles an adventure game as well, and again in a good way.
I love the game's presentation and its visual style. I generally have a weakness to live action cutscenes, particularly because they represent a long-lost art within a creative, prolific era of game-making. Of course they are also associated with poor game design and all those "interactive movies" that began flooding the market once the CD ROM assured its dominance. But there is something in live action performance that no graphics will ever be able to replace. In 1997, this was surely state of the art compared to the blocky 3D that could hardly be used for dramatic purposes. Yes, the acting is cheesy, but isn't that part of the nostalgic delight? They don't make them like this any more, and I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to crawl through an early sprite-infested 3D dungeon so that I can sit back and enjoy a goofy cutscene with real people. By the way, the integration of live action and computer graphics is among the best I have ever seen. The equally nostalgic MIDI music is moody and excellent as well.
The story is fairly generic and harbors no surprises, but it is refreshing to play as the hapless and somewhat dorky Luther, who is cursed with weird shape-shifting and is being hunted just because his mother went berserk on the populace. There is something mildly comical in the way the character is presented, though the optional evil path, besides adding to replay value, casts a dark shadow over him that reminds us of his heritage. Dialogues are sometimes interspersed with subtle humor that sets the slightly campy, off-beat tone of the game very well. In a typical Westwood fashion, the game doesn't take itself very seriously, and its nonchalant lightness constitutes one of the chief reasons for its unique charm.
The BadGuardians of Destiny is a role-playing game in that there is player-controlled character growth and some customization in it. However, it is to Daggerfall what alcohol-free beer is to Chinese baijiu. Many customary features are conspicuously absent, including such fundamental elements as damage feedback and levels. Character attributes are reduced to a minimum and do not affect the gameplay in a major way. Growth is handled in a simplistic fashion, with only two broad proficiencies - physical combat or magic. In short, the game doesn't even feel like a proper RPG at times, shifting instead to a medieval first-person action game with adventure elements. The action, however, is rarely exciting, with limited targeting system and primitive mechanics that amount to little more than pressing two different keys for attacking and casting spells.
The transformations are undeniably cool, but they were nearly ruined by the player's inability to control them. You'll be spending most of the time in your human form, with the game suddenly turning you into a lizard or a beast sporadically, reverting you shortly afterwards. You never have enough time to explore anything in those forms, rendering their advantages next to useless, and for the most part the morphing becomes a nuisance you want to get rid of. Sadly, even if you manage to moderate the shape-shifting by yourself by finding the appropriate control items, you'll garner little satisfaction from it. The lizard form is way too weak to compensate for its magical prowess, while I fail to see any positive side in a slow-moving dimwit who can neither wield weapons nor cast spells.
My personal pet peeve is the absence of large populated areas in the game. The Huline Village is pretty much the only place that resembles a normal RPG town, but even there you can scarcely meet a handful of NPCs. After the bustling cities of Daggerfall this looks rather pitiful, and certainly further diminishes the game's role-playing value. I also didn't like how the continuous 3D world was broken by converting some locations into pre-rendered images. Granted, they looks beautiful, but they don't mesh well with real 3D and cannot be explored properly, reducing your interaction to shallow and unpleasant Myst-like screen-hopping.
In accordance with the dubious Westwood legacy, Guardians of Destiny contains obscure tasks leading to irritating stretches of clueless wandering. There are unfortunately also instances of dead-end design, where an item needed to complete an objective much later in the game can be unknowingly discarded by the player in an earlier stage. I wonder why such things do not get play-tested with scrutiny.