SummaryLike Diet Coke, only much better
The GoodDungeon Master was an innovative game that brought real-time combat to first-person dungeon-crawling RPGs. After Westwood contributed their Eye of the Beholder games to the nascent sub-genre, they crowned it with this game, marking its high point before it was dissolved when true 3D action RPGs, heralded by Ultima Underworld and epitomized by Elder Scrolls, took over.
It's hard to pinpoint that intangible quality that makes Lands of Lore a classic game. Fans would understand it if I simply said it was a typical Westwood product at the peak of their creativity. It's one of those games where detail means everything, making it enjoyable regardless of any flaws it might harbor. Above all, Lands of Lore is a game with a big heart, a game that was obviously loved by its developers and conveys this emotion to the player.
There is a certain fairy tale-like innocence in Lands of Lore. From the beginning it envelops you in a cozy atmosphere, making you want to close the door to your room, sit comfortably, maybe prepare a drink or a snack, and dive into the game with the same self-aware, almost "nerdy" exuberance one usually reserves for favorite sitcoms. The game obviously doesn't take itself too seriously, and its delightfully goofy humor will accompany you on your journey, making dungeon-crawling so much more refreshing and memorable.
Don't think the game is just a regular Dungeon Master clone with some jokes thrown in, though. Westwood experimented with both RPGs and adventure games in their earlier days, and the influence of adventure game design is noticeable here. You can click on objects and will sometimes be rewarded with short descriptions and other comments from your hero or his companions. There is some interaction with the environment, and some of the puzzles, despite their simplicity, elegantly break the monotony of exploring long stretches of similarly-looking graphics. A few locations offer unique interaction possibilities and puzzle-like exercises that involve creative usage of your weapons, spells, and other tools. These adventure-like touches make Lands of Lore somewhat different from other RPGs and certainly bring a lot of diversity into its otherwise formulaic structure.
The locations themselves are fairly varied, allowing us to take a break from the abuse of forest passages from time to time and immerse ourselves in an atmospheric castle, mines, or a city occupied by ferocious orcs. The mazes are long and complex, as they should be, and the excellent, convenient, easy-to-use auto-map is there to make the process of exploring them to the full rewarding rather than frustrating.
The actual RPG system is simple - perhaps too much so. Coupled with the fast-paced combat, however, the uncomplicated character management allows the player to concentrate more on exploration, which is pretty much the focus of the game. There are all sorts of secrets, hidden areas, and plenty of items to acquire. Equipment management is thankfully heavy, with a good balance between melee, ranged weapons, and spells. Outfitting your characters becomes the more involving part of customization, and in the end you'll definitely want to hunt down all those nifty items and claim them your own. The ability to choose between four protagonists is definitely a plus, although the game seems to favor speedier characters and choosing a strong, yet slow warrior hardly has any benefits.
Contributing to the overall enjoyment are the game's top-notch production values. Dungeon areas, enemies, objects - everything looks very nice, with the beautiful hand-drawn cutscenes stealing the show. The game's visual style conveys much of its magical atmosphere, and there is a unique homogeneity between various design aspects that clearly shows how the developers were working as a team, exchanging ideas and eventually providing a tight, smooth experience. Well-written, sometimes deliberately campy text, charming MIDI music, and surprisingly good voice acting (be sure to get the CD version!) complement the package.
The BadAfter a while the novelty of the game's charm begins to fade out, and the reality of simplified RPG mechanics becomes more and more difficult to obfuscate. No amount of sweetness can completely hide the fact that Lands of Lore is not only a derivative, but a fairly shallow role-playing game that offers little satisfaction once we start comparing it to other examples of the genre and demanding more from its core gameplay. Basically, it is one of those games you play for the little things, but hardly for the "meat and potatoes". The real-time combat coupled with restricted first-person movement lacks both the tactical depth of turn-based systems and the physical immersion of the revolutionary Ultima Underworld games. There is a severe lack of options in battles, and mostly everything boils down to clicking on those weapon icons repeatedly until the foes drop dead.
Character growth is generally quite disappointing. Skill training is a nice idea, but it matters very little when there are only three skills to raise. It takes way too long to reach new levels in either of the disciplines, and ultimately there isn't that much of a pay-off as well. When I play a RPG I want more feedback and reward for my actions, and sadly Lands of Lore doesn't really provide it. You'll grow tired of slaying enemies just to advance a tiny bit more towards the vague fifth Fighter level. A vaster variety of skills, customization, or just a plain old leveling system would have been more in place here.
Lands of Lore is, for all purposes, a dungeon crawler. You'll spend the entire game in pseudo-3D maze-like environments. After a while I began to miss populated areas; unfortunately, there are nearly none in this game. The city of Yvel is the only real urban settlement and it is also presented to you as a hostile dungeon when you discover it. There are hardly any NPCs, no branching dialogue, and generally very little of what we would expect from a full-fledged RPG. Repetitive environments have always been the plague of dungeon crawlers, and while Lands of Lore is better than many of its brethren in this respect, going through the same featureless forests quickly gets old.
The game also couldn't escape the dreaded "Westwood curse". Throwing away or missing key items would have been half the trouble; but the game stubbornly requires from you counter-intuitive actions at certain points, and you can easily find yourself in a dead end if you refuse to comply. For example, a powerful item is given to you for a certain purpose, and your first instinct is, naturally, to use it in one place it would seem logical to. However, by doing so right away you'll lose the item, making it impossible to use it as more or less the only reliable weapon against nearly unbeatable enemies a short while later.
The Bottom LineLands of Lore is a rare example of how a game can be addictive and fun after having been subjected to severe reductions. An antipode to the soon-to-appear Arena, it can serve as an excellent proof that heart and attention to detail matter at least as much as volume and complexity in game design. It has so much charm that you won't even mind the fact it is basically a simplistic dungeon crawl with minimal character development. Westwood were truly the masters of "light" game design, and this is one of its finest manifestations.