Written by  :  J. P. Gray (120)
Written on  :  Apr 06, 2008
Platform  :  ZX Spectrum
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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A simple, conceptually derivative, yet brilliantly presented gem.

The Good

Lords of Midnight attempts to realize an epic fantasy war, and the elements will be all too familiar to readers of a certain seminal fantasy series. Is there a nebulous, all-powerful personification of evil whose mysterious "influence" affects all events and is served by slavish hordes? Yep. Is there perhaps a plucky, small band of adventurers who are bizarrely the only hope of unifying the innocent and good peoples to defeat the menace? Natch. And do you suppose the grand evil being has much of his power placed in a easily portable ornament, the destruction of which necessitates a long and dangerous quest into enemy territory? Of course!

Yeah, the setting of this game is entirely ripped off from the Lord of the Rings. Doomdark is Sauron, the fey are elves, the Ice-fear is the power of the Ice Crown / one ring, Luxor the Moonprince is Aragorn, and Rorthron the Wise is... well I bet you can guess at this point. What saves this from being a titanic bore is the gameplay, certainly -not- the story that all too many people have heard far too many times.

The gameplay is pretty unique in general, and very unique for its time. This is a grand war game saddled to a bare-bones RPG adventure, and it works! The way it works is largely through clever presentation of simplistic mechanics, but also through an insightful sense of freedom provided to the player.

The presentation of the game is really fantastic. The world map is simply a grid of tiles, much as you'd see in most war games. Forest tiles, plains tiles, mountain tiles, hills, lakes, oh my! The twist here is that instead of the standard top down view for the time, Singleton went first person pseudo-3d. Not in a dungeon, not in a maze, but outside! Also added to the mix are visible ruins, citadels, keeps, towers, towns, caves, armies, etc, all scaled for distance and perspective to form a compelling horizon. When processed through the very innovative display programming, some very affecting vistas can be produced from what would be the same stale geographic tile set you've seen too many times to count. Seeing a lonely keep between the mountains or seeing the evil citadel of Ushgarak looming threateningly in the distance with hordes of evil armies spewing out of it can look absolutely amazing in-game. Also, to keep you oriented, there is a paper map that comes with the box, and a little kitschy narration of where you are and who you are controlling: "Luxor the Moonprince stands at the Tower of Moon, looking west to the Downs of Shadows." Overall the presentation of the map is a major and unique selling point of the experience.

Movement and combat are presented in a similarly elegant fashion, with a bit of standard programmer conceit to cover up the simplistic mechanics. Take movement, for instance. Luxor (the player) can command each lord he has recruited to travel the map. Time elapses separately for each character, and travel distance is maximized by having horses, cavalry, etc. Doomdark's armies do not move during the day, and Luxor's cannot move at night, for your standard "fantasy reasons." :-) But in essence it's basically a turn based system based on time units for each controllable lord.

Combat is similarly handled to disguise its simplicity. Beyond organizing a big army together and placing it strategically in a keep, citadel, etc. the player has no control over the outcome of battle. The new day (turn) begins with reports of how the combat went, with nice florid descriptions of the action for your lords and hero characters. "Rorthron alone slew one hundred and eighty of the enemy"--badass! While the combat is mostly out of your hands, this little bit of silliness connects you back to the action and makes you feel a part of it.

The only real element of strategy is keeping your armies huge, well-rested, and unafraid. Fear (from the ice crown, which compounds the closer you get to Doomdark) and exhaustion (moving around or fighting too much without a rest) can cripple even the best army. Rather than status bars, it's a nice (and silly) touch to be able to check up on each lord and see "Lord Blood is utterly bold!" rather than "stamina = 12" or the like.

The actual game proceeds straightforwardly from the start. You have four heroes or lords to work with in the beginning, and must split them up to recruit, explore, attack, and defend. Recruitment is key, because Doomdark has armies going after all the major strongholds of the Free, and therefore your time is very limited. You may recruit both lords and soldiers from the keeps and citadels scattered about the land. Lords can command and move soldiers about, and soldiers are split into cavalry and infantry (with the former being preferred.)

Your mid-game often depends on how well you've recruited, and how you plan to win. You can either lead the armies of the Free to destroy Doomdark's citadel whilst protecting your own at Xajorkith, or send Prince Morkin (Frodo :-P) to find the Ice Crown and destroy it. To me the RPG-adventure hybrid of the latter is waaaay too anemic to be interesting. Individual combat (with a few monsters scattered about) is again a strict mathematical exercise with little control for the user, and there are only a few items of any worth to be found. Exploration is already available in the strategic game, so the personal quest of Morkin leaves a lot to be desired. The main fun is in dodging and outwitting the armies of Doomdark, and Morkin's chief value is to drag some armies after him while you get on with winning the game. :-)

The odds are beautifully stacked against you militarily, and a lot of debate still exists on which places to hold, which lords to recruit, where to take a stand, whether to split forces, etc. Inevitably if you wait too long to recruit a lord, he will be overwhelmed and destroyed by Doomdark, and an evil army will be occupying his keep. If you do make your stand successfully, then the game is over very quickly after you've taken out Doomdark's armies one by one. Seeing a whole sea of foes marching towards your desperate last stand is a thrill, as is strategically retreating your massive united army before it gets enveloped, watching your beautiful citadels become infested with enemy hordes in the process. Neat!

The game feels a bit hollow after you start beating it solidly for a while, as it mostly just feels like a game of patience. But this is true of most free and open "epic" strategy games, and since this is one of the earliest of the fantasy type, we can't blame it too much for getting dull at times. Even UFO Defense had its dull moments, yeah? The main thing is that by changing a few things in your starting strategy, you can play a wholly new version of the same story out every time, and that is the game's ultimate value. This should be true of all games of its type.

The Bad

There are a few nasty mechanics hidden around the game that are inexplicable and potentially game-breaking. For example, stopping by a lake or keep or town is supposed to refresh your lord and army, yet it only works -once- for each location. This means one lake refreshes -one- army and lord, and if you want another instant refresh you better go exploring. This gets frustrating when all your men are exhausted from running all over the map, and now you have to go halfway across Midnight to get to a frickin lake. Boo!

Most of the other flaws are mentioned above--chinsy and bare-bones adventure and RPG aspects add little to the actual game, and little control is available for the combat. Also, there are parts of the game (depending on how you play) that become very tedious. Morkin's sidequest can seem almost arbitrary if you run up against the wrong enemies at the wrong time, or if some essential characters are killed off before they can be used to destroy the Ice Crown.

The Bottom Line

For epic strategy gamers, this is a blast to play, if you keep in mind the limitations it transcends through clever and elegant presentation. A simple, almost basic game in mechanics, yet a very enjoyable experience through -elegant- design. This is an essential aspect of successful game-making that few developers today seem to get right. In other words, your fancy presentation whizbangs better actually have a reason for existence.

I would recommend searching for Chris Wild's free WinXP/2k conversion if you can't track down a Speccy emulator.