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SummaryA wonderful and magically innocent combination of fantasy and fairy-tale
The GoodSince "Lands of Lore" basically introduced me to gaming, this is going to be a tough review, for as with all things which got nostalgic value and remind one of one's childhood, it's hard to not be completely biased. Moreover, I played this game so many times that it's become more and more difficult to pin down the "bare facts" of why I like it so much. Since this is then a special situation, I shall leave my usual reviewing routine of moving from technical aspects to content and tackle things vice versa.
At its soul, "Lands of Lore" strikes a fine balance between two genres which are very much acquainted and yet not the same thing: fantasy (derived more or less from "The Lord of the Rings" and similar stories) and fairy-tale (derived from the "Brothers Grimm" or other folk tales). Within its more or less simple story one may find numerous elements of both, a sort-of medieval town, mine-shafts, amazons and two sizes of orcs on the fantasy side, a haggard, evil witch vs. a beautiful, good witch, an abducted king who is "in need of a champion", solving a riddle to find a cure for a mysterious poison and the land waning away when the king has gone on the fairy-tale side. This balance might not seem particularly important at first, after all, these genre boundaries are elusive as they are, and even more so between highly related fantasy and fairy-tale. However, "Lands of Lore" gets a kind of freedom out of its finely combining those two which other more regular fantasy games don't have. While it contains darkness and violence, while it sends the player into dreadful dungeons, where ratmen hunt down humans to devour them, while it's got quite a lot of tense and hard combat which may even border on survival-horror at times (White Tower, Level 3 - Everybody who played this game knows what I mean) it never even runs close to losing its light-hearted cheerfulness. In "Lands of Lore" one faces a grim looking minotaur just after having had combat with a bunch of one-eyed, flying chickens (which are hilarious) and one fights a tough, worm-like Lharkon after trading goods and news with some rather comical looking swamp people for whom one has to eliminate "living sticks"...serious and not so serious elements are always a split second away from each other, and still this game appears extremely unified and "harmonic".
This is all tied together by the game's story. While it has enough drama to be taken seriously (at times) and several bucket-loads of heart and warmth it's sort of a wonderful swashbucklers' tale. Never does the hero waver from the path of justice, true to king and country he'll seek out evil wherever it may lurk - and, of course, we're talking of a "he" here, there is no female character to choose from. Maybe it really wouldn't have fitted the amount of classical yarn-spinning employed by this game to be able to play a woman, however, "Lands of Lore" is far from being sexist, it just sticks to the fairy-tale rule that the swashbuckler is a guy (be he four-armed Thomgog or lizard-like Dracoid) and the lovely sorceress a girl. Even the story's pathos, which may approach enormous levels at times, is a pathos of "The Dark Army is upon us, to arms!", it's deliberately unreal, tongue-in-cheek, fairy-tale's heroes' pathos - "Lands of Lore" is indeed a game where the victory of the (clearly identifiable) good over the bad is evident from the start.
This division between a darker fantasy side and a light-hearted, fairy-tale basis is manifest in every technical and gameplay aspect as well. The dialogue of this game is wonderfully written, always treading along the aforementioned thin line between seriousness and humour. Voice acting is very good, even for today (though, of course, somewhat lacking in technical quality), the actors seem to be completely "in tune" with the game's approach. One example: In the City of Yvel one encounters some guy in a local tavern who really gives the player the history lesson of his life, it simply takes ages. When he has finally finished and thanks one for having been so attentive, the player's answer is that he must be going because he has "a kingdom to save and a Scotia to kill" (Scotia being the game's evil witch) - what a slogan, that's truly the "Monkey Island"-level of good ol' swashbucklery! And the voice actor's cadence is completely in line with the "camp factor" of the sentence (at least Michael's and Kieran's actors are), yet he'll go for full-fledged seriousness once more a minute later.
All other technical aspects reflect the game's philosophy as well. Music can be dark and ambient at times, yet mostly consists of catchy tunes, with up-tempo rhythms and highly hummable melodies (clearly one of Frank Klepacki's best works). Sounds are great, from the awful hissing of that snake on White Tower, level 3 to the hilarious "bo-bock" of them flying chickens. Graphics are extremely well drawn and can often enough be dark and gloomy, but are largely just gleaming with an almost uncanny warmth and soul, resonant in bright, full colours. I guess this really is hard to come by nowadays with all that rendered, high-res 3D. In fact, I cherish the low resolution of "Lands of Lore": It somehow adds a "sepia touch" to the game, making it even more lovable just because because it's recognizably old.
Since this review is getting longer by the minute, a brief note on actual gameplay. Staying in line with its overall light-hearted approach to fantasy, controls are as easy as possible, in fact, I think "Lands of Lore" to be an ideal role-playing game for beginners (I was one at the time, too, after all), movement is fluent and easy to manage, combat is real-time but far from being too "hectic" and the auto-map was and is one of the best around. In line with this easy accessibility are the game's limited amounts of existing items, spells, and character stats: "Lands of Lore" doesn't offer the player a lot of stuff, but what it offers is executed perfectly.
The BadFor me, there are only two points to mention here. First, this is not a revolutionary game. In fact, in may be the very opposite of a revolutionary game: it mimics its fantasy and fairy-tale role-models so well and weaves them together so closely that little to none space remains for some kind of "true" innovation. I mean, the auto-map feature was fantastic at the time, so was the fluent movement and the voice acting, but hands down: neither gameplay nor content-wise does "Lands of Lore" surf a high tide of boundary-pushing.
Second, this game is so streamlined and overall "well temperated" that some players might object to it. "Lands of Lore" is far from being a "gritty" game, it employs lots of dark and spooky dungeons without ever really becoming harsh or "edgy". If one wants to learn more about how cruel a world we're living in and what kind of monsters human beings can be, this game doesn't serve the purpose at all. This is almost like a Christmas game: while it contains darkness, it contains it to entertain the player, not to put the fear of God into him.
The Bottom LineObjectively, this game is a beautifully executed, classical fairy-tale combined with quite some more serious and darker fantasy elements. It's easily accessible, features streamlined controls and gameplay, graphics and music which yell out the obvious talents of their creators and excellent voice acting. "Lands of Lore" is a pinnacle when it comes to pure, optimistic entertainment - though it may not be a high point of overcoming old gaming traditions and replacing them with something revolutionary different.
Personally, this is sort of my teddy-bear of gaming. If all else fails, this remains what it always was: pure and innocent fun.