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SummaryBe yourself - be dracoid!
The GoodThrone of Chaos and Guardians of Destiny established a non-mainstream RPG series known for its light design and plenty of charming quirks. For better or worse, Lands of Lore III is a typical representative of the series, with its own neat gameplay ideas and old-school charisma most fans of Westwood would find hard to resist.
After its predecessor was criticized for losing some RPG elements in transition to smooth 3D action-oriented gameplay, Lands of Lore III brings a lot of stuff back on the table. It is decidedly a deeper and more involving RPG than the second game, and I also find its system superior to that of the first.
The main attraction here is the non-linearity in character development. The previous games were light on customization, and stats didn't really matter that much there. Lands of Lore III takes character growth more seriously, which results in a more pronounced RPG angle and ultimately more rewarding, richer gameplay. The half-dracoid protagonist starts without any discernible strengths or weaknesses, but eventually begins to evolve according to the player's decisions. There are four classes he can opt to belong to, and doing that goes beyond just improving a particular skill. Rather, he is given the opportunity to join any of the four guilds and work his way upwards, shaping his abilities as the game progresses.
The cool part is that you can alternately decide to do all the quests, which, naturally, takes time and patience to achieve. The quests for each guild are completely different until you become a master in any of them, essentially meaning that you'll be playing through different scenarios in the first half of the game if you so wish. This flexibility of growth makes the simple process of vanquishing enemies to gain experience and complete quests much more interesting. You can take a break from whatever discipline you are trying to master at the moment and try something entirely different at any time.
In general, Lands of Lore III offers more content than its predecessors. There are more complex skill sets, more abilities, more ways to experiment. Each guild assigns familiars to you, acting like semi-controlled party members, each with their own skills that complement your chosen career. These companions reduced the overwhelming feeling of loneliness that was so prevalent in Guardians of Destiny, and provided a basic and effective method of tactically managing fights without compromising the action-based system.
Combat certainly feels smoother and more satisfying than in the earlier games. They ironed out awkward elements and fleshed out ideas the previous game attempted to build upon. The interface is clearly better, and this time you are provided with a helpful journal and a fantastic compendium of all in-game things, including monster information and detailed items descriptions. In short, Lands of Lore III definitely feels like a more no-nonsense, professionally crafted role-playing game. Instead of toying with certain functions it gives them to us in their completed state.
The game world is also somewhat bigger; more importantly, Lands of Lore III has a real city, a "hub" location you periodically return to, a sort of a home base where you can receive quests and review your progress. This is still a far cry from the bustling towns I've come to expect from great RPGs, but at least it's a step forward compared to the disappointing rural nature of the previous installments.
Lands of Lore III shares with its predecessors a strong sense of atmosphere. Lovely music accompanies the exploration, and location variety certainly does not disappoint. You'll travel through familiar countryside as well as exotic worlds, including a bizarre Command & Conquer offshot. Locations get increasingly sci-fi-themed, which certainly refreshes the standard medieval fantasy setting and makes us curious to find out what the next area will look like.
The story is sparse, but the initial premise is stronger than in Throne of Chaos and on par with the personal initial quest of Guardians of Destiny. The half-dracoid outcast is, once again, a reluctant hero, which is a type one can identify with much easier than with generic barrel-chested mercenaries or adventurers who must save the world simply because they can. You'll meet familiar characters, among those a brand new version of Dawn, who, alongside with Gabriel Knight, appears to be the only video game character incarnated in the three dominant visual styles of the nineties - hand-drawn, live action, and 3D. There is also a nice twist in the middle of the story that makes things less predictable than they appear on the surface.
The BadTiming was the main reason for this game's virtual disappearance below the radar. End of nineties was a revolutionary epoch for Western RPGs, and age of revival heralded by Black Isle and Bioware and crowned by the gigantic hybrids System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. On that background, Lands of Lore III mostly looked like a harmless experiment of humble proportions, a relic of the past trapped in the wrong era.
The series was conceived as a lighter, semi-humorous version of dungeon crawlers, and by its third installment things really haven't changed that much. Like its predecessors, Lands of Lore III is a "lonely" experience, lacking the vibrant NPC scene of contemporary RPGs. Consistent with its heritage, it has no dialogue choices and precious little interaction with characters in general. This type of RPG design contradicts some of the most cherished principles of the genre and was already out of date when Throne of Chaos was released. Effectively, the series was always heading towards a dead end, sustained only by the talent of its developers. Despite its attempt to introduce heavier RPG elements, Lands of Lore III was still unable to find its own voice and failed in the turbulent competition of the time.
Irritating artificial borders is something I particularly dislike in games, and sadly Lands of Lore III is full of them. They become even harder to conceal in a full-screen 3D game, and the attempts are sometimes nearly painful. When I walk through a forest I want to go left and right and see what lies there. Instead, I'm forced to stare at laughable textures decorating invisible walls that contain me to a narrow path. Granted, there is still exploration and the game world feels reasonably open compared to, say, Japanese RPGs or Westwood's own Nox, but immersion suffers when you are shown exactly when and where the designers ran out of space or perhaps willpower to create a larger world.
I missed those live action scenes from Guardians of Destiny! By that time I felt they had become a staple of the series. Unfortunately, that charming style was replaced by admittedly well-executed, but fairly generic pre-rendered CG movies. Also, the in-game graphics themselves are anything but cutting-edge. Early high-resolution textures have something distinctly blocky and almost sterile in them. There is little warmth in the graphics, which further impedes immersion and makes the game look pale and almost pitiful compared to the visual marvel of its contemporary Ultima IX.