Westwood's original Lands of Lore was one of those rare role-playing games with a strong enough plot to keep CRPG fans happy and a simple enough interface to remain inviting to novice gamers. The game proved to be, along with Dune II and The Legend of Kyrandia, one of the titles that marked Westwood as a company to watch, and became the basis for more than a few cult followings. A sequel was inevitable. Surprising more than a few fans with their decision to move away from the Might-and-Magic style, step-based motion of the original and replace it with a free-motion, first-person interface more reminiscent of Quake, Westwood's Lands of Lore team has returned with a follow-up title that promises to deliver a much more realistic and fascinating view of the world so many gamers have come to love.
Subtitled Guardians of Destiny, Lands of Lore II opens with the banishment of your character Luther, the son of Scotia, the witch who acted as the antagonist of the first tale, to a cave on the outskirts of the kingdom. Cursed with uncontrollable shape-changing powers (a gift from your mother), you must find the strength (and to some degree forgiveness) to find your destiny. In order to succeed you'll find yourself hacking, talking, and figuring your way through over 20 game locations that vary from foreboding museum halls to overgrown jungles.
More than a few changes have taken place in the industry since the release of Lands of Lore, and Westwood uses both the advances of technology and the increased resources at their command to their fullest. Featuring the work of over fifteen artists, Lands of Lore II is a visual feast, detailing the thoughtfully-designed universe in beautiful 640x400 resolution (a 320x200 mode is planned for you slow pokes out there). A dynamic lighting system, designed specifically for the title, allows for realistic flames, magic items that glow brightly enough to be used as a torch, and a myriad of other impressive effects. Hours of breathtaking plot animation add to the game's depth and vision without ever seeming to drag on for too long (of course it's still early in the development cycle). Backed up by an impressive soundtrack scored by folk musician David Arkenstone, and near-perfect sound effects that include everything from the sound of a sword lashing out to the more mundane drips of an underground cavern, the environment really seems to come alive, at least in the few levels that Westwood is willing to show off at this time.
Other improvements include a host of new spells (there will be over 80 in the final product) ranging from the powerful fireball (remember that dynamic lighting?) to the entertaining summon, which causes an imp to appear and attack your foes (no one say demon, okay?). Enemy AI has been vastly improved, and your opponents will no longer attack until they die, instead opting to run away and later return with a large group of their friends - a hard upgrade to like when you're being beaten to a pulp. Finally, there's a multiple-path storyline that reacts to players' choices, accommodating both those who wish to be heroes and those who decide to follow in their mother's evil footsteps.
Guardians of Destiny has more than enough artistic vision and play engine power to compete for both the RPG and adventure crowns of 1997 (when the game is most likely to ship). Even so, there's still a lot of work to be done if the game is to deliver everything it promises. In the end, though, this is Westwood we're talking about, and if anyone is capable of producing a game that exceeds even rabid gamers' expectations, it's this scrappy little powerhouse of design.