When Westwood Studios released Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny in 1997, many role-playing game fans were disappointed that the belated sequel cast players in the role of a single, preset character and featured extremely linear, action-oriented gameplay. In fact, aside from maintaining first-person-perspective gameplay, Guardians of Destiny bore little resemblance to its party-based predecessor, Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos, let alone the two statistics-chomping AD&D Eye of the Beholder games crafted by Westwood. By minimizing role-playing game elements and crafting an adventure/RPG/action hybrid, Westwood hoped Guardians of Destiny would appeal to a broader range of gamers.
With RPGs now enjoying a renaissance, the aptly titled third Lands of Lore game has been released, packaged with the enticing prospect of enhanced RPG elements and character development options through the addition of class guilds and familiars. Unfortunately, simplistic gameplay, barren environments, a dated graphics engine, and horrible character artificial intelligence collectively make playing Lands of Lore III an unsatisfying experience.
You are given the role of Copper LeGre, who, after witnessing the speedy dismemberment of his father and nasty stepbrothers by some dimension-hopping hounds, realizes that he's both become the heir to the throne and lost his soul. The departure of Gladstone's resident deity, the Draracle, results in the appearance of dimensional portals in the Gladstone woods. In addition to exploring the Gladstone area, Copper will have to travel through the portals to five strange dimensions - or "worlds" - in order to conveniently save the realm and recover his soul. Thanks to Gladstone's court mystic, lacking a soul hampers Copper less than losing a wristwatch and bears no impact on gameplay whatsoever, other than presumably giving you additional motivation in case "saving the realm" wasn't sufficient encouragement.
While voyaging to five completely different environments may sound intriguing, gameplay is actually substantially similar, and simplistic, in each dimension. The realms completely lack scope or, with the notable exception of the Fire World's Dragon City, any sense of scale. There are only a handful of creatures in each realm and less than a dozen nonplayer characters who have more than two lines of dialogue in the entire game. Exploring a world largely consists of traveling down barren, linear, claustrophobia-inducing paths. Even most outdoor areas have enclosing "roofs" that, coupled with the narrow passageways that predominate in the game, effectively transform what should be expansive wilderness areas into narrow caves with varying texture maps.
A 3dfx or a capable Direct3D video card will produce some nifty, but overused, colored lighting effects and some impressive high-resolution background environments. The quality of the first-person-perspective graphics varies greatly throughout the game, however, and the voxels and sprites used to depict items and characters tend to devolve into pixelated blobs at close distances. NPCs display a disturbing tendency to rapidly repeat their limited animations. Most of the dozen or so cutscenes in the game work well and look good, but others, including the introductory scene, are less compelling and also feature exaggerated character animations. Certain areas, such as the Underworld's haunted house and the Shattered Desert's military base, overcome the limits of the game's engine and produce a few memorable moments. Others, such as the forest with its canopied roof, pixelated sprite bushes, and solid walls of textured trees, look completely artificial. The forest's makeshift curtains of trees look like they belong on stage in a medieval play - I half expected Robert Goulet to step out from behind a pixelated stump and start singing Camelot.
There is no character-generation screen in Lands of Lore III, as Copper always starts out with the same attribute scores. You are given the opportunity to customize Copper by having him join one or more of the guilds in Gladstone and by picking up a companion familiar. Each of the guilds is dedicated to one of the four core classes (fighter, mage, cleric, or thief) found in pseudo-medieval fantasy RPGs. While you could limit Copper's guild enrollment, potentially creating a variety of character classes, the game gives you little incentive to do so, since you'll just lose access to certain shops and facilities. Copper gains experience levels faster with fewer guild memberships, but levels are relatively unimportant since there's readily available equipment that'll enable neophyte characters to dish out formidable damage. Gaining experience levels is ludicrously easy in any event, as you can rack up experience by stomping pitiful training opponents in the fighters' guild. Each guild only offers a couple of quests after initiation, and later quests largely consist of returning to one of the worlds you've already thoroughly explored to grab a previously inaccessible item.
Your familiar scurries about relatively independently, and each familiar has a distinct personality and abilities and some incredibly annoying dialogue. In fact, other than the contributions of Clancy Brown (Highlander/Starship Troopers) who reprises his role as the Draracle in a cameo, the voice acting is usually painful and often occurs at inappropriate times. During frantic moments, your familiar will invariably announce an intention to leave the area to look for trinkets. Not to be outdone in the battle for most untimely speech, Copper will usually retort that he's hungry enough to eat a horse, but doesn't think that it would make a particularly good meal without potatoes. Huh? Get in the game, Copper. Play to win.
Copper and his familiar aren't the only characters who are oblivious to the events transpiring around them. NPC and enemy artificial intelligence is at an all-time low in Lands of Lore III, as evidenced by the thugs in lower Gladstone (none of which has a peep of dialogue), who gleefully smash endlessly into buildings. The pathfinding of the three dozen enemy types makes combat almost always an unthreatening joke, winnable by strafing left and right and bouncing arrow after arrow off the heads of your hapless, uncoordinated foes.
Copper proves remarkably adept at backstabbing without having to bother sneaking up on opponents, as they often, inexplicably, turn around while in the middle of an apparent charge. Since opponents are rare in many areas in the game, the environments themselves frequently challenge you with jumping and "thrilling" box-stacking puzzles. While most of these acrobatic maneuverings aren't too strenuous, they're apt to cause more character deaths (and resulting lengthy reloads) than the game's battles. It's difficult to understand the rationale behind the design decision to require you to constantly spoon-feed food to Copper or the gameplay benefits which that touch of "realism" provides - especially in a lighthearted game that features fireball-hurling flying chickens.
The game isn't all bad. The music and sound effects are suitably varied and appropriately reflect Copper's surroundings. Several elements from past games make welcome reappearances, including the original Draracle caves from Throne of Chaos, those ever-popular bikini-wearing amazons from the White Tower, and Guardians of Destiny's protagonist, Luther. The interface provides convenient access to available items, spells, and weapons while maintaining a view of the gaming world. A comprehensive journal automaps Copper's travels and records NPC conversations and other useful information.
But the few noteworthy features are overwhelmed by the game's flaws. The initial release of the game is unstable, frequently crashing on start-up with some video cards, and is exceptionally intolerant of certain virtual memory cache settings, Direct3D sound cards, and background programs such as Netscape's Instant Messenger. Graphics quirks such as missing textures and clipping errors occur frequently enough that I began to suspect every pit or semitransparent wall of being a graphical error. Ultimately, however, it's the simplistic and repetitive gameplay that makes Lands of Lore III more of a chore than a pleasure to play.