Here is the sequel that no one asked for. Indeed, we gamers clamored for second chapters of Warcraft, Command and Conquer, and Lands of Lore, to name a few, but when was the last time that anyone asked, "Gee, when is that next Dragon Lore title going to be ready?" The original was a tepid adventure/RPG, interesting only because of its nicely rendered 3-D environments, but otherwise hampered by weak combat and gameplay. Someone at Cryo apparently felt that this bland recipe was a winning formula, however, because here is the regrettable sequel. From movement to combat, interface to disc swapping, Dragon Lore II is about as frustrating a gaming experience as I have encountered in recent years.
Superficially, DL2 seems to have promising elements - a better plot, improved characterization, and a better visual setting than many recent RPG/adventures. The storyline: Draconia is a medieval land of magic and monsters that is besieged by orcish armies. A new leader who might be able to see Draconia through this ordeal must emerge from the ranks. You are Werner von Wallenrod, one of a handful of legendary Dragon Knights - warriors who are allied with specific "protecting dragons." Your dragon, Maraach, is missing so your status as a true Dragon Knight is being publicly questioned by an ambitious nobleman. Retrieving Maraach and gaining the respect of your fellow knights is among your chief tasks in a game that does begin with a compelling storyline and even believable characters. All of the Dragon Knights have distinct personae - kind, cool, or bombastic - yet all share an arrogance and self-confidence that one would expect from members of a martial elite. The local princess is brooding over some mysterious disappointment, and the town's all-seeing clairvoyant speaks in obscure parables. The voice acting is overdone (now the norm in gaming), but the script itself is refreshing, as the dialogue conveys not only useful information but a fine sense of the characters and a deeper involvement in the game's setting.
Much of the action takes place within the buildings and the underground labyrinths of the capital city. Hours pass and day turns to night as you make your way around town, solve minor quests, locate necessary objects, and speak with a cast of well-drawn townsfolk or fellow knights. The graphics for these settings are grainier than one would expect from 640X480 mode (under Win95 DirectX), but the underlying artwork is quite convincing nevertheless. The cutscenes, too, have a nice polish to them, with dramatic edits and a fine use of pre-rendered animations. All in all, then, DL2 succeeds in creating a strong sense of presence, of being in a world in which time passes, people live their lives, and pressing events depend upon your actions. This is no mean feat in the otherwise cardboard world of computer gaming.
But the devil is in the details, and Dragon Lore II disintegrates quickly into a mush of user-hostile interfaces, incomplete instructions, and just downright thoughtless design. The playing interface resembles the mediocre one in Stonekeep. The first-person gaming screen employs a cursor that can cycle through speaking, moving, and taking icons. Weapons and items for left/right hands are visible in the menu bar below, as are buttons for access to spells and inventory. Life, strength, and magic bars are over the play screen and increase in capacity with experience. How and why these attributes increase or get depleted remains unclear due to the mute documentation. Eating restores some strength. Sleeping helps, but apparently only in some places, as you can die in your sleep, at times without any explanation. While character attributes are present and do grow over time, DL2 is more of a 3-D adventure in which gathering items to solve puzzles and satisfy assignments is punctuated only occasionally by combat or other action sequences. The puzzle difficulty is moderate, generally a matter of giving the correct object to the right person. The inventory screen gives you the time, limited item capacity, and the ability to combine found objects in order to solve some puzzles. But just try and find some of these items! Many of them are not even visible on screen and are detectable only if your cursor happens upon just the right pixel. Worse still, overlooking a necessary object from the early parts of the game will lock you out of any progress later, forcing a restart.
Movement is first-person and point-to-point, much like Zork Nemesis or the recent Space Bar. An on-screen compass rose indicates which routes are available, but clicking in a direction could take you anywhere, from turning in place to halfway across the city and even into a battle sequence. In other cases, like at the inn, it can take four or five mouse clicks to twist and turn your way across two feet in order to talk to the owner. The inconsistency is maddening and unnecessary.
But wait, there's more. The combat interface is even worse. There are purported to be three types of fighting blows under the control of your right mouse button: thrust, cut, and reverse cut. But where you should move the real-time battle cursor to achieve each blow is left to experimentation. Both the weapon and the video image of the enemy are so unresponsive in combat that it's difficult to know when and how your blows might be connecting or missing. With so little feedback from the program itself, and entirely useless documentation, you can die often and learn nothing to hone your skills. The same is true for the other action element of the game - jousting - for which there are two lengthy tournaments for our hero by game's end. Yet nothing about the jousting interface is to be found in the flimsy documentation. Switching to a third-person behind-the-horse POV, you move the mouse to balance and point the weapon at the approaching knight, though both lance and enemy are so broken up under the low resolutions here that aiming is moot. Magic casting is equally poor. Icons for the handful of spells (reading runes, adding to your defense in combat, or making friendly conversation, for instance) are pressed from the gameplay screen but offer no signs of their success or effectiveness.
Apparently the designers of Dragon Lore II got it into their heads that inconvenience and user frustration should be salient features of a game, so it wasn't enough to make movement and combat inane. The 3-CD set requires frequent disc swapping - at night/day changes and whenever entering certain frequently-visited locations. No matter where your last save may be in the course of the adventure, reloading requires the first CD, especially annoying when the battle interface tends to kill off the hero so often. Many of the objects that need collecting are nearly invisible to the naked eye and require very tedious, slow panning of the on-screen cursor in order to be detected. The movement scheme desperately needs shortcuts. Prior to each jousting sequence, for instance, you have to repeat a tedious circuit of preparations and movements (up to six times!) just to retool for the next round.
The manifest design flaws of the game might be pardonable by some gamers if the promising narrative elements came to anything. But, alas, the characters and storyline turn out to be window dressing rather than points of genuine interest. As the game winds towards its predictable conclusion - a final battle with your main rival to Draconia's leadership - the game relies even more on its weakest elements, combat and pixel-hunting.
One of the many inconsiderate design features in Dragon Lore II turns out to be a blessing in disguise. An unlabelled button in the corner of the play screen, easily mistaken for a decorative rivet, actually dumps you from the game and into the credits: no warning, no confirmation screen, no save opportunity - just a scroll of the people who are responsible for this travesty. Game Hint No. 1: Use this feature frequently.