A year ago, the GameCube desperately needed a role-playing game, and Lost Kingdoms--from quirky Japanese developer From Software--was the answer. Now history is repeating itself, as the sequel to this fantasy-themed game has arrived amid the GameCube's ongoing RPG drought. Like its predecessor, Lost Kingdoms II is an unusual and original game, in which you don't battle with swords and arrows, but with magical cards that summon forth powerful creatures that fight for you. Lost Kingdoms II, like a good sequel should, expands on the gameplay of the original, improves the production values all around, and is a generally better game that will please both fans of the original and anyone looking for an action-packed, RPG-style game for Nintendo's system.
Lost Kingdoms II takes place many generations after the original. Now Katia, the heroine of the first game, is remembered as a legendary queen. Instead you'll play as Tara, an attractive yet reserved young woman who is traveling with a band of thieves, trying to make ends meet in a dangerous and unfriendly world. Tara is an outcast even among her allies, yet they grudgingly accept her company, because Tara--like Katia from Lost Kingdoms--wields the power of the runestone. This giant jewel slung across her back is the secret to Tara's ability to use powerful magic cards in battle. The game's plot pits Tara and her allies against a pompous king and his army of magical, mechanized servants, though the story isn't fleshed out much, and isn't quite as engaging as it could have been.
The game plays out like a third-person action adventure, as you control Tara directly in a variety of enemy-filled environments. But Lost Kingdoms II also incorporates some of the strongest elements of RPGs and collectible-card games: Tara gains experience levels as she defeats foes using her cards, and even the cards themselves gain experience, so they can later be upgraded into more powerful forms. There are a couple of hundred different types of cards to be found (half of which are new and half of which Lost Kingdoms fans will recall), and these represent an imaginative variety of creatures, many of which are mainstays from conventional high-fantasy settings like Dungeons & Dragons or The Lord of the Rings.
The biggest difference in the gameplay of Lost Kingdoms II compared with the original is that there are no random battles in the sequel. The first game worked like a typical console RPG--you'd sprint for a little while and then a random battle would interrupt your progress, forcing a transition to a combat screen. Now there's no such transition, as you'll instead see your enemies roving the environment in search of prey (though they'll sometimes materialize to ambush you). This may seem like a minor point, but in practice it helps Lost Kingdoms II's pacing quite a bit and alleviates the sense of tedium that nonstop random encounters often give an RPG.
Other than that, Lost Kingdoms II plays similarly to the original, but with a few notable new features. There are new categories of cards this time around, as well as numerous card combinations that can be unleashed, and Tara also has the ability to power up any card in exchange for double the magic points the card would normally require to cast. The default controls work pretty well. You run Tara around using the left analog stick and control the camera with the right. You can always reset the perspective behind her with the left shoulder button, but the camera movement could have been more responsive overall, so you'll find yourself wrestling with the camera every now and then. As Tara, you're mainly trying to keep yourself out of harm's way and get in close enough to your foes to use your cards and then retreat and regroup--a process that's made tricky by the game's collision detection, which doesn't always look right. The GameCube controller's face buttons are mapped to four out of the up to 30 cards you can bring with you into a level, and pressing the corresponding button uses that card. Cards are dealt randomly, but you can send ones you don't need to the bottom of your deck by pressing and holding the right shoulder button. Lost Kingdoms II's combat system is esoteric, but it's actually pretty easy to pick up.
Different creatures have different elemental affinities, so there's a rock-paper-scissors style of balancing at work here, in which some types of cards are particularly effective against certain types of opponents. A new category of mechanized creatures has been added to the mix, which complicates the standard pantheon of earth/water/wood/fire-based creatures. As in Lost Kingdoms, the main categories of cards include weapon cards, which cause a creature to momentarily materialize above Tara and attack once; independent cards, which conjure up the depicted creature to support Tara and her other minions on the battlefield; and summon cards, which call down particularly powerful and drawn-out attacks. There are also helper cards, which are similar to independents but are more defensive in nature. And there's a new category called transform cards, which cause Tara to take the form of a powerful monster that can be controlled directly.
As you play Lost Kingdoms II, you'll gain more cards from treasure chests, as gifts, and at the end of each level, so soon enough the game becomes quite strategic. You'll have to think carefully about how to best form a balanced deck going into each new level. Why not just use all your most powerful cards every time? Because those require the most magic points for use, and one of the challenges of Lost Kingdoms II is that your supply of these is very limited. Run out, and you start taking damage whenever you use your cards. Magic points are replenished when you collect the gems that spill out after you hit enemies, but having a bigger surplus of magic points would have made the game a little more forgiving.
Not that it's totally punishing. Defeat in Lost Kingdoms II means you have to reattempt the level again, but you don't lose any of the cards you found or experience you gained, so the gameplay doesn't get frustrating because your time isn't being wasted. There are numerous hidden areas to be found in the world of Lost Kingdoms II, and there are plenty of rare cards to be uncovered, plus there's an enhanced version of the two-player versus mode from the first game. You can set the level of both players to balance out the competition, and you can even bet cards on the outcome of the skirmish. Plus, the game has unlockable characters you can play as in the versus mode.
Lost Kingdoms II is a fairly good-looking game whose graphics are a considerable improvement on the original, though the standards of graphical quality have risen over the past year. Tara is well animated and her character model is detailed. The various creatures she can summon and will fight against are sometimes difficult to distinguish in the middle of a tussle, but they're interesting, and they're accompanied by some well-written text descriptions on their cards. Like in Lost Kingdoms, one minor problem in the sequel is that it can be tough to identify the images on the little onscreen cards in the heat of battle, though you'll be able to pick them out after a while.
The audio has been improved more than the visuals. The game's cinematic cutscenes feature capably delivered English voice-overs, and though many of the sound effects of the various creatures are lifted from Lost Kingdoms, they still sound good. More importantly, this sequel has a rather striking yet somehow subdued soundtrack that uses a lot of cellos and other string instruments to effectively establish the mystical atmosphere of the game. It's similar in style to Lost Kingdoms' soundtrack, but it has more variety and therefore is less repetitive. It's a distinctive score that really fits the game.
It's great to see a sequel to Lost Kingdoms II that enhances all the good qualities of the original. Collectible-card games have been all the rage for some time, to the point that numerous video games based on them have surfaced over the years. But Lost Kingdoms II and its predecessor are the only games that have seen fit to take the concept of a video game based on a collectible-card game to its logical conclusion--to actually manifest the card battles in the physical reality of the gameworld. As Tara, you'll take on some of the game's tough enemy card-wielders in some rather intense showdowns that are action-packed, strategic, and challenging. And, thanks to this sequel's seamless integration of its combat and exploration elements, and to the improved graphics and overall production values, Lost Kingdoms II is a solid sequel and a good game that's recommendable to GameCube owners up for a complex challenge.