Reviewed: September 8, 2003
Released: August 12, 2003
Black Isle Studios has been a shining beacon in the role-playing universe over the past few years, the tip of the spear in an RPG revival with a string of critically acclaimed, award-winning titles to their credit: the revered Baldur's Gate series, its distant cousin the Icewind Dale series, and the post-nuclear classic Fallout series.
Their latest offering, Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, drifts into murky waters and threatens to lay waste to an otherwise spotless track record. Lionheart lacks the direction and focus of the previous titles that put Black Isle on the map.
I have always been an RPG fanatic. For the better part of my teenage years I could cite the most obscure optional rule from the second edition AD&D player's handbook off the top of my head. I played Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale until night became day and my eyes were bloodshot. So when I learned that Black Isle's latest would grace my desktop, I was excited.
Perhaps my expectations were too high. Where Baldur's Gate triumphed with its engaging gameplay and dynamics, Lionheart sputters and never finds its footing. It's a mixed bag, a hit-and-miss, schizophrenic game without a proper clinic in sight.
It's not all bad. There's a robust character creation engine, featuring the SPECIAL system. The voice acting is excellent. And the story, if a little clichéd, is intriguing and well developed.
During the Third Crusade, an advisor of Richard the Lionheart urged him to gather several holy artifacts for a ritual, a blessing to defeat their Muslim enemy. The combined power of the relics, and the blood sacrifice of 3,000 Muslims, ripped open a gate to other worlds. The catastrophic event, dubbed the Disjunction, warped reality and unleashed countless foul monsters upon the world, and, of course, magic.
Terrified of the unnatural state of their world, and seeking protection, the powerful and meek alike turn to the Inquisition. The organization declares magic use of any kind to be heresy - even magic used to the sole benefit of the populace. The grand hypocrisy, of course, is that the corrupt Inquisition uses magic with impunity to capture, imprison and torture anyone they brand a heretic.
Peppered with real historical characters and references - though slightly disjointed and skewed to better suit the alternate reality theme - it's an interesting, fresh backdrop, and one of Lionheart's few bright points. But the rich story is fast thrown on the trash heap in favor of a tedious dungeon hack.
You start in Barcelona, a slave on the run from the Inquisition and mysterious assassins. You are a blood-descendant of Richard the Lionheart, Scion of Lionheart, and possessed of an elemental spirit (who occasionally pulls double-duty as guide and confidant).
You can play as one of four races: Purebloods, standard issue humans with untainted bloodlines; Demokins, who have a slight taint of fiendish spirits; Feralkins, who are tainted by bestial spirits and largely shunned by the populace; and Sylvants, who have an affinity for magic and a heightened ability to wield it.
As a central setting, Barcelona is very much like Athkatla in Baldur's Gate; a sprawling city split into several districts. But Barcelona lacks the vitality and energy of Athkatla. The city fails to instill the sense that every seasoned shopkeeper or shady thief has a tale to spin - or a knife to put in your back. The city is somehow barren, empty, devoid of the spark that made Athkatla spring to life.
The Lionheart manual expends nearly a dozen pages detailing recent events, setting the stage with an intricate, multi-layered story with subplots and intrigue spanning several centuries. They would have been better served sparing a few hundred trees and providing you with three simple words instead: it's smashin' time.
As soon as you leave the relative security of Barcelona, you are mercilessly assaulted at every turn. Combat dissolves into an unforgiving pattern of smashing skulls and guzzling potions like a beer hall champion. And this is precisely where Lionheart's identity crisis comes into play. Is it a measured, thoughtful RPG? Or is it a Diablo clone, abandoning story in favor of action? Lionheart fails to mesh the two, despite flashes of potential. Somewhere around the time you throttle your 100th monster and choke down another potion, you may ask yourself "is this it?"
Lionheart uses the SPECIAL system to define your character: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. It's a wide-open, flexible system lets you assume direct control over what your character is and isn't good at. In addition, Lionheart offers a tremendous assortment of skills (combat and thieving), traits and racial traits, spell trees and perks to enhance your character. It's an innovative, extensive list and lets you put a unique stamp on your character.
Traits are the most intriguing, and completely optional. There are just over a dozen traits in the game, but you have to be willing to give in order to take. The fast metabolism trait, for example, allows you to heal at twice the normal rate. However, you also suffer the effects of poison and disease at twice the rate - a clever twist indeed.
Unfortunately, the game has a near obsessive focus on battle, and you will have little choice but to mete out the bulk of your allotted skill points on combat-oriented perks and traits. Trying to make your way as a stealthy rogue or a calculating mage is a daunting, if not impossible task. Brute force is all but required to cut a swath through the hordes of enemies Lionheart throws your way.
The interface is ungainly, glutted with endless icons, boxes and options. Worse, it suffocates the bottom third of your screen like a fat man crowding a pair of speedos. That's a lot of real estate for a game with archaic, grainy visuals. You can hide it with the F2 key, but you will need to recall it on a regular basis to refer to the dialogue and combat feedback.
The quests are above average. There are plenty that fall firmly under the mundane "steppinfetchit" brand of item retrieval - only with plenty of gory head smashing thrown in for good measure. Still, I got a kick out of interacting and assisting real historical characters, like Galileo and Machiavelli. Your character has a tangible impact on the world and people around him, and can even change the course of alternate history. The quests can be approached from a variety of angles, much like Baldur's Gate, and afford you the opportunity for righteousness or villainy.
You will also be able to align yourself with one of the major factions, or power groups, in the game. In addition to the all-powerful Inquisition, you will rub elbows and butt heads with the honorable Knights of Templar, descendants of the original knights who served Lionheart; the Order of Saladin, Muslim knights who welcome the use of magic; and the shadowy Wielders, who seek to use their magic for the good of mankind, and sworn enemy of the Inquisition.
Your alliances will create interesting role-playing opportunities, which seem all too rare in a game that consistently trades in the pen for the sword.
Perhaps the medieval theme was stretched too far - Lionheart's visuals are trapped in the dark ages as well. Developer Reflexive Entertainment used the Velocity Engine to render the backgrounds and convert 3D models. This is supposed to be an improvement over BioWare's antiquated Infinity Engine, which powered the aforementioned RPG titles to glory. To my eye, they might as well be one and the same. In 2000, the Infinity Engine behind Baldur's Gate was considered worn. Fully three years removed from that time, Lionheart's visuals are overly simplistic and outdated.
The models are respectable, but many times I found myself reflexively scrolling the mouse wheel, hoping to zoom in on the action. You'll find yourself squinting at the screen an awful lot, trying to get a better look at your character and your environment. Characters sometimes seem like little more than unrefined scribbles.
Animations are raw and unpolished. I can only imagine the animations came to life using crude marionettes or papier-mâché puppets. Every animation looks like it's missing several frames. The result is stilted and awkward; characters "jerk" rather than run from one point to another.
I have no problem with the isometric perspective. In fact, I even have a misty-eyed reverence for it. But I cannot tolerate a fixed resolution of 800x600. Not in an era when 256 megabyte video cards are on the market. I would at least like to have the option to turn it up.
Lionheart's sound manages to maintain the Black Isle standard. While combat sounds are a little dry and dull, they are easily outdistanced by the stellar voice acting and music. Composed by Inon Zur, the music is not quite on par with Jeremy Soule's Icewind Dale score, but it will keep the action rolling along and evoke appropriate moods and tones.
Spell effects are also convincing. You will hear the crackle of energy and searing sting of fire with clarity and precision - at least I think that's how a fireball would sound. Ambient effects are lackluster and a little hollow. A few more well placed loops would have gone a long way to give the impression that Barcelona was more densely populated and bustling with life.
The voice acting is the highlight, though - my pitch-perfect ears detected several familiar voices from Black Isle's previous hits. It works wonders, adding depth and character and even occasional whoops of laughter. The sole exception is the smarmy narrator, who would sound perfectly at ease hawking watches to European jet-trash in airports across the continent.
If you trudge through every sub-quest, explore the game allied with all four factions, and do a hard-target search of every residence, farmhouse, henhouse, doghouse and outhouse...beg your pardon. I have "The Fugitive" on in the background. It is conceivable that Lionheart will eat up 40 hours of your time.
The multiplayer mode seems like an afterthought and feels tacked on. The few servers available were laggy and barren, a veritable ghost town online.
At $39.99, Lionheart is priced a cut below most games, but then, it is a cut below most games. Your money would be better spent on any other game in Black Isle's outstanding catalogue. If you already own all the games in said catalogue and your money is burning a hole in your pocket, buy your mother some flowers. She'd appreciate it. She really would.
Many games fail to deliver a coherent story, but shine in the gameplay department. Lionheart gets it in reverse. Reflexive delivers a concrete, polished story that serves as little more than a platform to bash, crack, wallop, belt, cripple and maim everything in sight.
You would think that any game that lets you resurrect William Shakespeare with a necromantic spell and use him as your personal instrument of killing would have more going for it. Something is rotten, indeed.