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Retro Analysis – Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos

Retro Analysis – Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos

A dungeon-delving classic comes up on its 25th birthday.

A video version of this Lands of Lore retrospective is available on the 2 Headed Hero YouTube channel. Please subscribe to the channel for more Backlog Quest episodes! Read on for the edited text version.

HEYYYY KIIIIDS! Do ya like dungeon crawlers? Do ya like DOS games? Are you an old geezer like me that even knows what DOS is? Do ya like Patrick Stewart reading long passages of text? Then you’ll love diving deep into the Lands of Lore!

Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos is the first in a series of role playing dungeon crawlers created by Westwood Studios in the 1990s. Featuring a smoother version of the grid-based first person movement seen in other contemporary titles such as Wizardry, Dungeon Master, or Eye of the Beholder, Lands of Lore finds its niche as a more streamlined and accessible alternative to its contemporaries. Newer party based RPGs with a similar step-movement mechanic such as the Legend of Grimrock series and Might and Magic X have seen recent release in an attempt to revive the genre.

The game was released in September of 1993, two months before id’s masterpiece Doom took the PC gaming world by storm, but Lands of Lore still has quite beautiful pixel art and effects for a game of its time. Real time combat, classless progression systems, light point-and-click adventure elements, a surprisingly good soundtrack, and detailed character animations all help to round out this fascinating relic from forgotten PC gaming history.


WHAT IT DOES RIGHT


Lands of Lore is a classic example of a game that has polish in the right places – the small details matter more here. The gorgeous environments and detailed tilesets are welcoming, and the game encourages exploration by placing items in nooks and crannies, chests in dangerous places, and even entire shops and characters in out of the way locations. It’s possible to finish the game while missing a playable character completely, and while the included manual is fairly extensive as to what enemies and allies you’ll encounter, there is no shortage of surprises at the appearance of unannounced foes throughout the lands.

Being able to choose from four champions from the outset does provide a decent amount of replayability for the early game, and all four can be adapted to the player’s preferred style due to the simple classless advancement system. Succeeding in an action, whether it’s landing an attack, casting a spell, or picking a lock, raises the appropriate skill level.

Several quality of life additions also make Lands of Lore stand out from its contemporaries: the Magic Atlas automatically maps your movements and even fills in points of interest like buttons, shops, and characters. Many weapons can be thrown by dropping them in the top half of the viewscreen, and a ton of consumable and usable items with special effects help mix up combat.
The spell system in particular is pretty fun – each spell has four levels of power, and each power level has its own unique screen filling effect, providing some further depth to to battles.

The combat and environments are filled with challenging enemies and deadly traps, requiring a level of skill as you two-step and kite the various monsters of the lands. Many monsters can throw projectiles, dissolve armor, poison your heroes, or even disarm your equipped items, but clever players with quick reflexes can find ways to use the game’s traps and corridors to their advantage.
Further adding a dash of cerebral challenge are simple adventure game elements. These serve to break up the combat and dungeon crawling, ranging from button puzzles to unique point-and-click style screens, and there are even a healthy amount of clever environmental puzzles and unique enemies that require a particular spell or item to progress.

The point and click style adventure segments provide a welcome respite from the down and dirty dungeoneering, and pixel hunting these unique screens often bears fruit in the form of expositional dialog or even hidden offers from merchants. In typical point-and-click adventure game style, your hero will also often comment on environmental details when clicking the view screen – this did wonders for my sense of immersion both as a child, and during my recent playthrough.

The animated character portraits provide a significant amount of dialog, and will often provide hints and feedback to the various puzzles and environments in the game. While the plot itself basically boils down to “find the thing and then save the king”, this special touch gave Lands of Lore a hearty amount of charm and highlighted some playful writing. Many of the characters throughout Lands of Lore are a welcome side of comic relief, even if they lack depth on the whole. One of my personal favorites is the four-armed, well-spoken behemoth Baccata – a mage’s apprentice that joins your quest early on and quickly becomes a powerhouse fighter that effortlessly out damages your other party members. Baccata’s jabs and bon mots elicited a gleeful chuckle from me over my time in the Lands, and many other supporting characters added to the campy joy and tongue-in-cheek charm.


WHERE IT FALLS SHORT



Two versions of Lands of Lore were released: a 3.5” floppy version, and an enhanced CD ROM version, and unfortunately the initial release of the game was hampered by bugs. A hard coded error in the floppy version both removed a vital item for progression, and increased the enemy spawn rate in some areas to impossible levels – making the game impossible to complete. The CD ROM version does address that bug, but some other minor bugs are overlooked, such as character portraits occasionally freezing during speech delivery.

Although stylish in appearance, there are a few issues with the user interface. Rather than being a dedicated separate screen, the inventory is a long scrolling bar at the bottom of the user interface- a pain to organize and a problem during combat when you’re frantically scrolling through items for a potion or combat consumable.

A somewhat minor annoyance is the fact that playable characters can leave your party during the story with no forewarning – meaning that any equipped items they carry are lost forever. Fortunately a robust save system helps mitigate this, but with no auto save feature, first time players are sometimes forced to choose between proceeding forward with less gear or replaying entire sections.

Lands of Lore does feature selectable difficulty levels that can be changed on the fly, but the difficulty levels seem to affect only the health of the monsters rather than their damage output. The end result is that the easiest difficulty, Wimpy, can actually be harder than playing the game on Normal. On Wimpy, the first couple chapters of the game are a breeze, with your heroes often destroying foes in a single strike. Once you get past the first major dungeon in the game, however, the difficulty spikes considerably since your characters are vastly under-leveled.

The CD version does have full voice acting for almost every line of dialog in the game, which was quite impressive for the time. The quality is overall consistent in the recordings, despite a low amount of hiss, but this issue can be masked by the superb soundtrack and is easily overlooked. The game prominently features Patrick Stewart as the voice of King Richard, and boy did they get their money’s worth – Stewart’s voice narrates many of the early books as well as the “Lore of the Lands” cutscene available at the game’s start menu.  In contrast, much of the other voice acting in the game ranges from middling, to mediocre, to simply laughable.

Finally, Lands of Lore is a beast to get running properly on modern systems. I did what I could to tweak DOSBOX settings, tried every option I could think of, plowed through mountains of forums, but the best I could get for full-screen gameplay was an offset and widened image rather than the proper 4:3 ratio. Playing in a window was also possible but still less than ideal. No real solution fixed this completely, but the offset full-screen was how I chose to complete this most recent playthrough of the game.


VERDICT


Despite the game showing its age and its many small issues, Lands of Lore immediately sucked me back into its world of wonder with its simple charm, fair amount of challenge, silly writing, and endearing characters. Even with the understanding that the warm lens of nostalgia can filter out a beloved game’s flaws, I still stand behind the game as a great and engaging introduction to the RPG genre for players that want to experience exploratory retro dungeon crawling without much worry about stat handling and character building. Overall, I give Lands of Lore a wholehearted nod of my noodle.

 


Bawss Sawss, sauce aficionado, gamer, writer, music performer/composer, and one head of the 2 Headed Hero, can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
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Bawss Sawss: Mediocre Gamer, Writer, Sauce Aficionado, Hobby Chef, Musician, and All-Around Renaissance Man

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