Warriors of the Lost Empire - Review
Warriors of the Lost Empire is an incredibly unique, and unusual, action-rpg for the PSP. On one hand, you have the unique setting of Hadrian's Roman Empire, and on the other you have intricate and unique gameplay mechanics. I will do my best to detail as much of the game as possible, from the alternate history portrayed in the game, to the games flow, and main gameplay features.
Taking place in the year 165 AD, Warriors of the Lost Empire (WotLE) tells a fictional story involving the real life individuals Hadrianus, a Roman Emperor who actually ruled from the years 117 to 138 AD, and his beloved Antinous. The setting for WotLE is the famous city Antinopolis, a place where the players chracter sets out as a mercenary for hire. Charged with the task of discovering why the city has become infested with monsters, thieves, and the undead, as well as what happened to Hadrianus and Antinous, the player will discover that very little ties the games events to actual recorded history. According to real history, Antinous drowned in the Nile River in 130 AD, whereas in the game's intro, it is simply stated that he disappeared. Also, Antinopolis was a thriving city that lasted for centuries - not the run-down, monster-infested, rathole portrayed by the game. All historical nuances aside, WotLE is actually quite sparse in it's narrative, saving most of it's story for the intro and latter portions of the game.
Production values for the game are a mixed bunch. Some of the music was composed by Yuzo Koshiro of Ys, ActRaiser, and Etrian Odyssey fame, and illustrations and portrait were provided by Masaki Hirooka, who did the amazing artwork for Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. The 3D character models are very detailed, showcasing several different armor types for each character, as well as displaying all your unique weapons and shields you may be wielding. Environments, on the other hand, are quite sterile. Dark, dank, muddy, and full of fog is the best way to describe them. In small rooms, the fog is not much of a problem, but once you go into larger spaces, the fog is a nuisance. You have to constantly check your map to see where you are going in the large rooms, which is unfortunate considering the complexity of environments in other games, like Monster Hunter, that don't have the same issues. Texture quality is an issue as well, as most areas are brown colored tombs and mausolea. The variety does pick up later in the game, but the environments could have used more work. However, where the environment loses out in complexity, the framerate gains. This game runs at a solid 30fps, even when you are surrounded by enemies and traps, so the action remains constant.
The game flow of WotLE is a very simple affair. You start off by selecting a character from four classes - the Gladiator, the Dark Seeker, the Amazon, and the Highlander - and give yourself a name. Each character has a unique set of skills, unfortunately none of which are disclosed until the game has started. Moving on, a unique cut scene plays depending upon which character you chose, and you appear in the middle of town. You speak to the female captain, Aldora, who briefs you on your mission. You leave town and enter the first dungeon, which is masked as the tutorial. Afterwards you are returned to town and the game world opens. You can return to the tutorial if you wish, just the same as any other area you have completed, to gain more items, weapons, or experience, and to prepare yourself for the next area. That's it. However, it's the gameplay in between that's deep.
Players have a lot of combat options, just as varied as the equipment at their disposal. Main combat utilizes all available buttons, with R assigned to blocking (which also auto-centers the camera behind your back), throwing special items, Square and Trianle are set for light and heavy attacks, which can be charged if held down. The X button is used for jumping, the d-pad for camera controls and selecting items on your belt, the analog stick for movement, and O for picking up items or manipulating the environment. The controls are never a problem once you get used to them, especially all the toggle keys, like pressing R+O to utilize your secondary weapon, R+▲ to use items, R+X to crouch or dodge, R+■ to throw items, and L+any face button to activate skills. Once you've figured it all out, it's time to make sense of all your menus, skills, and stats. The menu is very similar to something out of a PC game, like Diablo, utilizing tabs for each inventory section. However, most of these can only be accessed in town through your treasure chest, so be careful. The game wants you to be prepared before you enter the dungeons, as you are unable to pause, change skills, or distribute stat points while you are in there. The first tab of the menu is your personal page, consisting of several pages. The first page shows your stats, like HP, MP, carrying capacity, attack strength, defense, level and exp, and ability points remaining. What's interesting about this game, is that your ability points, the ones you gain from leveling up, are not permanent in their placement. If you find something is no longer effective, you can reallocate as many times as you like. Very useful. The second page shows and details your currently equipped skills. Interestingly, in WotLE, you don't gain skills when you level up - you gain them as you progress through the dugeons, gaining one for each one you complete. Afterwards, they gain experience and levels through usage, increasing their effectiveness, as well as their MP usage. However, MP does automatically recharge in this game, so it's never a problem. The second tab details you equipment, the third for you belt slots, the fourth giving greater detail on all the items you are carrying and their respective weight, the fifth for special documents giving story details, and the sixth for options. Saving your progress in this game can only be done at your treasure chest in town, and to quit a game you have to press L+R+select+start.
Now, that's one half of the game's nuts and bolts, so let's talk about the other half, equipment strengthening. One of the most interesting things about this game, is that you have the potential of taking the most basic of weapons and armor, and crafting it into something extraordinary. You could defeat all the game throws at you with the default weapon and armor, but only if you understand the system. Of course all weapons do have base stats, some much higher than others (and cooler looking), so you will want to switch to eventually. Some weapons even give you a reach advantage. However, describing the entirety of this system is far too complicated and has no place in a review, so I'll be as brief as possible. Every piece of equipment has a triangle grid attached to it, once corner is red, one yellow, one blue. It can have a value of 0-20, and can have an attribute associated with it. A HP/MP bonus, MP regeneration boost, critical damage or chance boosts, attack boosts, etc. The numerical value associated to each corner is the crux of the whole system, allowing you to improve or diminish the attribute tied to it. You can merge weapons and shields together to adjust the numbers, or use colored ores to fine tune them. It's a fascinating system for creating high-powered equipment, and it is also where most of your playtime will be spent. Also, depending on the character you choose, you can equip between 3-4 armaments, and even the secondary ones that are not currently in use grant you the bonuses on the equipment. However, players who are unable to grasp the system will unfortunately be unable to complete the game, as enemy stats grow rapidly, and can kill underpowered characters in a few hits.
Of interest as well is the drop system. This game uses a very simple system of having enemies drop what you visually see them attacking with. The developers knew that most of your time would be spent grinding your weapons and decided to make it less of a chore to get the unique armaments that enemies carry. Enemies have an incredibly high chance to drop their equipment, so you are bound to get what you want during the normal course of the game. Also, the armor that your character wears is an incredibly unique piece. You only get three pieces of armor during the course of the game (light, medium, and heavy), one of which you start off with. If at any time you make a mistake in crafting your armor (it doesn't matter which set), you can discard it and get a blank one, free of charge, from the captain. You can never be without armor, so the game will always have an infinite supply of them.
And that's about it for WotLE. I can recommend this game to those who are up to the challenge of forging mighty equipment, don't mind grinding for the armaments and items needed for forging, and perhaps has a friend with another copy who is willing to play co-op. As for myself, I enjoyed my stay with this game, as it took me just under 50 hours to fully complete it with one of the four characters. Getting the best equipment and improving it is what kept me coming back. All in all, the main game itself is relatively short, as most dungeons can be completed in a few minutes, but it is the desire to improve and acquire equipment that fuels replayability, not unlike other games such as Phantasy Star Online. It won't last as long as PSO, but it's fun while it lasts.