Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 002: Lands of Lore III

It’s nice to know that after being pleasantly surprised by Rise of the Argonauts’ mid-budget competence, this feature has already started to live up to its name. I might as well set out a couple more “ground rules” for the wheel while I’m here, because shoving more restrictions on myself is fun!

  1. I am obligated to play any game picked by the wheel for at least two streaming sessions. Thus far, this has leveled out at about four hours, which I feel like is a… mostly fine metric for evaluating these sorts of games? Most RPGs that aren’t Final Fantasy XIII tend to reveal their general mechanics and overall “hand” by then, but if I feel like I need to play more, or the audience demands it, I’ll play more. I certainly wouldn’t want someone to judge an all-time classic like Baldur’s Gate II from its opening hours.
  2. That said, if a game I’ve already played is picked on the wheel, I’m allowed to respin. This should hopefully be more of an emergency measure than anything, but if I find a game particularly dull or… troublesome, I reserve the right to pass over it.
  3. I’m pretty happy with my current wheel roster of “things I already own” but if you have any suggestions for the dubious RPGs in your life, I’d love to hear them. Generally trying to stick to western and PC stuff right now, but I’ve already floated the idea of playing something like Lost Kingdoms so console stuff and JRPGs are definitely not off the table.

That should do it. But before we jump into this week’s game, I feel like it might be worth giving

Some Brief Context

This is what the first Lands of Lore looks like. Tile-based, with a lot of bright, colorful sprite work
This is what the first Lands of Lore looks like. Tile-based, with a lot of bright, colorful sprite work

I’d be willing to make the case that Westwood was one of the most versatile developers of the 1990s, between their work on the first two seminal Eye of the Beholder RPGs, more-or-less creating the RTS genre as we know it with Dune II and Command and Conquer, dabbling in a trilogy of lighthearted fantasy point-and-click adventures with Legend of Kyrandia, and even making their own take on Diablo with Nox (coincidentally, also on the wheel.) Even if everything they’ve done hasn’t aged entirely well, their output was varied and interesting enough that they deserve to be known as more than just “The Command and Conquer people.”

...and this is what the second one looks like. I'm like 75% sure the actor playing the protagonist is C&C's Kane
...and this is what the second one looks like. I'm like 75% sure the actor playing the protagonist is C&C's Kane

We’re not going to talk about any of those today, we’re going to talk about their resident first-person RPG series, Lands of Lore, which was more or less their successor to Eye of the Beholder after parting with the D&D license. The first game in the series, Throne of Chaos, is a colorful, charming “side-stepping rock-dropping puzzle-em-up” RPG in the same vein as EotB, Dungeon Master, and Legend of Grimrock with a heavier bent on presentation and storytelling than you’d normally expect from something in that company. For one, they dragged Patrick Stewart off the set of Star Trek and gave him a giant check to deliver like 10 lines as King Richard Gladstone, who of course is then summarily poisoned after the introduction and no longer capable of talking. (13 years before he did the same for Oblivion, no less!) While I think anyone with a vague interest in these sorts of games would be better served playing Grimrock, its sequel, or Vaporum, the first Lands of Lore deserves mention as one of the more playable games of that type, from that era.

I might end up doing a stream of it, if only because it seems like the series went off in an, uh, interesting direction after the first installment. The second game, Guardians of Destiny, is actually the one that precipitated the move to a single character and fully 3D environments, but I’ve still heard marginally positive things about its branching storyline and goofy characters. Also it includes FMV actors, so it must be pretty “good” on that front as well. That said… there definitely seem to be a lot of similarities between it and our current game, so never say never.

Lands of Lore III

Nothing says
Nothing says "troubled third installment" like "Our Cover Art is a Demon Dog Face"

Release Date: March 3rd, 1999 (PC)

Developer: Westwood Studios (RIP)

Time Played: About 4 hours (stream archive here, for now)

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5 (an extra point for being a pain in the ass to get running in a window, then another hour of tweaking to play well with my current less-than-optimal streaming setup.)

Number of GameFAQs guides: Just one! That's as many guides as there are for Rise of the Argonauts!

Would I play more? Yeah, probably? But what if I just played the first game or Eye of the Beholder instead?

Lands of Lore III is considered the “bad” one in the series, having been rushed out the door a little too early to tepid response. While I have yet to encounter any major game-breaking bugs, it definitely seems like that’s the reputation it’s known for among genre enthusiasts and there were definitely a couple of things that seemed slightly broken. Coming to it fresh, especially having not played more than a few minutes of the second game, it’s a strange beast for an RPG. I’ve always considered Might and Magic to be on the faster, more streamlined (and, I might argue, better-aged) edge of 90s CRPG design, but I think Lands of Lore might have it beat. You control one character in Lands of Lore III, who levels up simultaneously in up to 4 different classes mostly just by using the abilities tied to them (hit things with swords to level up fighter, magic to level up mage, ranged attacks to level up thief, and heal yourself and craft items to level up priest.) The biggest RPG management aspect comes from the worst kind of management: Inventory management. To its credit, it seems like every item in Lands of Lore III has some kind of use, and I could see that stuff having a lot more appeal later in the game, but during my playtime I was mostly just in need of healing items during the brief occasions I wasn’t melting everything I ran into with a couple of sword swings.

You guise like colored lighting?
You guise like colored lighting?

The actual source of my consternation with this game comes from level design, a recurring bugbear for me with a lot of these things. It’s hard to explain, but I think Lands of Lore secretly wants to be more of an action game than it is. The first hour of my time was spent stumbling around the small castle town of Gladstone and surrounding woods, doing the initial quests for the 4 guilds and occasionally struggling with both the controls and the terrible map. While you can see the roots of the hidden secrets one would expect from the classic dungeon crawlers of yore, more often than not I was surprised by how the two dungeons I encountered were either depressingly straightforward (like a FPS level) or weirdly, confusingly labyrinthine (like a 90s FPS level.) There just doesn’t seem to be a great coherent structure to the whole thing, and I think if the map was better the problems of navigation would be mostly solved and it would just be a weirdly linear series of dungeons with a city hub tying it together. As it is now, I haven’t run into anything I’d call distinctive or interesting with the way the game has structured itself, outside of making me decide to quit after getting sick of a particularly confusing lava dungeon sequence.

Another source of dubiosity comes from replacing some of the more charming, tongue-in-cheek writing of the earlier games with a bad case of 90s snark. Coppert LeGré, the presumptive hero of our story, is a protagonist of the “intolerable” variety and his constant quippiness and sarcasm suggest losing his soul to demon hounds from between dimensions was the least of his problems. Now he has to venture between realms to collect shards of a magical mirror keeping things together and hopefully find that soul along the way. There’s definitely an appeal to having a protagonist who’s kind of a shithead (not to mention having a familiar who also makes weird quips) but I’m not entirely sure it’s the same kind of appeal the developers were intending.

Now, my general feelings towards Lands of Lore III are that it’s “unspectacular” and hampered by frustrating design choices rather than outright bad, at least from the 4 hours I played. That said, there’s one thing that has me seriously considering playing more, should the wheel pick it again, and it’s apparently that the game gets weird in some of the later areas. While I stopped in the first of five realms, aka: “obligatory lava level” I’m to understand things get more interesting later on. Apparently you go to a realm that’s just an abandoned Brotherhood of NOD base? That sounds bananas in a way I can get behind.

Just a reminder that you can follow my bad choices and find stream archives on my Twitch page, should you desire to watch my experiences firsthand. I'm thinking about putting edited-down versions on youtube somewhere, but I haven't quite figured the specifics of what I want to do yet.

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