Wow. Yeah, that’s my executive summary for Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, the new role-playing game from Reflexive Entertainment and Black Isle Studios. But it’s not “Wow, that was good” or “Wow, that was bad.” It’s more “Wow, I wonder what the hell happened there?” You see, Lionheart is an excellent game for about 20 hours, with open-ended gameplay, a good balance between combat and quests, and an opportunity for real role-playing. But then the next 20 hours feature a long linear march of boring, repetitive and slow combat, culminating in one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen. To say Lionheart goes astray is to put it mildly.
And that’s just so disappointing. It would have been disappointing anyway, just because Lionheart starts off so well, but the game also uses the SPECIAL character development system from the Fallout games. SPECIAL is an acronym for the attributes used to define characters -- Strength, Perception, Endurance, and so forth -- but most people probably remember it for the series of perks, traits and skills it involves, plus the intricate quests and conversations it can support. If you’ve ever wanted to role-play your character rather than just kill things with it, then the SPECIAL games (and even pseudo-SPECIAL games like Arcanum) have been great.
What’s more, Lionheart has an excellent premise. It takes place in an alternative version of medieval Europe, where magic, spirits and demons have been allowed into the world through a mistake made by Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade. Now, about 400 years after the so-called Disjunction, you play a distant relative of Richard (thus the title of the game), and starting out in a slave pen you have to work your way up in power, and eventually figure out who’s stealing ancient religious relics, and why.
You might worry that the game is only fun if you know a lot about medieval Europe, but Reflexive Entertainment did a nice job with the environment. They stuck to people and places you’re likely to have heard of. For example, at one point you get to go on a quest for William Shakespeare, who’s having some problems with a merchant named Shylocke. At other times you get to talk to Leonardo DaVinci and Galileo, and even add the author Cervantes to your party for a brief period of time.
Better, Reflexive Entertainment took the premise and the SPECIAL system, and seemed to know what to do with them. You start out the game in Barcelona, and while there are some typical side quests to get you going, you also have to make some choices. Should you join the Knights Templar, the Inquisition, or the Wielders? Should you help the thieves or beggars in their local feud? Should you take sides with England or Spain in what looks like an upcoming war? Choices are always good, and, coupled with all the options the SPECIAL system gives for character development, Lionheart has all sorts of possibilities for re-playability. After playing for a while as a fighter character (who joined the Knights and helped the thieves), I was all excited about playing again as a magic user.
That is, I was all excited until about the 20-hour mark, when Lionheart started going downhill in a hurry. After 30 hours, I just wanted the game to end so I could move on to something else. The metamorphosis is just strange. You’d think a developer who decides to use the SPECIAL system and then demonstrates they know how to use it, would continue to use it. But instead, from about the 20-hour mark on, Lionheart turns into a linear, combat-heavy bore.
I guess with the success of Diablo II, you can’t blame a developer for wanting to cash in a little on the action role-playing genre, especially when that genre works so well in multiplayer and the more traditional role-playing genre doesn’t. (For example, the Infinity Engine games are pretty bad in multiplayer.) The problem is that Lionheart just doesn’t have the makings of a good action role-playing game. Characters don’t have enough to do in combat (combat skills are limited to evasion and weapon proficiencies), the equipment is boring, the healing rate is too slow (and healing spells and potions aren’t powerful enough), and the combat is too difficult. Lionheart forces you move slowly, use hit and run tactics, and constantly lure enemies to you one or two at a time. Those sorts of things are fine for a more tactical game, but in an action game you need to be able to wade in there and kill stuff. At one point I found myself in a desert with about 50 scorpions, and I had to kill a couple scorpions, spend a couple minutes healing, and then repeat. That got a little bit boring by the end, especially since there wasn’t a scorpion boss or anything to break up the monotony. Now imagine about 15-20 hours of that desert, and you have the second half of the game.
Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that the first half of the game is perfect. If you’re looking for a Fallout-style game (other than the Fallout games themselves), then Arcanum and Planescape: Torment are still your best bets. Many parts of Lionheart have their ups and downs. For example, the interface has one of the nicest quest logs I’ve ever seen, but then it doesn’t give you enough quick item slots, and it doesn’t allow you to annotate maps. The game allows you to have companions (and they can be famous people like Cervantes and Joan of Arc), but then the companions are amazingly wimpy. This isn’t a game like Neverwinter Nights where you might choose a companion to support your character. Companions in Lionheart don’t have skills (I think), don’t gain levels (I think), don’t have equipment (I think), and can’t be given any sort of battle orders (I think). I say “I think” a lot in that sentence because Lionheart also doesn’t have an especially good manual. It’s useful as a reference for skills and spells and perks, but it’s a little negligent about how the game actually works.
And so, overall, Lionheart doesn’t end up being a very good game. But -- and I say this with all the hope I can muster -- it’s a promising game. I think the reviews are going to be consistent, that the game starts well and then goes badly, and so hopefully Reflexive Entertainment can learn from this effort and then make something truly outstanding next time out. But for Lionheart itself, I’d avoid it until the price comes down.