Generally speaking, the first wave of RPGs on any new console isn't very good. Given the lengthy development cycle required to make a good Role-Playing Game, along with the fact that developers don't get their development kits early enough to have a detailed RPG ready by launch, the first games released for any system are rush jobs that fail to live up to fans' expectations. One need look no further than the PS2 launch for proof of this-it took roughly a year before the first good RPGs (Final Fantasy X and Shadowhearts) debuted. In the meantime, gamers were treated to inspiring titles like Summoner and Ephemeral Fantasia.
So it was with a fair degree of trepidation that I purchased Lost Kingdoms for the GameCube last week. At best, I figured, I'd have a mediocre game so we could finally set up a GameCube RPG section on the site. Needless to say, I didn't expect much from the game going in-which is what makes Lost Kingdoms such a pleasant surprise for me.
Instead of going for a traditional RPG, From Software decided to make an action-oriented Role-Playing game that combines elements from the traditional action RPG with the collecting elements of Pokemon. Add in some Magic: The Gathering-styled card battles, and you wind up with one of the more intriguing games to come along in recent memory. While Lost Kingdoms certainly does have some rough edges (which we'll get to in a bit), the game itself is much better than the average first generation RPGs on other consoles.
There's a story here somewhere…
In Lost Kingdoms, you take the role of Princess Katia, heir to the throne of Alanjeh. When Katia awakens one morning to find that the land is slowly being enveloped in a monster-spewing black fog, she must set out to save the land by gathering five mystical runestones and combining their power to defeat whatever evil is behind the dark mist slowly sweeping the land.
Katia won't be alone, though. As her quest begins, she meets Gurd, a cantankerous old woman who teaches her how to use the simple deck of cards she found in the castle. These are no ordinary cards-at least not in the hands of someone who possesses a runestone. No, these cards are magical, containing creatures that can be summoned forth and used to aid Katia in battle. Mastering the 105 different cards and finding as many as possible to assist Katia in her quest is the only way to defeat the evil plaguing Alanjeh and beyond.
As you can see, Lost Kingdoms doesn't offer up much in the way of narrative thrust. The story told is a simple one, comprised of a miniscule number of characters and relatively few locations. Yet, while the tale told isn't exactly grand in its presentation of narrative implications, it is serviceable and manages to keep the player interested as events unfold.
The downside here is that a lot of the writing leaves more than a bit to be desired. The translation suffers from numerous grammatical errors that occasionally makes it far more difficult than it should be to make sense of what's being said. Since the game is so linear in its execution, the poor translation never causes the player to become stuck or unsure where to head next, but it does reflect rather poorly on the developers, who clearly only gave this game the most cursory proofreading job.
Luckily for Lost Kingdoms, the problems with the thin story and poor translation are made all but meaningless by the highly polished gameplay.
At its core, Lost Kingdoms is a hybrid of several different styles of RPG. All the elements of the traditional action RPG are present and accounted for, but mixed in are touches of the Pokemon games (with their 'gotta catch 'em all!' motif) and the card battle stylings of games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering. What's most impressive is how Lost Kingdoms manages to take all of these disparate elements and mix them into a cohesive whole. The game works because the elements meld perfectly.
Playing Lost Kingdoms is a relatively simple and largely intuitive affair. The player takes control of Katia and guides her through a series of stages. Each stage has a task that must be accomplished in order to complete it-and doing so will allow you to return to the world map and advance the plotline.
Before entering each area, the player will form a deck. Each deck is comprised of 30 creature cards. Each creature falls into one of three classes: summoned monster, which is a monster that is called forth to do one massive attack; weapon, which is a smaller creature that does several attacks in place of Katia; and independent-which is essentially an ally that will fight alongside the princess in battle. Having the proper mixture of cards is vital-choosing a poorly balanced deck can make the game far more difficult than it has to be.
Aside from having types, each card is also of a specific element-fire, water, earth, wood, and neutral. Each has an element that it's stronger than as well as one that it's weak against. Gauging what kind of enemies will be in an area, and making a deck with attributes that are strong against the enemies, is the key to succeeding.
When the player's made his deck, he can then enter one of the game's stages. Inside the stage, Katia will run around looking for treasure, red fairies (which can be traded in for cards), and other items-as well as engaging in random encounters with enemies.
The random encounters in Lost Kingdoms aren't like your typical battle in a turn-based RPG. Instead, Katia and the enemies find themselves on a smaller screen than the main stage, but can run about freely-attacking in real time. Katia will use her cards alone to inflict damage on the enemy-and each successful attack will leave crystals in its wake. The crystals, or magic stones, are necessary for Katia to use her cards. Each card has a casting cost that is deducted from the total number of stones Katia currently has. If she runs out of stones, she can still cast-but at the cost of large chunks of her hit points.
Battle is won when Katia defeats the enemy. Experience is doled out to the cards that landed killing blows, and the game reverts back to the main stage screen.
Each card can only be used once per level-making your battle strategy vitally important. If you engage in a number of random battles and use 20 of your cards, then find the boss, you'll only have 10 cards at your disposal for that fight. To counter this, Lost Kingdoms features several ways to keep your deck stacked while fighting numerous fights.
First off, some cards, when used, will put a number of used cards back into your active deck. Casting these at the right moment can be a lifesaver-particularly if you manage to get one of your really powerful cards replenished and put back into action.
Aside from that, there are blue fairies throughout each stage. Chasing down these guys will do one of several things-replenish a small amount of your hit points, revitalize a used card, or it might even be a monster in disguise. While finding the fairies can occasionally lead to a random encounter, the benefits tend to outweigh the risks.
Also, each level has at least one deck point. Deck points are glowing blue spheres that allow you to replenish your full hit points and add any cards you might have found in treasure chests or earned by successfully completing capture throws into your deck. Deck points can be used as often as you wish-and are always worth finding.
Finally, there are capture throws-which are one of the cheapest and most effective ways to keep adding new cards to your deck. Instead of summoning a monster to help in battle, Katia can choose to throw a card at the enemy. The card will do minimal damage, but if it delivers the killing blow, more often than not the enemy will turn into a card as well. The trick is learning how to successfully pull off the maneuver, as some cards don't go very far, and if you fail to kill the enemy the whole move was in vain to begin with.
Lost Kingdoms is relatively forgiving, too. Dying in battle doesn't cost anything-it just returns you to the world map, where you keep the experience your cards earned and the majority of the other stuff you've found. If you find yourself in a stage and low on cards, there's an option to abort the mission and return to the world map. Again, there's no penalty for doing this. The game almost encourages it, really, since exploring an area fully will leave you with too few cards to tackle the boss at the end of the stage as well. Because of this, the first trip through is generally for exploration, while the second is a beeline straight for the boss himself. Having to do levels twice doesn't really sound like much fun, but the gameplay is so solid and addicting that it's actually one of the game's virtues.
Unlike your typical RPG, Katia doesn't level up-her cards do. Cards earn experience in battle. After a card earns so many experience points, Katia can take it to Gurd's Apothecary, where she can transform the card into another kind of card, duplicate it, or sell it. With 105 different kinds of cards to find in the game, transformation is necessary in order to get some of the game's rarest creatures. Also, while at Gurd's, Katia can buy new cards to add to her deck.
Since Katia only fights with her cards, there are no weapons or armor to be found in the game. Katia does manage to find runestones as she progresses-each increasing her hit points and the number of magic stones she can carry at once.
Completing each stage will earn the princess a ranking-anywhere from one to five stars, with one being the poorest showing and five the best. The ranking determines how many reward cards you can pick at random-there are six at the end of each level, and the most you can choose is three. This is another way to get some of the game's most powerful cards-unfortunately; it's purely based on luck.
If the game does have one glaring flaw, it's that it's incredibly short. Lost Kingdoms can be beaten in under ten hours (despite the box's claim that it's a twenty hour adventure) and doesn't offer up a whole lot of replay value. While it's doubtful that you'll get all 105 cards the first time through, there's not much reason to continue playing after you do. If you're looking for a lengthy game, this one isn't for you.
However, there is some replay value inherent in the two player mode. While the game doesn't let you bring along a friend in the main quest (like Secret of Mana), it does allow you and a buddy to go head-to-head in card battles. It's a feature that will certainly please fans of card games, at least.
Truthfully, Lost Kingdoms isn't the most stunning GameCube game I've ever seen, but the simplistic visuals are sort of quaint and add to the game's charm in a lot of ways.
Katia is comprised of a small number of polygons, and the stages are relatively low-resolution graphics, but the game's not hideously ugly by any stretch of the imagination. It simply looks like an early Dreamcast or PS2 title-and that's not a bad thing.
Katia animates well and moves smoothly. She has a decidedly anime look to her, and perhaps that's why the relatively simple graphics aren't a problem. While she may not be intricately detailed, she certainly does have some character.
Backgrounds are a little rough-again, a lot like early Dreamcast games, to be honest. Some stages fare worse than others-like the stage filled with lava. The red of the lava tends to bleed onto everything, giving the whole stage an odd glow to it that makes navigating and finding treasure chests a little harder than it should be.
The other minor quibble is with the camera system. The camera is rotateable in 90-degree increments, but the way the paths are set up, you often find yourself running down them at an angle. It's never so bad that you miss out on stuff, but it is sort of displeasing aesthetically.
Other than that, enemies are decent, spell effects nice but never overwhelming, and the game as a whole looks good. It doesn't have the polish of most of today's big budget titles, but who said that every game had to look like Final Fantasy X anyway?
Not much to report here, except that the game controls well. Moving about is done with the analog stick, and Katia is responsive to your every command.
One interesting thing to note is that moving on certain surfaces or up inclines will actually slow Katia's rate of movement. Running through water, for example, is much slower than running on a normal surface. Granted, it's not anything groundbreaking, but I found it to be a nice touch of realism.
Honestly, this is the one area of the game where I wish the developers had spent a little more time.
While the music itself isn't bad, there's simply not enough variety in it even for a game this short. Because of that, I found myself liking the score less and less as the game progressed, not because it was bad, but because I'd heard each track so many times.
The other thing that bothered me about the game was the little snippets of voice whenever Katia would encounter a fairy, Gurd, or anyone else for that matter. I'm not sure if the voice was in Japanese or not, but putting in even a snippet of voice when the rest of the game is entirely text-based seems dumb. And, the voices weren't anything special anyway. I'd much rather eschew voice acting entirely instead of giving us a little snippet here and there-and not even a snippet that could be understood.
For a debut RPG on a very new console, Lost Kingdoms is a pleasant surprise. Sure, it's not as polished as it could be, and it's a little on the short side, but there's no denying that the guys at From Software have crafted another solid game that's sure to garner something of a cult audience. If this is the precursor to what RPGs on the 'Cube will be like, then I'm not worried in the least about the future.