In many gamers’ opinions, the PSP has always suffered from a lack of original games. Ports of PlayStation (and PlayStation 2) games have been the rule instead, so when I saw that Warriors of the Lost Empire (“Lost Regnum” in Japan) was an original RPG, I jumped on the chance to play it. The only question was whether I was jumping on a great game, or a live grenade.
Warriors of the Lost Empire is a hack & slash Action RPG, and like many games in the genre, its story is not particularly strong. At the beginning of the game, your character is presented as a mercenary who has been hired as part of the Roman Empire’s effort to find the Emperor, who has disappeared after heading out to create a new city as a sort of refuge away from the depressing pressures of being lord of all he surveys. You have the opportunity to play as one of four different characters, and each of them have a different reason for being in the mercenary business in the first place, but none of it feels really significant. Credit goes to the developers for bothering to make distinct stories for the characters, though, and for following through with it both during the game and at the end. It’s also noteworthy that the Emperor’s one joy in life is his boyfriend–something that’s fairly believable given the attitude of historical upper-class Romans on the subject.
Reviewer’s note: I’m about to tell you a lot of things that are wrong with Warriors of the Lost Empire. However, despite all of the flaws listed below, I put several hours into the game with two of the available characters, and finished the game completely with two others. Somehow, the game manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s worth keeping in mind as you read on.
WotLE is a fairly straightforward game: run around, mash your two attack buttons, cast some spells, and run away to recharge your mana. Then run away some more, because recharging your mana takes a very long time–although oddly enough, the traditional warrior character’s mana recharges much faster than the ranged-attack-only amazon. Mana potions are available, but potions are heavy, and your character has a limit on the weight he/she can carry that feels very restrictive at times. To add insult to injury, your character’s armor and weapon not only count in the weight limit, but can make up at least half of that limit.
In-game text informs you that you should watch for combos that stop different enemies, but there is no hint anywhere as to what button presses will complete combos. You are left to experiment fruitlessly for yourself on this, as is the case with many aspects of the game. Even the effects of basic player statistics like strength and dexterity aren’t explained to you until well into the game, when you’ll already be around level 10. This lack of information means that WotLE is one of the more button-mashy hack & slash games around, and will probably result in a number of poor choices in stat point placement as you level up.
Skills are a key component of nearly any RPG, and WotLE’s implementation of character skills is, at the very least, interesting. Each character has a set of 10 skills, two of which are unlocked at the beginning of the game. The remaining 8 skills are unlocked one at a time as you beat the game’s dungeons. Skills are leveled up through use, but unlike some games that use this system (Morrowind), the skill use does not have to result in a successful attack. You can simply stand in an empty room casting the skill over and over to level it up. Except for the slow mana recharge rate, using the skills is fun, and when things are going well, so is the button mashing combat. Sadly, there are points where the game will leave your character getting beaten to a pulp against a spiked wall by cheap shots from a whole gang of enemies, and that’s never fun. Still, although there were several times in the game where these nasty situations came up, there was always something that kept me feeling like if I tried just one more time, I’d be able to get through them.
Item management is another crucial area in game design, and WotLE’s developers made some unconventional (though not unprecedented) choices. There is no in-game currency, only items: usable items (like health potions), equipment (like swords), and items that are used to alter that equipment or to trade for usable items. As with combat, you are given very little in the way of instructions until approximately halfway through the game. For usable items, experimentation will clear things up, and equipment is so rarely better than what you’re already using that it doesn’t really matter, but altering your equipment would have benefitted greatly from more information.
At your home base, you have an item chest where you store items you don’t want to carry with you, which is fairly standard. Unfortunately, it is also the only place you can use the stat points you earn from leveling up and change your active skills. Get out in the field and decide you could really use different skills? You’ll have to warp back home, change skills, and start over on the dungeon where you were fighting. Of course, there’s no penalty for dying, so if you die because you had the wrong skills chosen, it doesn’t feel important, just frustrating.
My point is probably more than adequately made; WotLE has a lot of flaws, some more annoying than others. However, I can’t stop before mentioning three of its most egregious faults. First, there is no way to pause the game – a huge flaw for a portable game. If you need a break, you have to finish off the current mob you’re fighting and put your PSP on standby. Second, the enemy AI is both stupid and inconsistent. Enemies can easily be convinced to run into a spiked wall over and over until they kill themselves, but although some will attack the instant you come within their sight, others are content to merely challenge you to a staring contest until you attack them. Finally, and worst of all, WotLE has more endings than the last Lord of the Rings movie. You are constantly given a set of dungeons to complete, only to find out that your reward for doing so is another dungeon. I truly thought I was fighting the final boss at least three times, the first of which was only halfway through my final total of about 20 hours of gameplay.
Warriors of the Lost Empire consists entirely of visually indistinguishable dungeon crawls with fairly short draw distances. There are two styles of dungeon, one used in the first half and one used in the second half, but that’s all the environmental variation you get. One nice and probably intentional effect of the lack of new textures and short draw distance is that loading times between dungeon floors are virtually nonexistent, but does that end really justify the means? (Hint: no, it doesn’t.)
Enemies are a graphical semi-bright spot in that they are all distinct rather than being pallette swaps of a few generic baddies. Animation of both your character and enemies is fairly good, although one of the female characters you can play as looks pregnant when she runs toward the camera, which is very creepy. Changing weapons or armor does change your player’s appearance, although you won’t switch them often enough for that to really matter.
Music is another of WotLE’s positive elements, even though there aren’t a lot of different songs. I quite liked the music that played in the second half of the game; it was a good tune and didn’t get embedded in my skull after I turned the game off. Sound effects, however, are less effective–one enemy makes a sound when they die that’s so much like Yoda that you’ll watch for “George Lucas” in the closing credits, and the rest are simply too generic to be worth your attention.
Warriors of the Lost Empire scores yet another big “meh” here. The camera stays static unless you move it, and moving it is too touchy for my tastes, but leaving it alone can be a very dangerous prospect if you’re near any of the game’s many spiked walls and floors. As previously mentioned, combos exist, but randomly mashing the two attack buttons seems just as effective as spending hours trying to guess what set of button presses will actually do something specific.
Another issue is that some buttons like R carry an overly heavy load: pressing R by itself both centers the camera behind you and blocks, and R and triangle together uses an item, which means that many times when you use an item, you’ll lose track of the oncoming horde. Using R with the circle button allows you to use a second weapon if you’ve managed to save enough of your weight cap to carry one.
It is worth noting now that it’s come up that a second weapon can help alleviate a bit of the gameplay tedium, because each character is constrained to a specific type of main weapon (the amazon can only use bows, for example), but can use any secondary weapon. Unfortunately, if you find your character’s secondary weapon to be very helpful, it’s most likely to make you simply quit and start over as the character who uses that weapon.
Warriors of the Lost Empire is a game you’ll want to like, but only hardcore fans of the hack & slash genre will have a very easy time forgiving its flaws. The gameplay is mediocre but not awful, the story is passable but unimportant, the sound is equal parts good and bad with a bit of unintentionally funny thrown in, the controls are cluttered, and the graphics simply leave you feeling as if you’ve been everywhere before. There is enough fun to be had that WotLE is the kind of game you can feel good about buying for $20, but full price is just too much to ask for it.