Have you looked under the couch cushions?
The original Lost Kingdoms was something of a lost cause, an average Action/RPG about Queen Katia and her quest to save the lands from a villainous fog. The game just couldn't find its way out of its own foggy gameplay problems and bland story. I managed to find the Gamecube power button just fine.
But in the sequel Lost Kingdoms II, the series has almost found its way into the clear. For starters, there's a better story here featuring a marginally more interesting lead, Tara Grimface. She still doesn't say or emote much (she's named Grimface after all), but at least she has a past to contend with.
Tara was abandoned as a young girl. Her only inheritance was a mystical runestone that enabled her to control some equally mystical creatures encased in cards. Instead of taking her magic cards into a life of political gain, she joined the Band of Scorpions, a roving band of thieves and scallywags. The plot remains simple, but more effort is made towards fleshing out the narrative with cutscenes and decent voiceovers.
The gameplay is still given priority over the story, and thankfully there have been many improvements on that end. The card playing core of the game centers on moving Tara through dungeon or overworld stages while battling enemies with her personal deck of 30 cards.
Lost Kingdoms II is appropriately twice as long with a completely overhauled battle system. When you would encounter a random enemy in the original Lost Kingdoms, the game would wall you into an enclosed battleground. You were allowed to shuffle through your deck, but after a card had been swapped away, you weren't allowed to use it until the next battle. The randomized battles disrupted the more action-driven personality of the game.
That's all changed for the better. Enemy opponents are now constantly on the map so you can fight and run at will. No more random battles here, and card usage is not inhibited from battle to battle. Shuffle through your deck to your heart's content, but you still have to keep an eye out for enemy attacks. If you die during a stage, you are freely given the change to try and try again.
The original Lost Kingdoms had three principal card types: attacks, independents and summons. An attack card works like one action move, such as a sword slice. The independent cards let loose one creature that runs amuck, fighting enemies in its way. The summon cards bring forth a super-sized creature to rain down some wanton destruction.
Two new card types have been added: traps and transforms. A trap stays in place until an enemy foolishly walks over it, while the transform card allows you to change into a creature for a prolonged period of time and utilize some special monster abilities. For example, by turning into the stone golem, you can Hulk Smash your way through some barriers that must be crossed to complete the stage. One issue is that if you jump onto a ledge while in a monster form, you can only jump off while in that same form. That's a problem if you run out of the monster power while still on the ledge.
Card usage is kept in check by a usage meter. The bigger summons will cost more than little attacks. There's a tendency to only pay attention when the meter is used up, not how quickly it's spent. This meter is replenished by collecting the various gems that fly out of defeated creatures. Gems will also shoot out of your own creatures after they've fought the good fight and failed, thus negating the problem of losing all your fighting powers. The cards have individual usage meters as well; an attack card may have three sword swipes, whereas summoning is a one-time deal.
For the most part you can get by without adhering to the elemental structure of each card, but you will play more sloppily. There are 6 elements, the original classic four of earth, fire, wood, and water, and the brand new ones, neutral and mech. There are also card boosts and combos to add power to your attacks, and elemental bonuses to encourage you to use all your elements.
When taken altogether, Lost Kingdoms II has a nice amount of fairly deep strategy, much of which stems from experience. For instance, you might try out one card type and find it works especially well on one enemy species. Thus, you would stock up on those cards for an area littered with that species. At the end of each stage you are ranked by your play performance and rewarded with some bonus cards. There's as much strategy to it as you are willing to put in, which is a necessary part of a good card battle game.
There's also a two-player game mode that allows you to take your deck against a willing friend. The fair-use rules of the original still apply, but the back and forth grunt matches are made more varied by the increased number of cards.
With all the different cards to see, deal, and shuffle, all while running around exploring a big RPG world, Lost Kingdoms II win the award for the Gamecube's Most Cluttered Visual Interface. You've got your health bar at the top left and these huge cards mapped to the buttons on the bottom right. There really ought to have been a way to toggle between a larger or condensed view of the cards to eke out some more visual real estate.
Lost Kingdoms II's camera tends to prefer a third-person behind the back perspective over the high isometric view. Sometimes the game won't even allow you to pull back and up properly for a better view, such as while navigating some narrow halls. Interestingly, I complained in my review of the original that it only allowed the top view. Why can't they just offer both consistently? Running away from enemies and fighting the camera can be a problematic affair, and having big honking cards in the way doesn't help.
But despite the bad interface, the game is much more polished this time around, with finely crafted textures and better attention to detail. The effects, such as with the summons, don't shine with the best lighting effects, but the creature animation is consistent. The music isn't half-bad either, with a generous range of sound effects for the multitude of creatures.
Lost Kingdoms II is a great example of a sequel learning from its predecessor's mistakes. It's clear that From Software knew what they were doing this time around and earnestly tried to fix the problems in the original. The game is longer, the gameplay is more fun and flowing and the main character is a bit more interesting. The only parts requiring more work are the story, the visual interface and the camera. Fans of the original will be pleased by the improvements, and fans of collectible card games should find some decent fun in Lost Kingdoms II.