We've lost the pulse! Start compressions! Stat!
Though they're really just complex strings of 1's and 0's, games can allow us to do the impossible. Some of them even challenge our ethical paradigms by letting us pretend to be people we never thought we could be and presenting us with the consequences, which can turn out to be a lot more fun than our 2nd grade teachers would have us believe.
With this attitude in mind I approached Black Isle's latest RPG Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader. I looked forward to being transported back to the 16th century to meet cultural icons like Machiavelli and Cervantes while beating back goblins and bedding down with wenches.
Unfortunately, Lionheart is terrible, and not in a cool, sword-swinging barbarian sort of way. Since the game comes from such a strong line of Black Isle RPGs, my disappointment is doubled. The dialogue, characters and the use of history is shamefully bad, and sadly the gameplay isn't there to bail out the weak plot.
Apparently, the 12th century Crusades led by Richard the Lionheart wound up causing a big event called the Disruption, which unleashed horrible evil things into the world. You play in an alternate reality version of the 16th century, which starts out fine but quickly goes from quirky to lame.
For example, at one point you meet Cervantes, the guy who wrote Don Quixote, perhaps the most important book written in Spanish. The man was a mega-genius, satirist and poet. In Lionheart he runs around stabbing at bushes and raving about "La bestia!" Guess him and his famous confused character merged into a Brundlefly. You meet Leonardo Da Vinci, The Renaissance Man himself, but here he goes by Leo and has nothing to say other than the usual semi-funny/sarcastic crap reserved for smartass NPCs. Then you meet Shakespeare, who refers to Shylock as "That pestilence from Jerusalem" and tells you to go rough him up. You know, the guy wrote more plays than just The Merchant of Venice.
The capper comes when you meet Hernan Cortez, conqueror of Mexico and the guy who eradicated the Aztec civilization. In Lionheart, you can ask him about his New World experience and he says he went to Mexico and met the wonderful, friendly Mexican people who were nice to him. Then he says he went to Tenochtitlan and met the Aztecs who were brutal and warlike and had horrible monsters that kicked his ass and cut off his arm. Then you go about trying to find him a new arm so he can go back and regulate.
Pretty much everything in Lionheart trivializes a great work, makes commonplace a fascinating historical phenomenon (you can easily get bored talking to Inquisitors) or grossly misrepresents history. Some will enjoy this kind of artistic license, but I think it's a cheap way out of intelligently interweaving such deep historical references.
But more important than the plot is the gameplay, which unfortunately fares no better. As opposed to strategic turn-based Black Isle games like the Icewind Dale series, Lionheart is a mindless, tedious hack and slash. The fights are hard and the resolution is fixed at 800x600, so a ranged fighter or spellcaster will have time to get off maybe one shot before an enemy is on him. It's like Icewind Dale and Diablo II got together and had a kid, except that Diablo II did crack, heroine and Wow! Potato chips all the way through the pregnancy.
Using the 'Special' system from the great Fallout games, Lionheart lets you build any kind of character you'd like. However, if you don't pick some kind of fighter-type, you will die. Bad. Made what you thought was a super-cool holy caster? Prepare to get crucified. Hordes of the same enemies and little room for strategy spell one thing: Y-o-u-r A-s-s.
To its credit, the 'Special' system is a good one and does allow quite a bit of depth. Also, the way you play does slightly change the outcome. But when you compare this to games likeNeverwinter Nights, Morrowind and Star Wars: KoToR, it simply doesn't stack up at all.
There's actually a multiplayer mode here too, but it's not very good, just letting you and a cohort ramble through the single-player together. Good luck finding someone to play with you.
Graphically, Lionheart's new engine is just a slight improvement over the Infinity engine used in the Icewind Dale games. Characters are a bit larger and more detailed, but the city layouts are mediocre, the backgrounds are so-so and the game looks dated.
The sound is decent at least, with good music hampered by redundant sound effects. The voice-acting would be fine if the dialogue wasn't so irritating.
Overall, Lionheart is a big disappointment. Though it uses a decent RPG system, its poor balance, repetitive action and somewhat lame stab at rewriting history leads to a game no one should invest time or money in. Black Isle, we know you can do better than this, so get cracking on a real game.