As an heir you often stand before one of those big questions: How do you want to honour your predecessor's legacy? Are you going to stay true to your roots, or do you wish to go your own ways? As far as computer games are concerned the first one seems to be more profitable. For as much as people tend to complain about constant rehashes, the fact that there are endless series of suspiciously familiar titles, which only stall when the first real innovations start to show up, proves this strategy right. You certainly can count the number of games which successfully maintain the balance between the old (to count as a sequel) and the new (to be a game of its own) on one hand. One of the few that mastered this tightrope walk is Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny. And the best part of it is that there are signs of a very similar conflict in the story of the game itself.
Breaking with the past
Yet things might have turned out differently for this second part of the Lands of Lore series: Originally the games were conceived as an unofficial continuation of Eye of the Beholder (which was a clone of Dungeon Master itself), after Westwood fell out with SSI – the (then) owners of the exclusive rights for Dungeons&Dragons games – because of a quarrel about how possible future sequels should look like. Their previous endeavours into the role playing genre consisted of the archetypal group of adventurers conquering blocky dungeons step by step in real-time. And there was nothing to be said against simply expanding this basic concept (like games as Might and Magic VI or Wizardry VIII eventually did) into a real 3D environment, in which you could move around freely without being bound to a step wise movement. Yet with Guardians of Destiny Westwood did not feel like relying on the old and trusted, instead they decided to take advantage of the new technologies by introducing a couple of changes.
Said new technologies were a freely explorable 3D world and the massive use of cut scenes (for which they even hired real actors). But their strengths lie in other areas than those of the role playing games of the first hour, so a different approach was needed to make proper use of them. For as great as your freedom to move around might be, it is of no use when you spend most of the time standing around trying to comprehend lots of dry statistics or fighting excessively long battles. Therefore they got rid off a lot of ballast: The rigid and formulaic spelunking, which had originated in – but still not outgrown – the classic Pen&Paper games, was turned into a light-weight action adventure. And on top of that it focused on only one person. There is still some character development and fighting to be done for sure, but other things, which were neglected in role playing games so far, got a lot more attention: The exploration and the story telling.
For even if some role playing games of yore have quite interesting stories to tell, the actual interaction, the involvement of the player in the plot, is limited to a couple of text passages, which string all the mazes and the encounters therein together. Of course there are more than enough of the latter in Guardians of Destiny too, but since the story unfolds right in front of your eyes like one (mostly) uninterrupted movie, with the characters standing almost within your grasp, it feels a lot more like a firsthand experience. Nowadays this might seem like nothing to write home about, for almost all of the bigger role playing games jumped onto this bandwagon and certain cinematic qualities are something of a must by now, but Guardians of Destiny was one of the first of its kind to offer a continuous story, which was told in one consecutive line instead of smaller, discrete steps.
That is mainly due to the smooth transitions between the cutscenes and your actions in the actual game engine. An effect which results not only from the relatively short loading times but also from the fact that they are of comparable quality: Unlike in the grid based predecessors you actually recognise the places in the cutscenes. The skilled use of video clips embedded in the 3D world blur the lines even further. There are some discrepancies to be sure, but overall it looks quite homogeneous and the action always keeps going.
The plot in a nutshell
But besides being told in a remarkable way, the story is quite original and entertaining too. It picks up a lot of plot points from the predecessor and develops them to a greater and more fantastic background. If you played Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos you might have got an idea about possible links, yet things start off with quite a surprise: You play the son of the first game’s final boss. On top of that, you have been accidentally cursed by her, which manifests itself by unpredictably turning you into monsters. This curse is also the key to a god’s rather creative master plan to escape severe punishment. So, as you can see, there will not be much time to bore yourself to death in the immediate future.
Like hinted at in the introduction to this review, the plot revolves around legacies. On two counts in case of the protagonist: For one thing he has to get rid of the dubious ‚blessing‘ from his mother and for another thing he has to stop the somewhat megalomaniac ancient being. While dealing with those problems you get a couple of choices on how to reach your goals and how far you are willing to go. Are you going to be friendly and helpful? Or are you just going to take what you want, if necessary by force, because you are tired of people walking all over you? So, your actions have a bit of freedom and might result in different endings – some of them even picturing what happens if you fail at a critical moment.
Meet the cast!
Yet as great as the idea of a story might be, its actual realisation strongly depends on its characters. It seems like Westwood was quite aware of this and put a lot of effort into the design of the rather unusual ones featured in Guardians of Destiny. For instance, the antagonist (literally) takes shape over the course of the game, which is a pretty clever way to introduce him. He is a Trickster god too, meaning he has lots of charisma and always an ace up his sleeve. The protagonist might seem a bit disappointing at first, because you are stuck with a predetermined role and you cannot choose your own character. But in return he is integrated much deeper into the story-line, and you certainly cannot deny, that he does have quite an interesting background. Besides he delivers a lot of nicely sarcastic one-liners, which make him quite likeable.
It is also interesting that they share very similar fates: Both of them have been condemned by their societies and therefore both of them have got a relentless watcher to keep an eye on them. Their mothers are the crucial to the recent events and both of them cause their sons to undergo horrible transformations. And as soon as you realise that you are walking in your adversary’s footsteps a lot of parallels become apparent. If you act as reckless as your opponent, the lines blur even further: True to Nietzsche you will not notice much of a difference between the monster and the one who fights it. And it is enemies like these, the ones you can actually identify with, because you almost recognise yourself in them, which make for really interesting conflicts.
But not only the main cast is well chosen, the minor characters are quite original too. Almost all of them have a unique characteristic, their very own feature, which makes them more interesting. Those range from amusing quirks over peculiar backgrounds up to own subplots. To give you an example: One of the characters you meet is a weapon seller. She is not just a trader, but also a concerned mother, who might help you enter a closed area because she empathises with your family problems. This design is not only clever because it gives live to a role which is often reduced to a simple vending machine, but because the resemblances of your situations connect you to yet another character, while also picking up one of the main themes: the mother figure.
A world open for some exploration
One of the main reasons for such memorable characters and the story's large scale has to be all the effort that was put into creating the game’s world. You can definitely tell that there is more to it than just the mere basics needed for the plot. Some very creative minds had a lot of fun while expanding the run-of-the-mill setting from the first game with a plethora of new details. For one thing everything seems quite elaborate, for another thing you often get the feeling that there is more than meets the eye, that almost anything could tell a story of its own and that you sadly do not have the time to hear it right now. This diversity makes you curious for more and keeps the spirit of discovery alive.
Which is quite convenient, since there is a lot to discover. Usually you have to worry about the interacte portion of the eponymous movies. Here it is almost the opposite: Except for the cutscenes you have a lot of freedom. Admittedly, the main story arc is fairly predetermined – with some variations though – and you cannot access all areas at once, but otherwise you can roam around at your hearts content. Doing so certainly pays off, because many of the most powerful items do not lie around just in the open. There are so many things to discover that it is very unlikely you will find all of them at the first go. Lots of small alcoves, ordinary switches and hollow walls, all of which can be found almost anywhere, might hide more or less useful artefacts. Thus even years after the game’s release, in which numerous fans finished countless playthroughs, there still remain some unresolved mysteries and undiscovered secrets of Guardians of Destiny.
Mainly that is due to the outstanding level design. All those abandoned places, wild jungles and freezing ice deserts do not only offer a lot of variety, but also follow four simple rules which should be a must for every dungeon designer: Firstly none of the rooms is absolutely empty and in many of them you even find some items you can pick up. This means there are no real dead-ends, so searching even the smallest corners is almost always worth your trouble. Secondly the corridors often split up into a main and several side paths and they all lead to your goal. This branching is not only an extra challenge for the player (and his sense of direction) but also gives you a feeling of complexity (and therefore realism). Thirdly the most challenging passages are optional and offer special rewards. This is an effective way to keep the game flow running, which is often underestimated. And finally fourthly: You can interact with the objects. Whether it is exploding chests, which you can use to build some traps of your own, or just the good old lever: You will always find something crying out for experiments.
Unfortunately said experiments are a must, since the game itself explains practically nothing. At the beginning you are told the very basics, like how to move around, jump, fight or cast a spell. Everything else you will have to find out for yourself. Even the manual does not offer much more help. The actual effects of your spells are as obscure as the special abilities of certain items. All you get to know about all the stuff you pick up is a simple name and occasional hints from the one or the other NPC. You never get to see actual numbers, you might only notice some changes in your character’s attributes. The latter ones are somewhat minimalist to boot. This could be regarded as an advantage though: This way your success depends on your own skills and wits, instead of a bunch of abstract numbers. The rather action oriented gameplay certainly benefits from it.
It is only a problem when the game simply asks too much from the player: Some riddles seem a bit far-fetches, because their solution is poorly hinted. And several times you do things just because you are able to, without much reason or thought. For example, if the sight of a floating ball of water makes you want to freeze it with a ghost summoning spell, followed by a fireball, so it melts again and drops into the basin bellow, you are either a real genius or really desperate… or just looked it up in a walkthrough. Therefore you can get stuck quite easily, just because you have not got the slightest clue what to do next. Occasionally you can make mistakes that might block your progress permanently, even though there are some safety mechanisms which try to prevent this (like when you throw away a story-related item and the game puts it right back in your hand). So, you could say Guardians of Destiny offers quite a challenge.
If you think that does not sound challenging enough yet, you can set the difficulty level of the fights from ‚normal‘ up to ‚most difficult‘, which manifests in a slightly dramatic way. The fights basically play out in a very shooteresque style, i.e. you run around your enemy while merrily bashing him with your weapons or shooting arrows, bolts or lightning at him, until someone bites the dust. Since the controls are highly customisable, it is very likely that you will find a setting with which this should not be that much of a problem. Unsurprisingly your enemies are tougher on the higher difficulty levels. Surprisingly this takes on quite ridiculous proportions: The fights on the ‚normal‘ setting can range from quite casual encounters up to challenging battles. On ‚more difficult‘ it already takes a couple of minutes to beat simple enemies. And on ‚most difficult‘ even a lowly Zombie turns into an incredible sponge who soaks up damage like water, until, after an eternity (or more realistically speaking about an quarter of an hour) they finally have mercy with you and die.
The big picture
But like it was mentioned above, the game’s focus simply lies less on the fights – even though it was sold as an RPG – and more on the gripping story, which you can explore and discover to your liking. And that is why Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny is one of the very rare cases in which the whole interactive movie idea actually turned out to be a success. Contrary to a common trend often seen in contemporary ‚Multimedia‘ games the developers did not stop at a good story and its (then) elaborate presentation but they wrapped it around an entertaining game – whose depth goes far beyond the usual ‚choose the death scene behind door 1, 2 or 3‘. Moreover, the freely explorable world, which still does not float in a limbo because of the very engaging story taking place in it, works insofar as they never get into each others way and benefit from one another in their finest hours. So, it might be worth to take a risk and try something new, even for a sequel of a successful game.