Wow, more than 6 months without a review. Again, I apologise for this long hiatus but a lot of personal and professional stuff happened (without counting the present crisis). Everything’s more or less fine now, but let’s just say that I had quite the struggle. Anyway, I decided to finally finish and review one of the games I had in my backlog for ages. I’m talking about the 1st Lands of Lore.
Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos is a dungeon-crawler RPG developed by Westwood Studios and published by Virgin Interactive. It was originally released in 1993 for DOS and re-released the following year for the FM Towns and again for DOS but in CD-ROM format. In 1995, it was ported for the PC-98.
After the enormous success of Eye of the Beholder 1 and 2, Westwood Studios was acquired by Virgin Interactive, who decided to drop the Dungeons & Dragons license and focus on a new IP. So Westwood Studios, using the Eye of Beholder 2 engine, did so, making Throne of Chaos a spiritual successor to the Eye of the Beholder series to the eyes of the players and fans. And adding a quality voice-over cast speared by Patrick Stewart for the CD-ROM release, was a stroke of genius.
But as always, let’s first look at the covers, shall we?
I like this cover. It’s basically the game’s villain, Scotia, sitting on a throne and throwing a lightning spell. It’s very detailed and quite nice. Later releases would add a border around it:
This border isn’t bad but the title art is a bit better now. At least, it isn’t as ugly as this one:
The Japanese release had a more generic cover, though:
Pretty bland and generic, in my opinion. But it’s time to boot this sucker:
As you can see, the game starts with a beautiful intro that introduces us to King Richard of Gladstone (voiced none other by Patrick Stewart) and to Scotia (the witch from the cover), who’ve discovered the Nether Mask, which enables her to assume every form and threatens to use it to destroy Richard. For more background and lore, I recommend reading the manual or seeing the Lore of the Lands, a small animation also narrated by Patrick Stewart, available in the main menu.
Then you have to choose between 4 characters to play as: Ak’Shel, a Dracoid specialised in magic; Michael, a strong human warrior; Kieran, a fast Huline (and the canon champion according to the sequel); and Conrad, an adaptable human. Don’t be fooled by the stats, Kieran might look the weakest, but he’s in fact the fastest attacker of the group and I recommend Conrad for beginners (he’s got the best stats overall). There are no classes to choose from and you can level up any character as you wish (more on this later)
You start alone in the castle, where King Richard will give you the quest of recovering the Ruby of Truth, the only artifact that can counter Scotia’s Nether Mask. From here, you explore the kingdom and can recruit up to 2 more companions (although a 3rd companion was originally planned).
If you played other dungeon crawlers like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Hack, then I’m sure you’re familiarised with the main UI. It features the main view screen with the automap and compass on the right side (which you have to obtain at the start of the game). Below it, the characters’ portraits and the inventory. And on the left side, the spellbook and the direction keypad, and below it, the options and camp buttons. But most cutscenes are in almost full screen with a text box underneath it.
If you click in any portrait, you’ll have access to that character’s stats, levels and equipment. You’ll notice here that every character has 3 levels for each class: Fighter, Rogue and Mage. This has to do with the leveling system. Throne of Chaos uses a repeating skill system, where you need to repeat a specific action for a specific number of times to level up a certain skill. For example to increase the Fighter skill, you need to attack monsters with melee weapons. To increase Mage levels, you need to cast spells and to increase Rogue levels, you need to use long-distance weapons (like bows) and pick locks.
You’ll encounter a variety of monsters and although Westwood Studios no longer had the D&D license, I can’t help but notice that some of the monsters’ designs look familiar. But I won’t deny that they look awesome, even if the most ghastly ones will pose quite the challenge to defeat. In fact, Throne of Chaos has quite a good length to it, despite the fact that the difficulty isn’t very well balanced and a dungeon arbitrarily throw-in near the end that doesn’t have any connection to the game’s story.
You’ll also encounter a great variety of items, spells, weapons and armors. So much so, that one of the game’s biggest challenges is how to properly manage your limited inventory space. But I absolutely love every spell animation and you have up to 4 levels of strength for each spell. The bigger the spell level, the stronger the spell is cast and the more mana it consumes.
But the unbalanced difficulty is the game’s biggest flaw. Although you can change the difficulty settings in the options screen to easier or harder (you start every new game in the normal difficulty setting), there are difficulty spikes throughout the game with the biggest one being more or less halfway through (you’ll know when you reach it), in which you kind of have to break the game’s story progression in order to make it even possible to overcome.
But on the technical aspects, the graphics, the animation and the design (both the monsters’ and the dungeons’) are simply stunning. Yes, this game uses an outdated engine but Westwood Studios used it to its full potential. Coupled with the superb voice-over, music and sound effects, Throne of Chaos might just have the best atmosphere in a dungeon crawler.
In conclusion, Throne of Chaos is perhaps the best old-school (pre-3D) dungeon crawler RPG that I’ve ever played with a fantastic presentation, voice-over cast and great atmosphere. It would the perfect game for beginners of the genre if it wasn’t for its unforgivable difficulty spikes. Still, I highly recommend it. You can buy it here at GOG.com bundled with its sequel, Guardians of Destiny.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed my return to reviewing retro computer games and I hope that I don’t need to take such a long hiatus anytime soon. And I promise to focus a bit more on my request backlog, which is getting bigger almost everyday. Until then, keep on questing and playing.