Lionheart presents a Europe where a breach in the space-time continuum has prolonged the Dark Ages and kept most areas under the sway of the Inquisition. The space-time breach, called the Disjunction, allowed magical energies and powerful daemons to enter Earth during the Third Crusade.
Lionheart players will create and develop a character in this alternate universe, and choose how to pursue their destiny. The RPG character system, converted from the Fallout rules, includes 30 skills, 40 perks, and 15 traits. Since the system is classless, players can modify their character however they choose, and advance as far as level sixty. Lionheart's world contains eight major areas, 80 levels, and a mixture of story and combat arenas. The random item generator allows players to keep discovering new weapons, armor, and charms. Fifty enemies, 30 spells, and a multiplayer system allowing four players to cooperate are also featured.
The idea behind Lionheart, the new RPG from Black Isle Studios and Reflexive Entertainment, is a very good one: It takes factual Medieval history and turns it on its head. The premise: During the Crusades, holy relics were unwittingly used to unleash an evil upon the world. After this event, dubbed the "Disjunction," many creatures such as goblins and trolls sprang up to terrorize the countryside, and magic became all too real. Instead of religious heretics, the Spanish Inquisition now spends time hunting down those that practice illegal heretical magic, while the Knights Templar try to maintain order as most of Europe comes apart at the seams.
This quasi-realistic backstory is extremely well thought out, and the 16th century setting is fantastic for a role-playing game. Unfortunately, Lionheart takes this promising premise and uses it to make a game where combat is king, and plotlines few-and-far between.
The game uses the SPECIAL system that was used in the classic Fallout games. This is a "classless" system that is perfect for gamers that like to have as much freedom as possible when creating their character (and you go it alone in Lionheart). You are not bound by any rigid class rules. If you want to cast fireball spells and wield a sword -- you can. However, this freedom only works if the game itself allows it, and Lionheart doesn't. The game's penchant for combat almost forces you to create a magic-using fighter type that can withstand the multitude of battles that are fought as the game progresses.
Lionheart can best be broken down into two sections: "Barcelona" and "after Barcelona." The first half of the game takes place in this city, and here you'll tackle a lot of quests and meet many NPCs. It's somewhat reminiscent of Baldur's Gate 2 in this regard, except that you cannot "fast travel" through the city. You are forced to walk back and forth from section to section which gets a tad tiresome. The auto-map is also a bit odd in that nothing is marked. You need to remember exactly where everything is.
The Barcelona portion is fun, if a bit cliché. A lot of the quests are of the "go fetch me this item" or "kill this person that I hate" variety. The game also does a poor job of convincing you why your character is doing all of this stuff, and worse, why some of the NPCs are so quick to entrust you to some of the more important quests. You are a stranger in this city, and yet every Tom, Dick, and Da Vinci wants your help in some matter or another.
The good part is that most of the quests can be approached from different angles. The game forces you to choose sides at every turn, and demanding players to make seemingly tough decisions makes for compelling gameplay.
But then it all falls apart.
After questing in Barcelona for several hours, you are sent off on an important quest by one of the major factions of the city (depending on with whom you align). It's at this point that Lionheart shifts from a Baldur's Gate-type game into a Diablo-type game. As you trek through wilderness and dungeons, you are assaulted by wave after wave of enemies. It becomes extremely tedious, and any of your skills that don't have anything to do with fighting get thrown out the window. Playing a stealthy thief or a mild-mannered character of any type is nearly impossible. This wouldn't be a huge issue if the game warned you beforehand, but if you create a character that is full of guile rather than muscle, he's a dead man walking after leaving Barcelona. Even trying to go through the game with a straight mage is difficult -- you simply need to be able to use a sword to play Lionheart.
Balance is another major issue, as many of the "boss" characters (enemies at the end of an area or quest) are amazingly tough to kill. There are points where if you do not have a strong enough character to kill the end boss, you're more or less stuck.
Aesthetically, the game is all over the map. The voice acting is superb. You'll meet several NPCs in Barcelona that are full of things to say and all sound convincing, but the city itself is dead. There's almost no atmosphere whatsoever, aside from the occasional chirping bird and a voice track or two. There are stretches where there is literally no sound at all. There are also some audio issues; for example, when returning from the sewers you can still hear the drip noises while walking the streets of the city. The graphics look dated and the game is locked at an 800x600 screen resolution; the animations are a bit choppy, and while Barcelona looks nice, the dungeon crawl areas all start to look the same after a while. Even at the archaic resolution, however, the graphics aren't a distraction. If the rest of the game were more even, it wouldn't be an issue at all.
All of this begs the question: For whom is this game designed? Lionheart suffers from an identity crisis in that it doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it a deep role-playing game with a plot-twisting storyline or is it a Diablo hack-and-slash clone? Ultimately, it tries to be both, but doesn't succeed at being either. The potential for a great game is here in the foundation laid by the background story and the SPECIAL system, but Lionheart doesn't live up to that potential, and in the end is a missed opportunity.
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