The only thing better than playing a great game is getting a great deal on a great game. Heck, even a great deal on an average game is a pretty great thing!
As I’ve said in the past, I came back to the RPG genre on the PC after a long absence in mid-2003, starting with Neverwinter Nights on the Mac and proceeding to Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic on the day it was release, then starting to ‘backfill’ with games like Gothic 2 and Baldur’s Gate 2. By engaging many folks on forums in discussions I got plenty of advice which I then used to fill out my game library. One of my best purchases was an eBay ‘bundle’ that included three games for $11 including shipping: Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, Arcanum, and Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader.
When Good Old Games added Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader to their library in late 2008 in the ‘second wave’ of releases for $5.99 I bought it immediately. A quick look at review scores might have you asking ‘why did you want a SECOND copy of a game with such mediocre scores’?
Here are a few reasons: alternate history, Renaissance-era Europe with magic, hangin’ with Leonardo da Vinci, and Black Isle Games.
Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader is set in an alternate version of the medieval era, in which Richard the Lionheart’s brutal slaughter of prisoners during the Crusades was used as part of a ritual to tear open the fabric of our dimension and allowed magic and demons and other things to enter from alternate dimensions. This even was called the Disjunction.
The character system in Lionheart is classic Black Isle – using the SPECIAL system (similar to the Fallout games), which stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. You also get to choose special characteristics such as a background that impacts traits (perks, tag skills), the choice of a racial background, which demonic spirit you are imbued with, and starting magical skills that define your class.
The main character wakes up in a cell and is made to fight to reveal his/her magical nature at which point the character is condemned to die at the hands of the Inquisition. You get help from your inner spirit to escape, and after leaving the cell block you meet Signor Leo – Leonardo da Vinci – and begin to explore Barcelona.
You also learn that your character is the descendant of Richard the Lionhearted, and is being hunted by those who have plans to use you for their own evil devices. You need to gain strength in order to deal with the villains – as it is, you barely manage to escape from the two drunken guards watching your cell! To accomplish this, Signor Leo suggests you align yourself with one of the factions in Barcelona and get some work and training.
Stepping into Barcelona is simply stunning. The graphics are the very pinnacle of hand-drawn 2D art, with detailed characters wandering around the city going about their lives. As you meet people, they notice your ‘taint’ and are generally reviled by you – there is a strong anti-magic bias in the city. Even as you complete quests they will only grudgingly thank you. Some would rather you not help at all.
The writing in Barcelona is once again superb – Black Isle at the height of their powers. There is no black & white, good & bad, right & wrong … there are loads of overlapping interests and conflicts and choices with unclear consequences. The characters you meet are richly detailed, with intricately described backgrounds and stories, and generally just extremely interesting.
Barcelona is the largest single quest area in the game, but certainly not the only place you’ll visit. From Barcelona your quests will lead you to places such as Montserrat, Montaillou, England and the Persian Desert. You will find yourself in the middle of a war between England and Spain, dealing with all sorts of enemies and familiar characters such as Nostrdamus and Joan of Arc, and engaging in loads of combat.
The combat system favors melee, to be sure. It is done as an action-RPG, meaning that all combat occurs in real-time and is initiated by clicking on an enemy. The system itself is more imprecise than many similar games, and ends up with you frequently moving when you intend to attack. In comparison, I found the real-time system was not nearly as well done as 2002’s Divine Divinity, but better than 2000’s Arcanum – but with Arcanum you can switch to turn-based mode.
It IS possible to play as a mage successfully, and I have now done that twice. My first attempt was less successful, as I needed to restart a few times to get my settings correct. But as long as you have enough melee skills to deal with occasional combat, a mage with balanced offensive and defensive skills will be able to battle through the entire game.
Lionheart is largely a single player game, with everything focused around your character and the majority of the game based on you completing quests and combat. There are opportunities for NPCs (non-playable characters) to join you, similar to what was done in Neverwinter Nights, but they add little flavor and are less interesting than many of the other characters you’ll meet on your travels.
Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader is an awesome 20 hours of gaming … but unfortunately the game takes more than 40 hours to complete.
In fact, many would suggest you look at Lionheart as two separate games – before and after Barcelona. What happens is that the flow of quests and combat and interesting characters and chatter suddenly changes to almost entirely combat, with a few plot specific quests and characters popping up in each major area. In general, what was once a classic story-driven RPG becomes a combat-centric hack-n-slash game, and what were detailed areas dripping with personality become generic dungeon crawl areas, with some seeming copy-and-pasted to extend the game.
Personally I recalled enjoying the game through Montserrat, so I was anxious to see what I thought while replaying.
Barcelona itself was every big as massive as I remembered in terms of being rich with quests and people and crazy stuff going on. You just spend hour upon hour dealing with everything … and eventually you will get some quests that lead you into the forests surrounding the city. There is much more combat out there – but it is refreshing as it breaks up the quest-heavy focus. There are more and more external quests to take on as you progress.
As you keep progressing, you will have joined a faction, completed dozens of quests, and then will be tasked to head to Montserrat for a major quest related to a relic there. The nature of the quest depends upon your faction. When that series of quests is done, and everything is complete in Barcelona, you will be directed on towards France to continue the main plot.
Once again, this is where the game drastically changed for me – on the road to the Pyrenees, it felt like one combat area after another with an occasional quest or person to talk to, followed by more and more combat. I still liked Montserrat because I still feel the connection to the Barcelona section of the game – but I can truly understand why people would say ‘the game dies after Barcelona’ … because Montserrat is largely combat-driven as well.
And therein lies the basic problem with Lionheart – should it be judged as an excellent game based on how wonderful it was playing through all of Barcelona, or as a mediocre game based on what happens once you leave Spain for France?
For me, it was Barcelona that pulled me back to buy the game again, Barcelona that had me replaying a game that takes literally dozens of hours, and Barcelona that has me recommend the game to people. Because Barcelona alone is a larger, more detailed, and quite frankly BETTER RPG than the vast majority of games released in recent years.
RetroGamer Perspective: Black Isle Studios is one of the true greats in the history of gaming, producing the Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment games. This is by far the ‘least’ of their games, yet it simultaneously hearkens back to the so-called ‘second golden age’ of late 1990’s PC RPGs.
Netbook Gamer Perspective:
- Digital Download / CD version? – As mentioned, Good Old Games added Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader to their library in late 2008. The game is out of print on CD and hasn’t been released anywhere else in digital form.
- Installation Notes: The game is on a two CD’s and installs fairly quickly. The Good Old Games download is 720MB, DRM-free and installs quickly.
- Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes 1.5GB.
- CD Required to Play? For the CD release – yes.
- Control Considerations? Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader controls as a standard action-RPG, with heavy mouse-usage.
- Will it run on a VIA C7? Yes!
- Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!
- Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? The Good Old Games release of Lionheart runs perfectly on Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 32- or 64-bit. I have read of issues with the CD version working on newer operating systems, but nothing systematic.
- Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? There was a never a version ported to any other platform.
- Notes on the Digital Version: The Good Old Games version is the best possible edition, with all patches and added compatibility for all newer OS releases.
Conclusion: No one will ever call Lionheart a classic, because of the way it devolves and degenerates into a mindless hack-and-slash – and not nearly the best example of that genre. Yet the first couple dozen hours are a wonderful example of the type of thing that made Black Isle such beloved developers for PC gamers. There are excellent historical characters, references and settings, loads of moral ambiguity, tons of detailed quests with excellent dialogue, and myriad choices with consequences. Now that it is available on Good Old Games for a bargain price in a package that handles all of the bugs and ensures compatibility, there is no reason not to experience this flawed gem for yourself.