Interplay's Black Isle Studios division is one of the best things ever to happen to computer role-playing games. Many of the best RPGs from the last five or six years have been Black Isle games: Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale are all part of this brand. Considering that amazing track record, it's easy to get excited about Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, Black Isle's latest RPG. Unfortunately, while it does bear some similarities to earlier games from Black Isle, it's generally just not as good. It's primarily a hack-and-slash game, but the combat tends to be unsatisfying, the production values seem dated, the difficulty is uneven and sometimes excessive, and the original alternate-history setting isn't enough to compensate. Even so, the game has some merits, and it can be entertaining for Black Isle fans who don't go in expecting too much.
Up till Lionheart, all previous Black Isle games had been developed either internally at Interplay or by Canadian developer BioWare, which created the Baldur's Gate series. Lionheart is instead the work of Reflexive Entertainment, whose credits include 2001's Zax: The Alien Hunter and Star Trek Away Team, as well as a couple of great shareware games, Ricochet and Crimsonland. Not that a company's past achievements are necessarily determinative of its future potential, but Reflexive's past focus on relatively simple, action-oriented games does come across in Lionheart. At first, this game has all the trappings of a complex RPG, including an open-ended character-creation system lifted directly from the Fallout series, dialogue with non-player characters, lots of side quests, and more. However, soon enough, the gameplay of Lionheart becomes a Diablo-style dungeon crawl, in which your lone character will inch his or her way through various enemy-infested areas, cutting down countless forgettable foes.
Lionheart isn't the first RPG to feature an alternate-history setting, but it still deserves credit for trying to do something different. According to the game's fiction, Richard the Lionheart's 12th-century Crusades resulted in a cataclysmic supernatural event called the disjunction, sort of a Pandora's-box-opening style of event that unleashed all sorts of magic and evil into the world. The game takes place in the 16th century in the wake of the disjunction, but despite the unusual setting and the presence of some historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, and Nostradamus, Lionheart basically tells your average RPG story, in which your character is a reluctant hero destined to thwart a great evil.
When you first begin, you can either choose from a number of pregenerated characters or create a custom character using the SPECIAL system (named after its seven core character attributes: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck), first seen in 1997's Fallout. You don't just choose to play as a fighter, a magic user, or a thief here--using this system, you define your character's core attributes and choose which skills he or she will excel at, so you have a lot of freedom in developing your persona. In practice, though, Lionheart all but forces you to play as some sort of combat-oriented character. You'll visit some towns and talk with some of the locals, but more often than not, you'll be out in the wilderness, all by yourself, fighting lots of monsters. To do so effectively, you'll want a character who's exceptionally good with weapons and magic--preferably both and not just one or the other. So, the open-ended character-development system is really more of a guessing game. Are you sure you chose all the "right" skills? Restarting as a new type of character can be a fun and rewarding part of an RPG, but in Lionheart, you might feel forced to.
Regardless of your character, the combat's definitely got some problems. The action feels hectic and jerky, and it mostly just involves you left-clicking on enemies to auto-attack them with your weapons and right-clicking on enemies to cast spells on them. Most enemies rush straight at you, fast, and the speed of the game isn't adjustable, so you'll often find yourself desperately trying to click on the moving targets to gain the initiative. Once one enemy falls dead, you'll need to quickly click on another. You can pause the action, and while you can't target foes or issue move orders in this state, you can quaff as many healing potions as you need to when the action's stopped. With all that said, aside from it being repetitive and not particularly interesting, the combat's biggest problem is its difficulty. Some of the battles in Lionheart are flat-out punishing, and in them, you'll just keep dying and dying until you luck out and land a series of critical hits, or something. At least the loading times after death are brief.
Also, the game is locked at 800x600 resolution, which considerably limits your field of vision and makes ranged attacks less effective than they ought to be, since you'll typically be able to fire off just one or two arrows or spells before your enemy is upon you. An interface bar hogs the bottom third of the screen, so situations when enemies are approaching from either the top or bottom of the screen can be particularly annoying, though at least there's an option to minimize the bar. The limited resolution also forces you to constantly scroll the screen as you click to move your character--there's an option to leave the screen centered on your character at all times, but due to the low visibility, it's useless. The interface has a few other issues, such as the fact that your auto-map of each area cannot be annotated.
The gameplay of Lionheart does have a few notable twists. You can make your character sacrifice accuracy for an increased rate of attack, or, conversely, to attack more slowly but more accurately. Your character can also try to aim for the foe's head, arms, or legs instead of just its torso, which decreases the chances of scoring a hit in general but increases the chances of landing a critical hit, which can dish out huge damage and also debilitate the foe in some way. In a way, Lionheart is also paced better than some other action RPGs. Slain enemies routinely leave red or blue souls floating over their bodies, and these are simply health and magic power-ups, allowing you to recover from the fight then and there without having to drink potions, rest at an inn, or set up camp. Unfortunately, though, later in the game you'll find that most all the various healing options at your disposal are underpowered considering all the damage you'll probably be soaking up, though blue souls that restore your magic power should be in ample supply. And since there is no option to set up camp or teleport back to town, you might instead find yourself standing around and waiting for your wounds to slowly heal before proceeding further into dangerous territory.
As mentioned, the game isn't all about the combat. One of the first places you'll visit is New Barcelona, a large city in which you can take on numerous side quests, align yourself with several different factions, and basically do the sorts of things and make the sorts of decisions you probably associate with other Black Isle RPGs. Deciding whether to join with the Knights Templar or the Inquisition (or neither), helping Da Vinci build a mechanical arm for Cortez, gaining experience levels and deciding how to apply your new skill points and which sort of special abilities (or "perks") to pick for your character--this is good stuff and a promising start for the game. But in the end, your decisions will mostly affect how frequently you die in the repetitive hack-and-slash battles to come. The detail and intrigue of New Barcelona are not representative of the majority of the game.
Games that emphasize combat might as well look good, but Lionheart doesn't. It runs on the same technology that Reflexive used for 2001's Zax and Away Team, and though this engine is technically newer than the Infinity engine used for most Black Isle games, it seems just as long in the tooth. Most of the background scenery is completely static and quite dark, though fairly good looking and detailed, while the characters in the game are small and lacking in detail. Some of the animations are nice, but the characters (yours included) all move about stiltedly and tend to come off looking silly. Some lighting effects and decent-looking spells help matters a bit, but Lionheart still looks like a game from two or three years ago.
The audio isn't any better. Voice acting is used for the occasional non-player character, and it's of good quality. On the other hand, the enemies all emit one type of groan or shriek when they first spot you, and then a slightly different groan or shriek when they die. Your own character is practically silent, and the effects of swords, arrows, and spells are understated and bland. Lionheart's musical score includes some decent compositions, but in many scenes there's no music whatsoever (and little to no ambient sound of any kind), and in other scenes the music will loop over and over till it adds to the frustration of the combat. We also experienced some glitches with the audio--the music would skip a beat on some occasions. We ran into a few other technical issues, including a couple of unceremonious crashes to the desktop and some mysterious though brief fits of slowdown.
Lionheart has a multiplayer mode with a built-in server browser, allowing up to four players to join together and fight their way through the game's various locations. Yet the multiplayer seems like an afterthought, as even game sessions reporting low pings tend to suffer from some severe lag, only one player at a time can interact with non-player characters, and the content of the multiplayer mode is the same as the single-player mode. Still, theoretically, the multiplayer can help offset some of the game's balance issues, as in this mode, characters specializing in thieving skills, ranged weapons, or support magic--all of which are in the game but normally not terribly useful--can properly support a heavy-hitting ally or two. But unless you've got a few friends willing to play on the same schedule as you, and ideally over a LAN instead of the Internet, then the multiplayer probably won't do you much good.
Despite its shortcomings, Lionheart still offers a unique setting in which you can interact with characters representing some of the 16th century's most famous thinkers and explorers, and the combat can be fun if you figure out (and like figuring out) powerful combinations of skills and abilities for your persona. If you've played and enjoyed earlier RPGs from Black Isle Studios, this one won't impress you, but at least it'll remind you of those great games.
Editor's note 08/19/03: When the review was originally posted, it stated that the game lacked an option to allow players to view enemy health meters, which is incorrect. GameSpot regrets the error.