Heroes Of Might And Magic: Quest For The DragonBone Staff has got to be in the running for one of the longest game titles ever released. Ironically, for something with such a grandiose title, the latest release from 3DO Studios (created by New World Computing) didn't even hold my interest as long as it took me to say the whole name.
Honestly, sometimes I wonder how a publisher/studio like 3DO is even still in business. There's not even one game that they've been connected with that has ever made it into my permanent collection, and with the size of my collection that's a pretty sad track record. HoM&M:QftDBS (ridiculous, isnt it?) is yet one more to toss into the jam-packed "also ran" category.
Basically, the game struck me as an odd amalgam of bits. The player starts by choosing one of four categories (Knight, Paladin, Sorceress, Barbarian) and then starts the quest after choosing a name. One of the only highlights out of the entire game is that you have the option to let the computer randomly pick names for your character. While I eventually went with my own creation, there were some pretty decent laughs to be had with some of the selections available. However, it's a pretty bad sign when the best part of a game is contained within the first two minutes.
After starting the actual adventure, the basic structure is that the player takes his or her character from the starting point and roams the overworld looking for treasure chests, allies to recruit or enemies to battle. The areas you roam in are laid out like nothing so much as a hedge maze viewed from the top down, and certain areas are off limits until reaching certain levels or acquiring items. The graphics displayed for this portion of the game were clean and sharp, but quite simple. The land itself looks like a series of flat textures with hills and castles placed on top of them much like the way most PC-style real-time strategy games appear.
Once an enemy is encountered, the overhead camera shifts to a view of a bland battlefield divided up into squares with all of the troops assembled accordingly. One thing I found odd here was that the player's character never fights in the battles, he/she merely call the shots from the safety of the sidelines, I assume. The "legions" you command are represented by one visible character for each type of creature. For example, if you have a squad of 30 skeletons, there will only be one skeleton visible which will take the damage of 30 skeletons before it perishes. At the very most, the battles will contain five combatants to a side, which completely fails to capture even the slightest hint of the adrenaline rush a large troop skirmish brings. Conversely, since you are the commander of a large force and not a team of individuals, there's no characterization whatsoever which might help solidify the concept behind the visual presentation.
To add insult to injury, when two forces battle, the game goes to a side-view and suddenly looks like nothing so much as a third-rate fighting game. The crude and generically-rendered creatures hack at each other using limp-wristed animations and anemic blows. I literally burst out laughing when I saw the peasants attack for the first time—I had never imagined common farmers going on the offensive by jumping a dozen feet into the air and bringing down a sickle the same way Voltron would slice a RoBeast in half. If the other attacks didn't have such poor taste in style, they wouldn't have any style at all.
With these lobotomized battle scenes making up most of the game, it comes off as a pretty pathetic affair. I don't usually like to generalize, but it's pretty rare that I encounter an American-made game with an impressive sense of artistic direction, with this disc doing absolutely nothing to shatter the stereotype. If any gamers out there remember the old PSOne game Iron and Blood, if you can imagine better textures and smoother renders, this is exactly what you'd have.
Needless to say, I lost interest very quickly since there's not much positive about the game as a whole. Besides the things I already covered, other lowlights include the fact that you can't retreat after starting a battle. This means that if you encounter some enemies that are above your caliber, your only choices are to surrender and lose your troops or fight to the end and lose your troops. Six of one, a half dozen of the other, since you get spanked either way. Also worth noting are the trolls. Stay away from them for as long as possible, since they regenerate all their hit points after each round of battle. This little unbalanced aspect of gameplay means that its quite possible for two wart-ridden trolls to eliminate your entire army if youre not prepared.
Throughout the entire experience, there was a thick aura of "PC" clinging to the disc, which isn't a good thing for any Playstation2 game, in my opinion. I wasn't able to definitely determine whether or not it was actually a port from the PC, but it might as well have been due to the minor load times whenever you enter a town or pull up menus, giving it a salty, unoptimized flavor. Also, during battles text scrolls up the screen and informs you of various outcomes instead of using a more traditional visually-based console setup. There isn't even a cohesive centralized menu, with each shoulder button and some face buttons pulling up a different screen. The whole thing just feels cumbersome and wrong, and does not contain the smooth, flowing and holistic essence that makes for a good console game.
All in all, there's not much here to offer anyone for more than an hour or two. After playing Heroes Of Might And Magic: Quest For The DragonBone Staff, I'm hoping that Sony will want to start beefing up their release-approval process since having a shelf full of third-rate titles like this can only serve to further tarnish the image of the over-hyped black box. Frankly speaking, it's already accumulated more software duds than even the most cynical pundits would have predicted a year ago, and 3DO isn't helping the situation.