When the GameCube arrived on store shelves, there was never any doubt that it would be home to some great games. With names like Mario, Zelda and long-absent Samus behind the company, Nintendo's first-party software is generally considered to be the cream of the videogame crop. However, Nintendo's infamous "Quality, Not Quantity" mantra is something of a double-edged sword, as many owners of the ill-fated Nintendo 64 console can testify. While their established indifference towards courting third parties left many past supporters high and dry, current support for the GameCube does seem to be slowly increasing. As an example, longtime Sony supporter FromSoft proves that they are just as capable of producing quality for the tiny box as they are for the PlayStation 2. Thanks to Activision, 'Cube gamers now have something unexpectedly tasty to sink their teeth into while waiting for the predictable major releases this fall.
Lost Kingdoms is a fairly unique third-person action game, with the twist being that the main character, Katia, uses magically summoned creatures as weapons. The GameCube's analog stick handles her free movement, and the yellow C-stick adjusts the camera. The game features a three-quarter view (except during story scenes), and zooming in and out or rotating the screen is painless and intuitive. While in battle, the A, B, X and Y buttons each activate one summoning card, with the shoulder buttons acting as card modifiers.
The game's design initially seems complex, but in reality it's as simple as pie. Crimson-clad Katia carries a deck of up to 30 mystic cards. These cards can be found or earned, and will summon creatures in one of three types: Weapon, Summon, and Independent. Weapon monsters deliver small aimed strikes, and disappear after two or three uses. Summon monsters are analogous to their RPG counterparts in that they feature a short cutscene followed by a powerful and impressive attack. Finally, Independent monsters are summoned to fight alongside Katia until they are destroyed. Think of them as "instant teammates." On top of those three monster types, add five elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Wood, Neutral) and you've got the basis of an extremely fun game.
One of the best things about Lost Kingdoms is the ease with which anyone can jump right into the action. The elegant, uncluttered design is easy to understand, requiring no more than a few minutes before players will start to feel comfortable. The control scheme makes very good use of the Gamecube's pad, summoning creatures with just the push of a button. There's nothing complex or cumbersome about the movement and camera functions either, which feel generally natural and non-intrusive. This is of utmost importance since the combat can get very frantic dodging the teeth, explosions and poisonous spittle of your foes. The worlds of Lost Kingdoms are very open and straightforward, making them a breeze to navigate. There are no mazes, very few keys or switches and nothing to make the game come grinding to a halt. The emphasis is clearly on maintaining the high-intensity, run-and-gun action.
The simplicity of the interface I just described is a perfect complement to the game's satisfyingly strategic gameplay. The balance and selection of the creatures and their attacks is impeccable. With 105 different choices, many different types of Deck styles can be accommodated. The Weapon attacks of Lizardmen or Flying Rays are fast and easy to wield, but don't pack much of a punch. The diseased breath of a Summoned Zombie Dragon will devastate all foes, but its rotting carcass is huge and slow to attack. You could also choose to conjure a pack of Independent Demon Skeletons or Mantraps to harass enemies, but while they're deployed you can't summon other creatures. Many deck styles will work, and it's great to have a wide range of choices to experiment with.
The game's Elemental attribute system feels right, too. It adds sophistication, but not so much as to over-complicate things. While any attack will harm any creature, choosing the right cards for your Deck can mean the difference between wasting four cards on one enemy or killing four enemies with one card. It's nice to see that learning the Elemental system pays off handsomely, since most games seem to throw this type of thing in as an afterthought. Keeping the game's imposed limit of 30 cards per Deck in mind, it pays to think ahead and choose wisely. If you make some poor decisions, don't worry—the game's structure is extremely forgiving since any items or cards you find will not be lost if you die.
Finally, Lost Kingdoms will have added appeal to anyone who has spent time playing real-life Collecting-Card Games (CCGs) such as the hugely popular Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh. While they all share the common theme of fantastic fauna, they also share the well-documented addiction of "catching 'em all." As CCG players will tell you, it's impossible to resist the urge to complete the collection. This form of card-based crack is just as potent electronically as it is on glossy paper.
FromSoft have really outdone themselves and proved once again why they are the undisputed kings of underrated games. There are no significant errors or flaws to mention, and the minor ones aren't game-ruiners, either. These guys know how to make good, solid games. Like any developer, they do have a few weaknesses, though.
The graphics are the best example. Anyone who is familiar with From's work knows that they don't blow their budget on eye candy. The game is not ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not something you'd call impressive, either. Most of the monsters and environments are nice, although somewhat low in the polygon department and even a bit basic at times. "Sufficient" is the best word to describe the graphics here. However, in FromSoft's defense, their body of work is extremely convincing proof for the argument that graphics don't make a game—the gameplay does.
Another possible strike against Lost Kingdoms is that it's been advertised as both "the first RPG for the Gamecube" and as an action-RPG. It's neither. Lost Kingdoms is clearly a straight action game, with a monster-collecting element added in to make it interesting. You'd have to bend the definition of RPG pretty close to breaking in order for this game to qualify, so it's likely some people will buy this game expecting apples and then be disappointed when they get oranges. Activision's advertising department isn't doing the developers or the game any favors by misrepresenting it to the public. Lost Kingdoms is absolutely great at what it does, but it's practically the antithesis of what the term "Role-Playing Game" represents in today's market.
Besides those two minor quibbles, the only really bad thing about Lost Kingdoms is that it's over too soon. That's not really a flaw in my book, though. "Leave 'em wanting more" is a good motto, and it's proved quite true here. The game can be completed in about eight to ten hours, with an extra four or five if you're motivated to get all 105 cards and complete all sidequests. Short and sweet, the way I like it. Too many developers make the mistake of wearing gamers out with hours and hours of diluted play, and there's nothing more pointless or irritating than swimming through a sea of filler. It's rare that I can say I got to the end of a game without being bored or wanting to trim a few hours off, but I can definitely say that here.
Overall, Lost Kingdoms is quite strange in that it was utterly enjoyable for the entire duration of time that I played it. To give you an idea of how often that happens, the last time I found a game that was this much outright fun, the IRS skipped taxes that year. Seriously though, FromSoft has clearly struck game gold again on a whole new console, and I'm thinking a longer, deeper sequel is clearly called for. Some may hesitate at forking over $50.00 for something with such a short playtime, but there aren't many games out there today that provide such well-crafted, finger-twitching fun. Grab it while you can.