There's a fine line between keeping a winning formula from going stale and altering it so much that it loses what was good in the first place. No developer easily escapes this challenge, with even the biggest can't-lose blockbuster occasionally straying from greatness. For example, despite featuring videogame icons, both Super Mario Sunshine and Sonic Adventure 2 were greeted only halfheartedly. Capcom fared even worse with Resident Evil Zero and Devil May Cry 2, and the level of rigor mortis afflicting the Tomb Raider series is nothing short of legendary. The list goes on and on. Walking the high wire of quality sequels is an art, and if there were an infallible formula for pulling it off, CEOs would be selling their own mothers to get it.

Like others mentioned above, cult developers FromSoft (Armored Core, King's Field) have generally kept to the conservative side when releasing new iterations. However, rather than losing their fanbase to stagnation, this strategy has paid off for them in the form of a dedicated hardcore following (myself included). Their games are generally as solid as Gibraltar, and they're known for giving players what they want. However, they've taken a significant departure from their norm crafting Lost Kingdoms II, and it remains to be seen how the wisdom of this new approach will be received.

Lost Kingdoms II is a third-person action title conceptually similar to collectible card games (CCGs) Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh. But instead of using a turn-based interface, it's all about real-time combat. When enemies are encountered in a level, combat occurs immediately with no separate "battle screen" or loadtime. Featuring a main character who uses enchanted cards to summon creatures, the tale of heroine Tara Grimface takes place hundreds of years after the first Lost Kingdoms, also on the GameCube.

Tara carries a deck of mystic cards that summon creatures in five general types: Weapon, Summon, Independent, Helper, and Transform. Weapon monsters deliver aimed strikes, disappearing after a few uses. Summon monsters feature short cutscenes followed by powerful attacks, and Independent monsters function as instant teammates. Helpers don't attack, but can give special bonuses or abilities. The new type, Transform, actually changes Tara into different creatures for direct melee and navigating obstacles. Once you can remember those classifications, add six elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Wood, Mech, and Neutral) and you've got the foundation of the game down.

At first glance, the game appears identical to the first, which would have been a very welcome thing in my opinion due to the original's short playtime. However, this is not the case. Numerous changes to the formula have been made, and it pains me to say that almost all of them are poor ones. Lost Kingdoms II retains some appeal, though it's a clearly inferior sequel in several ways.

The first issue to rub me wrong was the "new & improved" camera system. When running outdoors through fields or deserts, an efficient overhead view is available. Once inside castle walls or dungeons, the viewpoint zooms to a behind-the-back perspective that doesn't work at all for this style of action. Imagine trying to play something like Gauntlet or Diablo looking over the shoulder of your character, and you'll understand my complaint. With such a limited field of vision indoors, cheap hits abound. In fairness, there is a new lock-on feature to help cope with the situation, but it's a pathetic band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

Another sore point is the new Transformation cards. It seems like a great idea to turn Tara from sideline sorceress to raging beast, but in practice it's little more than a half-baked gimmick. These cards are only good for getting past barriers like broad streams or high ledges, and it's painfully obvious that little time was spent polishing the combat and movement when transformed. For example, the Cerberus can leap high vertically, but it chugs like a tugboat in tar on the ground. The Birdman form is particularly shameful since it can fly across chasms or lakes, but it moves slower than Tara walks and can't glide down from heights or soar above low obstacles. The cumbersome handling and limited functionality of these cards is a waste of potential in general, and a death sentence during major battles.

Those things are already bad enough to retard the game's performance, but the most monumental error in judgment is the harsh castration of the game's Capture feature. In the first Lost Kingdoms, any enemy creature (save certain bosses) could be caught Pokémon-style with good skill and timing. It was incredibly addicting to try and "catch 'em all," especially since getting beat down by a fierce monster only increased the desire to harness its power. This ability could be performed at any time as long as you had cards in your deck, and kept me glued to the controller until my catalog was complete. Now, you must purchase special cards to perform this ability, and they don't come cheap. Besides being a drain on your finances, the cards are single-use. This means that unless you've got a mountain of gold handy, you're not going to be using this option much. This shift has effectively killed the series' most compelling feature and gutted hours of enjoyable replay. A worse decision could not have been made.

With all these issues present, one might wonder why the game didn't score lower. In truth, amidst all the fumbling revisions there were a few choices that weren't completely horrible, but they don't make up for everything that's wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, there are over 100 new cards to be used and experimented with, bringing the grand total to approximately 226. Such a generous number of cards means that players have an ample supply from which to create nearly endless types of decks emphasizing a wide range of styles. The deck-making interface has been also been streamlined so that sorting and arranging the cards is simple and painless.

The method with which cards are selected has also changed, although whether it's an improvement is debatable. Previously, the cards came up one by one after being randomly shuffled by the computer. You used what you were dealt and made the best of it. Now players can shuffle through their decks at will, effectively stacking their hands before entering battle. It's useful since it makes multiple-card combos a snap, but picking the cards you hold makes the game almost too easy by removing the element of chance. Although I personally thought it was an unfair advantage, I'm sure most players will welcome this new rule.

The game can be completed in about eight hours, but earning every single card will take at least another eight or ten, if not more. (It's much harder now that you can't capture monsters with impunity.) There are a large number of sidequests and hidden areas to complete, as well as at least two distinct storyline endings. Players who missed out on the original Lost Kingdoms might have an easier time acclimating to this game's dubious revisions, but there's still a good amount of content that anyone can sink their teeth into.

I find it ironic on a near-cosmic level that FromSoft can release six installments in the Armored Core series virtually identical to each other, and then tamper with the Lost Kingdoms formula so drastically after only one game. I guess it figures that when I'm finally counting on their reputation to not fix what isn't broken, they turn around and do the opposite. A glimmer of the first game's superb design and balance remains underneath these missteps, but the bottom line is that instead of building upon the solid foundation from the first game, they undermined it. It feels extremely odd for me to say so, but hopefully FromSoft will hedge their bets and play it safe with Lost Kingdoms III. Rated 6.0 out of 10

Brad Gallaway
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