It's not everyday I get blindsided by an RPG I've never heard of, but it happens. I picked up Shadows Hearts last year purely because it looked interesting (despite my never having heard of it before) and I happened to have a 10% off coupon in hand. It was also last year that my friend, who had recently bought a GameCube, told me about a nifty little RPG he had picked up. He said it was kinda like Pokemon in that you caught monsters and then you summoned them out of cards. I said "What?" and figured he must have been confusing this game with one of the Yu-Gi-Oh titles since that was the only video game I could think of that involved a lot of monsters being summoned from cards. But Yu-Gi-Oh never involved capturing monsters, Yu-Gi-Oh didn't have any games on GameCube, and most importantly, the main character of Yu-Gi-Oh was not a girl.
But I didn't have a GameCube so I more or less forgot about it for several months. Then I got one for my birthday. I finished up PSO (reviewed previously in this Flame Bait collection) and my friend started talking about selling off his GameCube and his games. That's when I remembered Lost Kingdoms and asked if he still had it. He did. So I got myself a new game.
It didn't turn out to work quite the way I expected it (I didn't realize it was real-time until I actually started playing), but overall it was a good experience. Lost Kingdoms is a bizarre combination of strategy, action, and role-playing game all rolled into one. The game itself is organized into a series of combat missions, much as any strategy RPG would be, but once you're on the battlefield you have a mix of random and preset encounters that appear out in nowhere in traditional RPG fashion. Then once you're in the individual encounter itself, the combat plays out in real time with you in direct control of your hero. The main character, Princess Katia, cannot directly attack monsters herself (though she certainly can be hit by them!) so she has to rely on summoning monsters from her deck of cards to do her work for her. That's where the strategy comes in. Each of the 105 cards possible to obtain in the game does something different and has one of five elemental alignments (and the respective strengths and weaknesses against the other four). The strategy comes in selecting which cards to put in your deck and how many of them. Each mission has different elemental combinations for the enemies you'll face, so in most cases, one deck won't be the best for all scenarios. Thankfully the designers realized that and you can create and store eight different decks. I kept six personally. One each for four of the elements (I ignored the element Neutral), my leveling deck for leveling all my cards (the cards gain experience rather than Katia), and my somewhat misnamed "KickButt" deck which was designed purely to give myself the best chance of surviving the last boss. It's misnamed because while it allows me to utterly annihilate the second to last boss, and even defeat the last boss, it's so draining on me that the last mission of the game is the only one in which I earned a 1-star for my mission rating. Generally even if I'm having a bad time I'll still get at least 3-star (with 5-star being the best).
Lost Kingdoms starts out with rather nifty bit of storytelling. One day a forest disappeared, swallowed up by a solid wall of black fog. Anyone who ventured inside of it was never heard from again. And the fog spread, swallowing up a village, then a lake, and when the game itself begins, the fog is lapping at the gates of Castle Alanjeh, home of Princess Katia. There's such a feeling of foreboding that that I couldn't help wondering if I would be abandoning all her soldiers to certain death when I had to flee the castle with the family treasure (the Runestone which allows her to summon monsters from magic cards).
Unfortunately the Black Fog becomes somewhat less foreboding when it becomes apparent that just about everywhere Katia goes is infected with it and she travels inside of it just fine. She does run into a surprising lot of casualities though, so at least we know what happened to everyone else who walked into it. People aren't literally being swallowed up and disappearing. They're being killed by the monsters that exist within the Black Fog. Indeed, these monsters are the very same that Katia can capture and command through her cards.
From there the story starts out simple enough. Katia chases after her father, who has gone to meet with the other kings of the continent of Argwyll to do something about the Black Fog. When it becomes obvious that the Runestones are the enemy's target, she gathers them from each of the five kingdoms. And that makes sense, because as any good player knows, when five objects are rumored to be the seal to an ancient evil the rumor's almost always correct. But actually, that's only partially right in this case (though when I think about the source of that rumor the notion of the sealed entity being evil might be a relative term). Once Katia assembles all the Runestones she discovers the sealed God of Creation. It's not often that it's the creator god that's been put away. It's the little twists that add an extra punch to Lost Kingdom's story. One character I suspected of being a general of whoever would turn out to be the ultimate bad guy, only to find out we were actually fighting the same enemy.
The game progresses rather quickly all things considered (most missions can be resolved in twenty minutes or less if you're quick and know what you're doing), but even given the speed at which Katia acquires Runestones, I still felt like the ending came up too soon. The game length of 20-25 hours was fine. It was enough time for me to get every card in the game as well as level up my favorites. But I would've liked the four optional Sacred Beast missions to have been actual plot missions in the otherwise unused area of Bhashea (the only one of the five kingdoms to have been completely swallowed up by the Black Fog) and the heretofore unknown continent that the Enchanter comes from. You can see the location of all the missions on the world map and it just looks weird seeing a gap in the southeastern corner of the continent where Bhashea is situated. The Enchanter's continent is also strikingly empty since the only mission there is the last one in the game.
While normally I would complain that I did not get to know the primary human villain in a particular game, Lost Kingdoms works better on the basis of not knowing. Learning that a human controlled the all-fearful Black Fog with a hitherto unknown Runestone was a surprise. I had expected a more unearthly enemy. Known as the Enchanter, his reputation preceded him. And all things considered he put on an impressive fight on the battlefield, but I have just one niggling complaint. It was practically a throw-away line, but when Katia confronts him in his castle the first thing he offers her is a place as his queen. Um... hello? Evil male villains who have a thing for the female heroes should be even beyond cliché. Besides, he should know that if she traveled all this way to kick his butt she's not about to throw it away and say "Yes! You're the man of my dreams!"
The end of the game was sadly lacking though. Perhaps I've just been spoiled by the more elaborate ending sequences of the traditional RPG (which this is not), but I would've liked more than something to the effect of yay the divided lands are reunited and Katia has come back home to become queen. Granted being that she traveled alone and there were few recurring characters to have showcased at end game, it would have been nice to have had a little more of an epilogue detailing what happened to all the lands that had been under the influence of the Black Fog, what happened to the other Runestones (Did she give them back? What about the Enchanter's own?), and did Gurd disappear having done her duty to help Katia? I really like Katia. Even though like many an RPG hero she never says anything (barring a couple of one word VOs left in the original Japanese), she speaks through her actions in the cutscenes and through them you can tell the type of character she is. Female main characters (that don't share top billing with a guy) are few and far between compared to their male counterparts. You will see a male main character taking on the forces of evil solo much more often than you will see a female, and if it's a solo female she's usually some male fantasy woman in scanty and/or form fitting clothing. Katia is dressed rather demurely and while obviously a strong character for having undertaken this mission, she's also compassionate and feminine without being girly. My only complaint would probably be her ridiculous cutoff pants that stop just below the knee. ;) I think they look silly in real life and they look silly on her too. I love her cape though. It's split in half in a way they makes them look like wings when she's running.
Unfortunately, her spiritual successor in Lost Kingdoms II looks like she's been through the wringer and lost a few articles of modesty, but if the second game's otherwise much in the spirit of the first I look forward to playing it. Now I just have to wait for it to come out.