I wasn't sure if Lost Kingdoms II was going to make it out in the States, given that the first game was not a much-talked about title and flew under the radar of most people. But thankfully Activision saw fit to release it, even though the production costs of the translation must have been higher for the sequel than the original.
Given the peculiar game mechanics of the first installment and that it was not a hit game, I imagined that the sequel would use an almost identical engine to save time and money developing it. Surprisingly, it's not. It looks as though they may have overhauled it, but it's not identical and I'm not sure that it's for the better. There are a lot of noticeable changes between the first and second game, even though the core of it is the same; the player collects cards from which the main character can summon monsters. Probably the most irritating change would be the camera angles/level design.
In the first Lost Kingdoms battles were random encounters that transitioned to a near identical battle map to the area Katia was just standing in, except cut off to encompass a smaller area. So if she was in the ruins of a city, the combat itself would be restricted to taking place around maybe one building and if Katia hit the edge of the visible map then she would have the option of running away from the fight entirely. Because the map was predivided into potential combat areas, situations rarely occured where there would be a wall in the way that could potentially block a camera angle. Also, the walls that remained were generally low enough that the camera would be positioned above them. This enabled me to use the closest angle possible to a top-down view and I had a good look at the positioning of enemies all around me.
In Lost Kingdoms II the design has been changed so that there are no longer any random encounters. Instead, enemies appear immediately on screen and can be avoided completely if the player is able to sneak by them when their back is turned or if the player is able to run away from them quickly enough. Some enemies will even respawn after defeat. Normally that's not a big deal because without random encounters they need a way to refill the mission with enemies, but it's bad when they respawn almost immediately. There's one set of enemies that is completely stationary in a difficult timed level and they only take a split second to respawn so it's difficult to get past them.
And then the map walls are higher. The problem with this is that when the new main character, Tara, is running close to any walls, the camera angle shifts to roughly an over-the-shoulder height. Sometimes, if there are narrow walls on both sides, the player has no choice at all and must make do with this lower angle. This view is very restrictive towards looking at anything other than the horizontal distance the camera is facing. An enemy could be just to the left, right, or back of Tara and be mostly or completely off screen. Also, due to a strangeness in the game design, if a monster wanders too far away from its original spawn point and a new set of monsters spawn in the upcoming area, the first monster will disappear. This may result in oddities such as Tara fleeing for her life only to turn around and see that the monster has disappeared. Aside from the surprise at no longer seeing a pursing monster, this can sometime be annoying if the player meant to turn around and finish it off. It's rarely a good idea to waste cards in this game (since it affects mission ratings and the highly valuable cards the player can earn for getting a good rating), and it's especially irritating to know that the half-dead enemy is now gone and without giving any experience points to show for it.
Other differences between the two games come in the cards themselves. Not unexpectedly, the card list has been expanded from 105 to 226. What shouldn't have been unexpected that I actually hadn't thought about, was that the path of upgrading cards had changed as well. It used to be possible to get a Red Dragon out of a Red Lizard card, for instance, but now Red Dragons come out of Baby Dragons (which didn't exist in the first game). For the most part the changes now make better sense. The Dark Raven only can be upgraded into bird cards now (Horus and Phoenix), whereas in the first game one of its upgrades was the Chimera (not very birdlike). Also with the 123 new cards it makes sense that they would have to be incorporated with the original 105 in a way that they compliment each other (instead of having two separate blocks of cards in which one cannot be turned into the other). But now some monsters don't have any upgrades at all and I have to admit that bothers me. I did not immediately realize that they didn't, but that might have been because I was used to the first game where everything had an upgrade, even the legendary God of Destruction card earned at the end of the game.
The fact I didn't notice the lack of upgrades might not have been so bad if not for the fact that it's a lot harder to "level up" cards in Lost Kingdoms II than in the first game. I'm not sure if the experience systems are equivalent, but I get the impression that they are close. I used to be able to copy and upgrade cards like crazy. Now it takes forever, and half the time I'm in the card shop I'm just there to check on my progress instead of actually changing anything. Whereas it used to take me 5000 experience to get a new Black Dragon card, it now takes 50000. The designers also tweaked the experience points needed to copy or upgrade to a particular card so that they are universal. It used to be that getting certain upgrades was easier or harder depending on the source card, but now it's the same across the board (assuming one has enough of the source cards to spare).
By the end of the game I only had 176 out of the 226, almost 78%. I had nearly all of them at the end of the original Lost Kingdoms and one of those could only be earned by beating the game. (Oddly enough, there is no special card earned for beating Lost Kingdoms II.) Perhaps in what is an effort to squeeze more gameplay out of the game, beating the last boss unlocks a bonus twenty (!) level area full of nothing but rooms of monsters so the player can capture most of the creatures they missed in order to complete their card collection.
I'm actually a bit irritated that in this game it is possible to miss collecting certain cards entirely. I got lucky and wound up with two of the three "limited opportunity" cards, but the third I only understood how to get after reading a FAQ, and by then I was at the end of the game and had already screwed up the trigger I needed in order to get it.
But it looks like I may give Lost Kingdoms II another whirl in the future, despite my not liking it as much as the first game, and the reason for that is that it had two endings. (I guess I'm a completist at heart. I can also get the cards I previously missed and level the ones I want to upgrade more efficiently next time.) Thankfully the game clocks in at a little over 20 hours so this isn't a big ordeal to go through.
One of the things that Lost Kingdoms II did really well as far as imagery goes is in the typical "I'll hold them back!" scene where the main character is thrust to safety while someone else (who we can be pretty sure is doomed) holds off a deadly enemy or enemies. When Sol did that for Tara I thought it was too soon. Tara was just rediscovering her heritage and Sol had been the key to all of that. And though I had cursed his ineptitude on the battlefield (his AI is utterly terrible during the missions the player is forced to bring him along and caused me an automatic failure numerous times because he died), he was the most human character out of the entire cast.
So when Tara escaped to safety I naturally figured that Sol had died the classic death, as in he died and if anything was found of him later it would probably be his sword or something else symbolic of him to be given to Tara. Imagine my surprise when I revisited the place he had died and saw him leaning against the wall near where he and Tara had parted ways. At first I thought he was still alive and then I thought "No way! I must've been gone for days, even within the reality of a video game." And actually, my latter thought was correct. Sol was dead, and seeing Tara actually cradling his dead body as the words "Mission Completed" appeared on screen was very powerful. I don't think I've seen that done before. I mean, there's always been the died in one's arms scene, but nothing quite like this, where but for a brief moment a hope that shouldn't have been there returned and was crushed.
But as soon as I learned there were two endings to this game I thought "I bet Sol's death is the turning point." and I'm right. By completing one of the major side quests before Sol's death it is possible to keep him alive. I suppose it's rather unusual in that the life in question this time is actually a guy's. Usually players are trying to keep the female love interest alive instead of the male, but hey, the Lost Kingdoms series makes for great chances of equal opportunity.
Lost Kingdoms II's story is, oddly enough, less epic than the first game. That sounds crazy in this world of sequels that strive to outdo all that's been done before, but it works rather well here. Katia's struggle in the first game resulted in the departure of both the God of Creation and the God of Destruction so that they would no longer involve the humans of the world in their war. Rather than bring that struggle back, this story focuses on two less epic storylines; the renegade province of Kendarie's attempt to take over the kingdom and Tara rediscovering her heritage.
Of course, the Kendarie unleash nothing less than the soulless body of the God of Harmony (who as a whole was responsible for sealing away the other two gods prior to the conflict in the first game), and in the end they lose control of it, but the conflict is still limited to the Kendarie wanting to control the kingdom--not the world--just the kingdom. Lost Kingdoms II doesn't even cover the geographical scope of the first game. While the sequel does visit Bhashea for the first time (it'd been all but consumed by the Black Fog in the first game so Katia never went there), it doesn't touch Grayl or the other continent where the lost kingdoms of the first game's title resided (bad choice of new name by the American translators I suppose since it no longer applies to the sequel).
Tara's personal story unravels a bit unevenly. In the opening cinematic the player sees her as a young girl being desposited in some rural village and left by herself with only a magic Runestone. It's plain that she's being abandoned and, from her nice dress, that she probably hails from a well-to-do family. Then flashing forward some fifteen/twenty years according to a townsperson in one of the villages (which more than likely puts her past her teenage years--how unusual!), Tara is now grown up and has fallen in with a group of bandits. Lost Kingdoms II features voice acting for the first time and, with the exception of one line during the ending, Tara herself never talks. Her flashback self as a little girl does, but not her current self. Because she never talks, we have to take it for granted that she's as cold and hard-bitten as everyone around her says she is. Even though Katia never spoke in the first game, there were less characters for her to interact with and her actions seemed to speak for themselves. Tara's animations don't look grumpy enough for me to really buy that she's really that much of a cold fish.
What I found surprising is that Tara seems to have forgotten her past. Granted she was potentially traumatized over being abandoned and could have locked away all her good memories, she kept the Runestone her mother gave her so she obviously cherished her previous life. And the reason the issue of what she does or does not remember becomes irritating is because the player is left in the dark. Tara does not speak directly to the player so finding out that Tara is the queen's twin sister (and that Tara somehow does not remember a detail as important as that) is... bothersome.
Apparently, for the first time since the days of Katia (apparently Argwyll became a matriarchy after she claimed the throne), a queen had twin daughters. Afraid there would eventually be a fight to claim the throne, her advisors told her to get rid of one of them. In my opinion, she chose the wrong one because Rashiannu is a terrible brat. Alas. So young Audriannu was abandoned and eventually became Tara. But her mother left her a precious gift in the form of the Queen's Runestone, so she could protect herself.
This becomes a sticking point later when the Kendarie invasion is underway, because only the Queen's Runestone can summon the most powerful monsters from the cards. The now adult Rashiannu knows that she doesn't have the real Runestone, so she's rather... abrupt in her methods of getting it back so she can defend her kingdom. But since Rashiannu isn't the hero she of course fails to use the Runestone adequately and it's up to Tara to fix everything. Rashiannu eventually drops her case of sour grapes late in the game, but it's a little too late. I'll grant that it must've been terrible for her to rule while only pretending to have the Runestone. It would be like having a photo of an army instead of a real army. She could threaten to use it, but if anyone ever called her bluff she'd lose. Despite that, she could've at least given Tara the chance to defend the castle with it first. Since Tara had been using it for years, it would be understandable that she's better acquainted with how to use it.
The voices in this game, for the most part, also stink. Tara's one line in the actual game is okay, and Sol isn't too bad, but just about everyone else makes me wish they had left the dialogue in Japanese since the dialogue boxes cover everything they say. The first Lost Kingdoms did quite handily without voices at all, barring a few untranslated snippets of Japanese (generally only a word or two of which the meaning can be understood if not the word).
Lost Kingdoms II offers some pretty neat bonuses for players of the original game. The Sacred Battle arena allows the player to duel Runestone masters of age past, which include nothing less than Helena, Thalnos, and Katia from the first game. I haven't unlocked Thalnos and Katia yet, but it was a pleasant memory dueling Helena. Best of all, after beating them and certain other opponents throughout the game, enables the player to choose them in two-player versus mode.
It would be neat to see more nostalgia bits in other games. Unfortunately, I doubt there will be a Lost Kingdoms III. Since the creator and destroyer gods are gone as well as the body of the God of Harmony, the only remotely divine being left is Gurd, who is more or less the spirit of the God of Harmony. It would be nice if a third game would go to the lost continent Thalnos hailed from, but I think the series settles very nicely with these two installments and I'd be afraid of seeing something try to "top" it.
But there is one plot thread that could be pursued. The subplot that saves Sol also involves a sort of weird cult called the Isamat Urber whose members are trying to free their souls from their bodies. The completion of the subplot only goes as far as giving the item that saves Sol (I completed the subplot after Sol died--but the item appears to have no use if gained after that point in time) so we don't learn much about the cult except that they exist and that they somehow have Runestones of their own. It appears that Runestones can only be created by the deities (the God of Harmony created the ten in the previous game that became the Queen's Runestone and the body of the God of Harmony created weaker "fake" Runestones out of the soulless bodies of its victims) so it would appear that the Isamat Urber Runestones would have to have come from the God of Harmony was well, but Gurd doesn't seem to know anything about them.
I suppose if anything would lead into a third game that would be it, but I really think the series is fine if it remains the way it is. I really don't want to be thrown into a cliche involving more lost gods and weird cults.