Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes of the Lance Review

Developer: SSI Publisher: FCI
Release Date: 1990 Also On: Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, MSX, NES, Sega Master System, ZX Spectrum

And yet again we gamers and NES fans are met with a terrible wraith of a title. As you may already know, though the Dungeons and Dragons series on home computers was excellent, most ports of the original games are terrible. This is a perfect example of how terrible they can be. But this legendary gem of suck is beyond terrible not just because it’s a poor port, but because it’s a port of a poor game to begin with. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes of the Lance departed from the traditional RPG format of most games in the series, and many fans were disappointed by what ended up being a tedious, hack-and-slash title with tons of serious flaws. The best version, in my opinion, is the one for the Sega Master System, but for now we’re tackling what may be the worst port of this title ever, and in fact a game that’s achieved a cult status for how bad it is in addition to being named one of the worst video games of all time. Let’s see why.

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To start, Heroes of the Lance has some of the worst graphics possible on the NES, which is even more of a shame because the system has some pretty good capabilities. The programmers clearly didn’t even try here and it looks like this title was thrown together in a few hours. The opening credits have been cut down to graphical messes that hardly resemble anything. I don’t think I’ve seen a worse title graphic than in this game, it’s so poor it’s nearly incomprehensible what the image is. The most redeeming feature are the portraits at the start, which have a fair amount of detail and a pretty good color scheme, but as you go further it only gets worse. The character portraits during the game are bland with no more than three colors and jumbled detail that could easily be pulled off on a 5200. The game proper is even more dreadful, with terribly slow animations and awfully rendered enemies and characters. It’s really amazing to me how much they cut out of this version because it looks way below what the NES is capable of. The majority of the original arrangment is here, but again, as you can assume, stripped down to hell. The playing area has been cut almost in half and most of the detail of the backgrounds is missing. Enemies, such as the gully dwarves, look terrible. They amount to nothing more than small midgets that walk with a hunch as though centinarians with bad knees, and to add pity to their poor existence when they finally reach you they let loose this lifeless shin kick that really needs to be witnessed to be understood. Characters like Sturm poke with their weapons instead of swinging them and the one character who does swing his weapon, Flint, does it as though he were swatting at a birdie during a badminton match. The final boss is a huge black mess that should have been the one thing in the game where they had some detail to throw at you that moves its legs endlessly even though it’s standing in place and there’s so much more that I could probably write an entire review about how bad this game is based on graphics alone. But before I go too far, let’s get to the next category.

As far as sound goes, the musical score has essentially remained the same for the most part. The opening theme is actually well programmed and though cheery is the same thing they used before and it’s been preproduced here well. In the game proper the main theme compliments the action, though the game still looks bad and there really isn’t any to begin with, and sets something of a dark mood, so I have to say it’s a decent job overall. The only problem with it is that it’s about ten seconds long and then it repeats, but it is broken up by other tunes here and there so there is a bit of variety. Where Heroes of the Lance really fails in this category are the sound effects. Every creature has the same “waah” sound when you hit them, but this is hardly as bad as the sound you hear when one of your characters dies, which is something like a very effiminate man falling down a set of stairs. Sword slashing, or I mean poking, sounds like fly swatting, almost every spell sounds like an explosion, which in fact is the same sound you hear when an enemy dies, almost every creature has this odd trot and when you get struck by anything it sounds like a brief hoot from an owl. I believe that’s all of the effects too, no joke, there are probably only five or six in all, reused in different ways. They just didn’t try here at all, awful, just awful, these are some of the worst effects ever programmed, which is again a shame because the NES is capable of way more.

The main reason, however, why all fans of the original series pretty much hated this game when it was first released is the gameplay. Every version I’ve played has the same thing, so I’m sure each port is exactly the same in this respect and thus why none of them should really be bothered with in spite of better graphics or sound. So though they did a nice job making a game from the storyline this came from, Heroes of the Lance disappointed everyone because it’s simply not a role-playing game in any respect and what remains could even be argued to be hardly anything worthy of the title Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The basic set up is that you have eight characters in your party, but you can only play as one at a time unless using spells, choosing different characters, moving items and so forth through an interface accessed by pressing pause. There are a variety of enemies to encounter, different items to collect and use, passageways to map if you can figure it out (read further) and a pretty large environment to move around in where you can save your progress at any point and begin right where you left off. Really, it could have possibly worked in spite of the graphics and sound if some of the issues I’m about to explain were tweaked.

First off, the idea of eight characters works fine, except that most of them are useless and really nothing more than extra lives to play with if you’re in a bind. One of the basic ideas behind Dungeons and Dragons is the ‘party’, which consists of a number of different characters who each do their own thing together. In this game, whoever you have in the lead is who you move around and do things with unless one of the two magic users is in the first four slots. Pretty lame, especially because there really aren’t many instances where any one character is better suited to the environment than the other. Second, due to the arrangement here, which is nothing more than a hack-and-slash title with an interface, you have absolutely no clue where you’re going. The manual includes no map and there is no mapping feature. Problem is that when you’re standing in front of a doorway it will say you can go north, so you do and then go a bit and then another door says west but when you enter this door you’re in the same area where you started so it really makes it confusing. Somehow up and down are constantly east/west or north/south, which doesn’t make any sense. I have absolutely no idea how this game is layed out and neither will you, so you’re stuck with going through door after door until you finally collect the disks and fight the final boss.

Third problem is the action itself, terrible. Every character moves so incredibly slow it’s nearly a crawl, including during combat sequences when you fight the little midgets, ghosts, ‘humans’ who look more like car mechanics holding newspapers and other nonsense. You have to hold down or just attack to poke them and have to continuously move back and hit when they approach and keep doing it until they’re dead. Other enemies require spells to destroy them or protect yourself from their attacks, but regardless the main action is dreadful, beyond boring and too slow for words. Even more terrible is jumping, which will cause you several characters throughout this amazing adventure because it’s impossible to do without a running start, and when you encounter a pit with no running room… The interface you can use to move around weapons, items and use spells is actually very well done and smooth, which is probably the only good aspect of Heroes of the Lance. You can move characters, heal them, shoot spells as long as the magic users are in the front and so forth. Really no problems with it at all, it’s the only thing you’re not going to hate in this game. Fourth problem I had was that Heroes way too easy. You don’t get any experience or anything since this isn’t an RPG; your party simply starts out with full power and that’s it. You can keep healing everyone and once you get down the strange controls to kill everything it’s pretty much a breeze with little difficulty whatsoever. Once you finally seem to be making headway and find the disks, it’s not too far to get to the dragon to end the misery. I could go on about other aspects, but trust me, if this isn’t enough you’ll find plenty more if you’re foolish enough to play.

As for creativity, though terrible, Heroes of the Lance does have some elements that are creative. During this time really only one Dungeons and Dragons title was released for home computers that played as a traditional RPG, and Heroes was one of the first attempts at doing something different while staying within the world of the game by basing it on a module and book series. The idea of turning it into hack-and-slash adventure with an interface is pretty novel, though it didn’t turn out very well. However, in spite of that I’m not going to draw the score down because the interface does really make this game play as well as it can, and it was a leap of faith to try to pull something like this off. Of course, I’m partially referring to the original version, but regardless I think it’s a pretty creative game, just not very entertaining, at all.

As for replay value, I can’t say I’ve ever come back to Heroes of the Lance other than to laugh at it and see the ending again or mess around with game mechanics to find everything poorly programmed and stupid therein. I really doubt that anyone would honestly say they would come back to play this because it’s good. In terms of gamelength, it’s a pretty long game in some respects, but this stems mainly from the confusion of the world map. However, the usage of the save system where you can start exactly where you left off is a wonderful feature for a game during this time period, so it has that going for it.

Though Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes of the Lance was something of a novelty when it first came out, it wasn’t a very good novelty and disgusted many fans back in the day. Why anyone would want to try to port this when there were a few other D and D games more worthy is beyond me, they could have perhaps, you know, fixed it instead of using the awkward arrangement that caused problems originally. Even more disappointing is how much the programmers sidestepped the NES’ capabilities and let loose something that looks and plays so terribly, especially when one considers that this was the heyday of some really important titles. Surprisingly, this game has a cult following of weirdos that talk in old english and pretend they take it seriously, but there’s a reason they started to do so and if you play it you’ll find out why. Serious gamers stay away, but anyone who’s in the mood for a laugh may want to check it out. I’m not being serious.

Graphics: 2
Sound: 4.5
Gameplay: 3.5
Creativity: 5
Replay Value/Game Length: 1.5
Final: 3.3
Written by Stan Review Guide

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