I first encountered Lost Kingdoms as a rental way, way back in my adolescent years, during that post-console launch drought that followed the GameCube’s release. I found it interesting because it had a female protagonist back when the market was moving swiftly away from them, and it had a dark, grim atmosphere without descending into horror. It stuck with me, despite the very short amount of time I spent actually playing it.
Years later, I’m an adult who can pay for my own stuff, and I picked the game up because I’m a free spirit and play whatever the hell I feel like. It sat on my shelf for longer than I want to admit, but I’ve finally gotten around to playing it.
PICK A CARD, ANY CARD
Developed by From Software (To answer a question that I know some of you are asking: yes, some of the staff from Dark Souls work on this. No, the director, Hidetaka Miyazaki did not), and released exclusively for the GameCube in 2002, Lost Kingdoms is a card based, real-time RPG. You play as Princess Katia, who has to penetrate the dark fog that has enveloped her nation to try and find her father and, while she’s at it, save the kingdom, I guess. The primary goal is to collect the magical MacGuffin du jour, runestones, of which there are five of them.
The runestones allow the holder to summon monsters from cards. The cards come in three varieties: weapon, summon, and independent. The weapon cards allow you to directly strike monsters using whatever weapon the card represents, the summon will draw forth a monster that take’s Katia’s place temporarily to attack, and an independent card will call out a monster who will attack alongside Katia for as long as their energy holds out. On top of that, each card is assigned an element that dictates how effective it is against monsters of other elements. You hold four cards in your hand at any time, and using one removes it from play until either you complete the level or you use a different card to revive it. You can also remove cards from your hand, but you won’t be able to use it for the rest of the battle.
THE HAND OF FATE
Lost Kingdoms actually has a lot going for it. The art direction is pretty solid across the board. It isn’t a technical feat, by any means, but the environments are varied and appropriately desolate. You travel through deserted villages, icy canyons, volcanos, and across long bridges. The level design doesn’t conform to any specific formula, so there’s a decent amount of variety throughout. Likewise, the monsters are pretty well realized. From ghostly hands, to decaying dragons, to creatures that defy description, there are a lot of memorable designs present, which provides further incentive to get them into your hand.
The card battling is far from perfect, and we’ll certainly get to its flaws in a moment, but it is entertaining enough. While the game never becomes terribly challenging, the combat can get pretty exciting as you hurry to try and draw the perfect card or take careful aim against an enemy. I enjoyed the battles against other runestone holders, as the card-on-card battles have a feeling of rivalry to them, but they are perhaps to hectic for their own good. It also presents the opportunity to experiment and find what cards work best for you and how to slot your deck. Overall, I found it pretty enjoyable.
You can get new cards from chests littering the levels; as a reward for completing a level; capturing them in battle; or buying, upgrading, or copying them from the store. Each time a card participates in the demise of a monster, they gain experience points which can be used to clone the card or upgrade it. If you miss out on getting a boss card at the end of the stage, the upgrade system may be the only way to get them, and it works pretty well; giving incentive to use different cards in the hopes of creating a better one. The capture system, on the other hand, is a bit lackluster. You first have to get an enemy down to a modicum of health, then sacrifice (temporarily. It can be revived) one of the cards in your hand. It’s nice when the stars align and you’re able to snag a good card, but those instances can sometimes be rare.
WITHOUT A FULL DECK
There are some major issues within the card system though, not least of which is how tremendously unbalanced it is. I never found a use for even the most powerful of independent cards, because they very rarely hit their targets and end up wasting more time and energy than you would by taking matters into your own hands. My final deck had exactly one independent card in it, and I was debating getting rid of even that.
Speaking of my final deck, it became drastically unvaried towards the end. I probably had 6 or 7 banshees in total in the 30 card deck, since they were long range and I found that they’d absolutely wreck most opponents. At the same time, whenever I’d come across a card whose description states that it’s not available in 2-player mode due to the fair play rule, I’d instantly slot it into my deck, because any card that isn’t fair to use on another human is sure to be overpowered. The end boss battle ended up being challenging only because of how much chaos was happening on the screen, rather than any sort deficiency in my strategy or deck.
You also can’t replay completely levels until you’ve finished the game, which absolutely mystifies me. You’re graded out of five stars when you complete a level, so no being permitted to go back and try again is vexing. There’s also the situations where you didn’t have the chance to go back and pick up a card, which is even further aggravating. Personally, this was at its worst on a particular level that constantly described a fantastic treasure that was hidden within. I went to the effort of unlocking the door that protected the treasure, but made the mistake in assuming that it was the objective for the level. So, I decided I’d go back and defeat a boss that I’d been pursuing thoughout the map before picking up the treasure, but the instant I felled the boss, the level was complete and I had no way to go back and get it. In the grand scheme of things, I guess I didn’t need that treasure, but it’s really annoying that I didn’t have the option to go get it.
I don’t hear much talk of Lost Kingdoms these days, which is sort of fitting, given the title. It failed to make any sort of splash when it was first released, and after a single sequel, faded out into nothingness. That’s a shame, because it’s not a bad game. There are certainly places where it could have been improved, especially when it comes to balancing, but I had fun with it while it lasted. Which is about 6 hours; sort of thin.
Overall, it’s a decent GameCube exclusive that I think is worth checking out, especially if you enjoy card games and want that sort of gameplay within a real-time RPG. Missing out on it wouldn’t be a crime, but I think letting the game go forgotten might be.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo GameCube with an original disk version of the game. It was paid for by the author.