Game-related ramblings.

History Lessons: Lord Of The Sword

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I’d never heard of Lord of the Sword before doing research for this series. Released on June 2, 1988, a little over a month after our last entry Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, Lord of the Sword was allegedly inspired by Wonder Boy In Monster Land, the arcade platformer with role-playing elements that released a year earlier. That game was a pleasant surprise when I played its Master System port for this series, so I was intrigued going in to Lord of the Sword.

Developed in house by Sega for their Master System console, Lord of the Sword is actually fairly different to Wonder Boy In Monster Land. Its art is a bit grittier and less cartoony, or perhaps it’s more of a Saturday morning action cartoon style versus Wonder Boy’s cute style. Character and enemy sprites are much larger, colors are more muted, and the art uses a lot of dithering for shading effects. It’s a style that works well for the premise. The country of Baljinya is under threat from an evil cult who have killed the king and his family, and hope to resurrect the demon they worship. The cult’s foul beasts stalk the roads, and merely setting foot outside town is dangerous. The elders of the land look for a hero who can pass three tests to become the new king: find the Tree of Marill, the symbol of the royal family; defeat the Goblin in Balala Valley; and destroy the evil stone idol. This reminded me of the story of Zelda II, where the tests laid by the player’s so-called allies can be even more dangerous than the forces of evil they are fighting against. Maybe one day the elders will realize they should stop trying to get their heroes killed.

Anyway, Landau the Brave steps up to attempt the trials, which he does by traveling the world in traditional side-view platforming style and battling enemies with his sword and bow. As I read the manual, I was concerned that both of the gamepad face buttons are for attacks, one for Landau’s sword and one for his bow, leaving jumping bound to the up direction on the d-pad. That sounded like it would be really hard to control jumps, but it turns out this is because jumping isn’t all that important in Lord of the Sword. Things that would be instant death traps in other platformers, like the pits of water that hide deadly leaping fish, are actually safe to fall into, the water only coming up to Landau’s knees. Jumping is just a way to navigate onto higher ledges, and isn’t done that often.

Instead, Lord of the Sword is all about fighting. Landau’s sword makes quick attacks, either an overhead chop while standing or a low slash when crouching. Since the screen doesn’t scroll until Landau has moved a little past the center, there’s not a lot of warning for upcoming threats when they appear. Reacting quickly with correctly timed sword strikes is key to dispatching enemies unscathed. When possible, however, it’s better to use Landau’s bow, which lets him stay back out of harm’s way. It takes a little longer to nock an arrow than to swing his sword, but Landau won’t loose the arrow until the player releases the button, so he can keep bow drawn until the right moment. In a pleasing detail, an arrow that hits a wall will fall to the ground, but can still damage enemies during the fall, sometimes dispatching those who are usually too low to the ground for a bow shot. Height is really important for using the bow, and many areas are designed so that clever positioning onto higher ground allows Landau to dispatch a dangerous foe with an arrow so he won’t have to brave its attacks. As I traveled the roads and learned the quirks of the enemies, I started to anticipate ambushes, look for centipedes hidden in the grass, and nock an arrow whenever I saw one of the birds fly past before reversing and swooping at Landau. Survival requires quick reactions and, to some extent, remembering what threats are coming next, but I found the combat to be a fun challenge.

But it’s not just the action that’s different than Wonder Boy In Monster Land. Lord of the Sword actually lacks most of the role-playing trappings of that game. There’s no money, and therefore no shopping for better equipment. There isn’t even any type of leveling system for Landau, not even a simple increase in health like Wonder Boy got. Landau can find more powerful swords and bows as he explores and completes tasks, but that’s it. Lord of the Sword is really more of a straight action game, then, but it’s structured like a role-playing game. Perhaps the largest departure from Wonder Boy In Monster Land is the open world design. There are no discrete stages here. Landau travels roads between towns, and explores other dangerous locales, in whatever order he likes. Many areas have a low or high path at one or both ends, leading to different routes through Baljinya.

It’s not the most complex world design, as nearly all areas simply scroll left or right, without any vertical element (although some late stages add multiple floors, navigated by stairs reminiscent of the Castlevania games), and towns are very simple, with just a few buildings and only one in each that can be entered. But traveling back and forth between towns feels more natural than the sequence of fixed stages of Wonder Boy In Monster Land, and makes Landau’s quest feel like a real quest. He has to travel around, get clues from the town residents, and explore dangerous places to find his objectives. He also has to travel back and forth as he completes tasks, which means each area is traversed in both directions which mixes up the challenges. Landau has a generous health bar and can take many hits before he falls, but getting to the next town where he can heal is often quite the ordeal, requiring a trek through forests, mountain passes, and open plains that are all riddled with monstrous creatures who serve the evil cult. One of the few design elements that still feels like an arcade game is how Landau’s death is handled. Players can elect to continue from the area where he perished, but there are only ten continues before they have to start the whole game over again.

This surely made the game last longer for players in 1988, which was good because there were far fewer games available, so most people wanted something that would occupy them for a while. But I found it a bit frustrating, particularly because the quest structure in the game is really odd. One of the first things I did was wander left instead of right from the first town, finding a mountain route full of tough enemies, but after a few continues I got through and realized I’d found the evil statue. One of Landau’s three tasks is to destroy it! But I couldn’t interact with the statue at this point. I clearly needed to do something else first, so I headed elsewhere. But when I did finally find someone who gave me an item to use on the statue, and traveled back there, I still couldn’t do anything. Many parts of Lord of the Sword don’t work until players have talked to people and found the correct dialogue options, and even then it’s not obvious which conversations are the real triggers. Turning to the internet later, I learned that the Wizard could have given me one last hint that would have activated the statue quest, but he didn’t because I’d already done something else that changed his dialogue. I actually ended up finishing the game without ever dealing with the statue.

Many other prompts for quests are similarly obscure. For some reason, Landau only heals a tiny bit when talking to someone in town, so he has to keep entering their building over and over to heal. Eventually I realized this was probably to encourage players to talk to townsfolk multiple times, because they sometimes change their dialogue. I’d get several hints about some monster to go slay, but then the monster wouldn’t be there when I went to find it. Turns out I had to talk to that one specific guy in that one town or it doesn’t spawn. Some areas of the world are just blocked off, the paths leading there ending abruptly (or simply not showing up at all) until players have had the right conversations. I sometimes found myself randomly wandering around, wondering which town I had to go to for my next hint. I eventually turned to the internet for advice and discovered that certain tasks can be done out of order, enough so that Landau can find the most powerful sword before getting a less powerful one (which means he can downgrade his weapon if he picks it up). On the one hand, I’m impressed that these different sequences are even possible, but I wish they were designed better, and there were clearer hints about where to go next at certain points.

Slowly piecing together what to do may have been fun in 1988, but I quickly fell back on using save states to avoid running out of continues. As with Wonder Boy In Monster Land, I played Lord of the Sword via emulation, using the Genesis Plus GX core in the Retroarch frontend, which meant I could save whenever I wanted. The original game had no save system whatsoever, so players had to complete the game in a single sitting. With save states I was able to return across multiple play sessions, and complete the final stages of Landau’s quest without having to start over from the beginning. That helped, but I still wish the quest structure and correct path through the game was easier to figure out.

That said, I liked a lot of things about Lord of the Sword. The more common environments like forests and plains occasionally reuse an area or two in different parts of the world, but overall there’s a lot of variety in Baljinya, and I enjoyed finding more exotic places like caves and swamps when Landau neared his three objectives. The core combat design is solid, and I enjoyed learning how to deal with each of its colorful and varied enemies. Some areas combine these creatures in devious ways to create new challenges, like dealing with a stealthy Book Thief while several birds line up their swoop attacks at the same time. Since there’s no experience system or other rewards for dispatching enemies, I soon learned that simple evasion is often the safest and best strategy. Most bosses were fun to figure out, although a few required enough trial and error that they would have ended my game if I hadn’t been using save states. Landau’s more powerful weapons actually made a big difference when traveling the world, reducing the danger by dispatching foes quickly. And it was cool to see the different story threads tying together near the end.

Lord of the Sword didn’t review particularly well at the time, likely due to the same complaints I’ve leveled above. It’s a shame that it never got a sequel, though, because a better quest design grafted onto the core combat and open world on display here would make a big difference. Lord of the Sword also maintains a darker tone than many of its contemporaries, which makes it stand out a bit. Given its frustrations, though, I wouldn’t recommend trying to tackle it without using save states, and you might want to check a guide too. As far as I know, Lord of the Sword is not available through any official digital channels, so the only way to play is with an original cartridge and hardware, or via emulation as I did.

Last time, I was really happy to announce that I’d finally gotten my timeline in order for this series, but playing Lord of the Sword made me realize I’d left out an earlier game that I probably should have included. So, next I’ll be going back in time again. But hopefully after that, I’ll return to a chronological order. Stay tuned!

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  1. I’ve never played this one and I don’t remember it getting any coverage in the magazines of the time, although I got my Master System in around 1990, so Lord of the Sword would have been old news by then. I do have one magazine from 1992 in arm’s reach and it gives the game an overall score of 85%!

    I haven’t played Castlevania II either, but I know enough about it to recognise some familiar elements from your description of LotS. I wonder how similar they are?

    • I should have clarified in the post that June 1988 was the original Japanese release date, the American release didn’t arrive until March 1989. Still before you got your Master System, I guess. Also, you have correctly guessed the game I need to go back in time to play next. I did own (or at least, long-term borrowed from a friend?) Castlevania II as a kid, and if I remember correctly it’s only similar to Lord of the Sword at a high level. The combat feels different, and there’s much more jumping vertical navigation in Castlevania II. Also Castlevania II is all about finding obscure secrets that are next to impossible to figure out without a guide, especially since the English translation is poor, and most of the townsfolk are liars in the original Japanese version anyway. Lord of the Sword is more about figuring out what order to talk to people, but Castlevania II requires players to e.g. equip a specific item and then kneel for 5 seconds in the right place to open up a secret passage. I never finished it back then so I’m looking forward to completing it for my next entry in this series!

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