Somewhere between MOBA, Real Time Strategy, Tower Defense and action RPG lives a game called Lornsword Winter Chronicle. It’s a strange game that tries to answer the age old question of how to make a compelling strategy game specifically balanced for playing on a gamepad — and even more specifically, a console. To top it all off, for certain brief periods at least, it even succeeds at its task.
Whilst I may have reluctantly come to like Lornsword, it certainly took a while to get there. The game opens with some very striking, beautifully illustrated stills that deliver the story. Our hero, Corun Lan Ka, is a family man who has no interest in war, yet through a fairly contrived and mercifully short set of tutorial missions, he is soon promoted to General in the service of the Lorn Empire.
Lornsword clumsily delivers the message that the wealthiest among us pull all the strings, even over monarchs and ancient traditions, leading to the consistent and regular abuse of regular people. Whilst I might not rate the quality of writing, I enjoy the message that Lornsword’s narrative aims to deliver, and there’s a childish simplicity to the way it views good and evil — and in particular the point at which the lines blur.
Whilst much of the real exposition comes in the form of the almost stained-glass style cut scenes that I mentioned earlier, there is also some plot development during missions. On one occasion, the game even blends the two styles together, as Corun awakes from a shaking nightmare in which his greatest fear — dying without securing the future of his family — is realised literally via an unwinnable battle.
The story of Lornsword, clunky and amateurish as it may be, does act as an anchor that will keep you focussed during the dull early missions. Lornsword is a game that blends tower defense, real time strategy and basic hack and slash action in a way that seems simplistic and uninteresting at first, which is a problem not aided by the awful visuals.
The first (mostly tutorial) campaign takes place in a sandy desert that is often entirely featureless. It’s only by the last level in this particular part of the campaign that you’ll begin to see some of the crags, lakes and other terrain that the sand biome in Lornquest is made up of, but I do fear that some players might abandon the game long before they get there.
In doing so, they’d also miss out on some of the other interesting features — such as split screen cooperative play with the ability for a second player to drop in and out at will. They’d also miss the more interesting maps, which include wintery forests and fairly lush grasslands, but more importantly, anyone who quits Lornquest too early will miss out on what turns out to be a unique and quirky gameplay that becomes ever more enjoyable as the complexity of the levels increases.
Gameplay is a little difficult to explain. The player controls Corun as he runs around the battlefield constructing new buildings, attacking enemies directly and summoning various elemental beings to support his troops. The troops themselves are spawned automatically at the appropriate buildings, and — depending on the setting — applied to a flag on each building, they will either defend the surrounding area, hold their position or amass in groups of five before following a set path towards an enemy stronghold.
Corum can run up to any of his troops or summoned elemental creatures and hold down the right trigger to have them gather to him. With up to fifteen followers, he can then run to wherever aid is needed and press the right bumper to drop troops off. Use of the right stick allows Corun to use his far sight, which basically means panning the camera around the map, with visibility anywhere that you have a soldier or a building.
Buildings are limited based on the amount of food Corun’s force has access to, with each farm usually adding capacity for four new buildings at a default level. Each building can be upgraded with things like armour plating, archery turrets or to enhance the units spawned there, and these upgrades don’t count towards the building limit, so where food is scarce, upgrades become necessary. All buildings and upgrades cost gold, which must be fined from locations usually found along the patrol routes.
The objective of many (but by no means all) missions is to destroy one or several enemy bases, with a few variations on the theme. The enemy (or enemies) will almost always have a plan of their own, which can often include quite a direct aggressive strategy towards the player, or on some occasions it might be more focussed on other areas of the map. Later in the game, the player will usually have enemies approaching from several streams at once, with a need to both defend their base and take out the enemy bases.
Played cooperatively, Lornsword is a lot easier, such is the need for Corun (if on his own) to cover a lot of ground when the battle shifts from one area (perhaps leading an attack) to another (when a gold mine on the opposite side of the map needs defending.) Corun can’t be in two places at once and although he can sprint, doing so uses up the same stamina bar that he uses to summon elementals.
A second player addresses this problem by obviously enabling the two players to work separately, but little else changes in terms of balance. This can mean that some levels feel punishing when played solo, whilst others can be too easy in cooperative mode. One interesting (or frustrating, depending on how you look at it) restriction is that resources are no more or less plentiful in either mode, leading to the players having to share troops and the crystals that restore stamina.
Lornsword is an interesting and fairly lengthy diversion from more mainstream games. Although it initially jarrs a bit because of how it looks and how oddly it plays, those feelings of strangeness soon give way to a very gamey feeling. There’s something a bit 80’s about how Corun runs around building towers, then slashing foes, then summoning things in a top down view. It’s almost like a smarter, pumped up marriage between Gauntlet and Rampart given a slight lick of paint. There’s certainly fun to be had here, just don’t enter into it expecting a AAA experience.