It’s hard not to feel a touch of sympathy for Balkoth, the antagonist of 1998’s strategy game Lords of Magic. Saddled with a ridiculous name, he was no doubt the kid that was picked last for team sports at school and left out of games of ‘spin the bottle’ behind the bike sheds. Still, who needs popularity and attention from girls when you’ve got Golgoth, the God of Death, on your side. Together, Balkoth and Golgoth decide to destroy the world and strike a blow for kids with embarrassing names everywhere.
Naturally, it’s up to you to stop them and save the peaceful join-the-dots fantasy world of Urak from eternal darkness. Or something. (This is the kind of cheap-ass plot that you could get away with in the late 90s, before the whole internet was there to point and laugh at you).
Before you could challenge Balkoth however, you had to choose your faith – Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Order, Chaos and Life (Balkoth & Co already had Death sewn up) – and your lord’s class – warrior, mage or thief. Naturally, being a red-blooded thirteen-year-old male, I found it hard to look beyond the warrior lord of chaos, since he rode a tiger. For some reason the lord of water – an Amazonian riding an ostrich – didn’t quite have the same appeal. Nor did the thief lord of air, who looked like a giant baby with wings.
Once you’d got your faith and lord sorted, you were dumped on your respective part of Urak’s ever-so-slightly-sparse-looking map and left largely to your own devices. You could explore ruins for treasures, build up your city (once you’d reclaimed your Great Temple from Balkoth’s grubby mitts) and generally wander about the world map and get yourself into all kinds of trouble.
Lords of Magic was a good bit of fun for this early period and demonstrated the best aspects of the game – the pretty worldmap, the atmospheric music and the low-level skirmishes and city-building. For a few hours the game did a good job of showing you what it was about, while promising a lot more to come once things started hotting up (in other words, once Balkoth got up off his ass and started sabre-rattling from the back of his giant bat).
It was at this point that things went a bit pear-shaped.
The game boasted what sounded at first like quite an advanced trading system. What it usually boiled down to was something like this: a faith you were friendly with would come into your land and demand that you trade your level 5 champion for a couple of gemstones and a unit of horsemen, and when you politely declined they’d leave in a huff and your relationship with them would be permanently screwed.
Combat was a bit of a problem too, being slow and clunky, but was at least amusing given that each unit type only had about two frames of animation and about the same amount of vocal responses. Watching a dwarven warrior zigzagging across the screen like a pissed leprechaun while repeatedly screeching ‘For Earth! For Earth! For Earth!’ rarely failed to entertain.
What wasn’t so amusing was the fact that the game had a nasty habit of crashing around turn 150, so Balkoth basically got a free win if you hadn’t managed to bump him off by this point. These were the pre-internet days as well, so it wasn’t like you could just download a patch; you were reduced to buying the latest copy of PC Gamer and hoping that the free CD that came with it (that’s right kids, video game magazines used to come with CDs containing free demos) had the patch on it. Fun times.
The game was also fundamentally flawed in that Balkoth’s health didn’t regenerate after each battle, so all you had to do to knock him off his bat was recruit eight mages and send them into battle with him one by one. Each mage had time to fire off a couple of 1st-level spells at the Lord of Darkness before his dark elf cavalry chopped them into fine-grade dog chum. Eventually, the mage who had the good sense to loiter at the back would fire off a magical bolt and Balkoth would be no more – and sunlight would once more shine upon the happy fantasy-101 land of Urak.
“But how long would this last?” the end-game voiceover asked. “Only the seers can say.” Hint: it lasted forever, since a sequel never materialised, presumably due to the lukewarm response that met Lords of Magic’s release.
Still, it should be said that the game did have some really good ideas, (even if it failed to implement them properly), created an atmospheric (if generic) fantasy world and was quite a bit of fun up until the part where you realised that it actually had one or two issues.
Plus it gave you the chance to control a barbarian lord riding a white tiger, which quite frankly is all a thirteen year-old-boy really needs.