Just don’t look at the cover
Released a scant few months after the Gamecube’s launch, FromSoftware’s Lost Kingdoms was always an odd one. Brought across the pond by Activision, of all people, it was an exclusive for Nintendo’s console, starred a female protagonist, and was extremely dour and gritty. I remember renting it and being bewildered by its desolate landscapes and unusual gameplay.
The Gamecube had a powerful launch with Wave Race: Blue Storm, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II, and Luigi’s Mansion already provided alongside the console. Super Smash Bros. Melee had already dropped, and Super Mario Sunshine, Animal Crossing, Star Fox Adventures, and Metroid Prime were right on the horizon. It wasn’t a good time for a game to stand out, and Lost Kingdoms certainly didn’t do that.
I know, your ears perked up when I mentioned FromSoftware, but no, Lost Kingdoms doesn’t have anything to do with the Souls series. A few of the staff stuck around to work on both, but not a notable many. Although, the story might elicit deja vu, since it’s about a dark fog gradually consuming a kingdom, swallowing it up. Damned fog, always ruining the best vacation destinations.
You play as Princess Katia, whose father went missing while trying to solve the problem of the fog. She takes the family Runestone, which enables her to play cards. More than just a deadly game of Uno, these cards summon spirits and monsters that allow her to indirectly kick ass. Her task is to find other Runestones and defeat the inclement weather.
No, there’s no real narrative twists here, but there is another Runestone wielder, and that’s kind of cool. Mostly, it’s your standard journey to gather the MacGuffins and defeat ultimate evil.
Where Lost Kingdoms really stands on its own is in its combat. It’s card based, but takes place in real time. You have a deck of up to 30 cards of various uses for the duration of the level, and you throw them out into combat to fight bad monsters. Like Pokemon if it was a bad enough dude to kick turn-based to the curb.
There are three types: weapon, summon, and independent. Weapon cards just allow Katia to strike out with various attacks, summon does exactly the same thing but she transforms to whatever monster the card represents, and independent does shit, never use them. I’m being a bit facetious, but in my experience, indie cards just drop into the battlefield and roam around being useless. My final deck had a single independent card, and I was close to dropping that.
Still, it’s a pretty interesting and diverse combat system, which is probably why it’s so unbalanced. You can buy, sell, transform, and capture cards, so by the time I hit the end of the game, I was packing a handful of banshees, because they’re awesome. Pro tip.
Another hint is that there’s a two-player battle mode, and in single-player, some of the cards helpfully say they’re not available in versus. That means they’re not balanced for fair play, add them to your deck!
Being imbalanced doesn’t necessarily take away from the fun of the Lost Kingdoms, it just means some cards are completely awesome while others are pointless and dumb. At least their designs are great; easily one of the best parts of the game. Most of the creatures defy description, but stick around for the decaying dragons, they’re pretty rad.
It also adds value to the upgrade system. Cards that take a role in a monster’s demise gain experience that allow them to be transformed in different ways. If you lose your chance at a boss monster card, upgrading is usually a path you can take to reacquire it. There’s a lot of experimentation involved in getting a solid deck, and that’s part of the fun. Experiment enough and you’ll probably just stroll through the game.
The levels are quite a bit of fun. There’s a lot of variety to them, which is nice, but each one is extremely desolate. In a way, it’s a lot like Demon’s Souls, though I still hesitate to make that comparison. Everything is trashed, leaving you to pick through the ruins and confront the monsters that have taken hold. My biggest problem with Lost Kingdoms’ environments isn’t even with their design. It’s the camera angle. It’s isometric and can’t be pitched to any satisfying degree. Your world looks fine, why do you hide it from me?
One of the bigger bees in my bonnet is the inability to replay levels until you finish the game. You’re actually graded on a scale of 5 stars, but you’re stuck with the rating you got. If you missed a secret or a chest, you can’t go back and get it. I suppose I understand; going back and beating a level with overpowered cards just to get the best rating may feel a bit like cheating. You know what else feels like cheating? Removing that option entirely instead of just balancing the game.
It’s a lack of polish that hobbles Lost Kingdoms, but in terms of hobbling, it’s not too severe. To put it into context, it’s not hobbled to the point where it can’t take stairs. It’s perfectly playable but it just falls short in a few small ways.
It stands on its unique premise and the fact that there wasn’t much like it at the time. Arguably, there still isn’t, except maybe its sequel. It’s fascinating in that regard, extremely memorable in the way it stands apart. Interesting combat and a bleak world help counter its unbalanced gameplay and lack of polish. It’s worth checking out, especially if you think you’ve seen all the exclusives the Gamecube has to offer.
Just beware. The game’s price shot up during the COVID-19 pandemic. It isn’t as dramatic a rise as its sequel, but it will set you back. Somehow I doubt we’ll ever get a re-release of these titles. After all, we’re still waiting on some sort of King’s Field compilation.