Despite being called the Lost Lands, Susan has a worrying tendency to stumble upon it at any given time. You’d think she’d be better at staying away from it but when you’re a chosen one, what are you to do? Ignore the call to action? NEVER!
My love for Five-BN Games is in no way a secret. I first discovered them when I played Lost Lands: The Four Horsemen, one of the first HOPA I ever reviewed on this site, and I was quite happy with the end result. Next I played Eternal Journey: New Atlantis, one of their earliest games which I followed up with a short review of the first Lost Lands game, Dark Overlord. Though never featured on my blog, I have also played New York Mysteries: Secrets of the Mafia.
Though widely different in terms of setting and stories told, they all had one thing in common. I adore every single one of them. That’s right, I didn’t dislike a single one of their games and NO other HOPA, no, game studio has managed that. None.
So it was with some trepidation that I finally got a hold of the third Lost Lands (first time I play them in order!) because there’s nothing more crushing than seeing your heroes fall. And trilogies are tricky, fickle things that can turn on you at any given moment. So, how did it do? Well…
Susan is already a hero. Two times she’s ventured into the Lost Lands to stop evil from taking over. The first time she did it to save her son while she didn’t have much of a choice the second time. This time, however, she enters the Lost Lands willingly when she’s called. An old evil is free in the lands again and if it’s not stopped in time, the Lost Lands could fall victim to one of the fiercest tyrants of all time yet again. Together with old and new allies Susan must stop the evil and seal it away once and for all.
If you ever read my review of The Four Horsemen, you know I pretty much fell in love with the game from the start. Gorgeous graphics, fabulous music and pretty darn good gameplay from beginning to end, if a bit on the easy side. Dark Overlord was pretty much the same way although considerably less polished and more by the numbers as far as HOPA goes. But still a very good showing.
And we’re immediately in pretty familiar circumstances as The Golden Curse starts up. Susan is whisked away to the Lost Lands, this time through a mirror, and she quickly comes face to face with danger, this time in the face of a harpy. Maaron, the hermit from The Four Horsemen, shows up, this time as a druid, and soon enough you’re tasked with finding and defeating four bad guys… something familiar about this one. At least they’re not on horseback?
Unlike the previous games in the series, The Golden Curse gets pretty damn dark and serious very quickly. Although previous games were as serious in story, the environment and how the plot plays out tells this story more effectively. One of the first thing we come across is a wounded druid who needs his arm patched up and soon enough you’re wandering through old battlefields, finding skeletons and talking with the undead.
Yes, if you were expecting a sweet little story about a woman saving the world by solving puzzles you might be a bit taken back. Susan herself seems to have developed a bit more killer instinct as the four demon generals are dispatched rather gruesomely. At least in my opinion. The last game had you destroying magical entities, sure, but these were flesh and blood creatures who, at times, had rather sympathetic backgrounds. I half-heartedly expected you to “save” them in the end but nope, no such lenience in this game.
They’re bad and they should feel bad for the rest of their lives… which isn’t particularly long.
There definitely seems to have been an evolution to Susan’s character as she now seems far more effective as the savior of the day. If she in the next game put on armor and wielded a spear while slaying dragons, I’d not be the least bit surprised. It’d make for compelling duality to her character: back home in her own world she’s… well, a mother and normal and a bit boring but in this world she’s a warrior of legends. Makes for compelling story writing, in my opinion.
Sadly she doesn’t have as many memorable character surrounding her this time. Another dwarf shows up but beyond being a smith I’d be lying if I said I remembered anything about him. But most obnoxiously we’re basically constantly accompanied by Fiora, Maaron’s granddaughter and she… well, she’s basically there to tell you everything you already know but might need to be told again. In a very annoying voice.
And continuing from that point, the voice work in this game swings between good to downright awful. Annoyance aside, the actor voicing Susan was either on heavy pain meds or given some really strange directions because the voice really doesn’t work with the character in a lot of situations. Like when young Fiora is kidnapped and all Susan can muster is a weak “No…” instead of a properly panicked scream. I don’t know if maybe they reused a voice clip from a previous game or what but that moment stood out to me as truly awful.
The only voice I’ll give a pass, and luckily the one you hear the second most, is Maaron and I’m pretty sure they reused the actor from Four Horsemen so his character is a lot more cemented too. Maybe he’s a bit too Gandalf for some but he’s a really interesting character that I hope returns in future games. Plus I adore his design in this game, much more than I did in the last, and I wish he featured in a bigger role than he did. The final battle really should’ve been him and Susan teaming up and being awesome. It still kind of is but I wish it featured more of him.
He’s just a badass old man. I hope I’m as cool as him when I grow old.
I also wish you got to see more of the druids and their guilds. The bonus chapter included in the Collector’s Edition tries to flesh this out but doesn’t do nearly enough and could even be considered entirely pointless. It doesn’t really build on anything and adds very little, sadly. Featuring a barely seen supporting character from the main story, it doesn’t factor into the big plot before or after the game. And I prefer my side stories to have a little more meat to them OR just help build the world. Had the side story been more focused on the druids and their way of life then I probably would’ve been a lot more forgiving.
One aspect that I’m a bit torn on is how the story and world is fleshed out. Most of the backstory of the characters is told through parchments found throughout the game. As always Five-BN are dedicated to fleshing out the world we momentarily get to inhabit and that’s great but getting all of it through text instead of interacting more with people and the world around you is a bit less impressive. We go through plenty of places and while some are explained through these pages that you find, far from all are and even then still leave much to the imagination. Too much, in my opinion.
The graphics are, unsurprisingly, absolutely gorgeous and paint a really beautiful world that really begs to be explored. Luckily the world is vast and features a wide array of locations to visit, all telling their own story. Five-BN are pretty much unrivaled in this department as far as HOPA are concerned and I’d love to see what they could do with a bigger budget and other game types. Like an RPG. Because I really do think it’s the genre that’s limiting them here, teasing a much bigger, greater game than they can deliver as long as they’re doing HOPA. Or even casual.
There’s a lot of story in these environments just begging to be explored but we sadly never get to explore it except in tiny amounts through text or in the bonus chapter. One solution to this would’ve been more characters that ask you to do different things, resulting in items you need to continue exploring the main quest. Sadly, this runs the risk of turning the game into one huge collectathon with insane amounts of backtracking. And the game already contains way too much backtracking.
Like I mentioned, the world is huge and unlike many other HOPA, the game doesn’t shut the world off behind you. I love this but it also becomes a bit of a thorny issue later on because items you need rarely exist in the same area as the puzzle missing an item or locked boxes missing a key. So traversing from one area to the other is often a must and if it hadn’t been for the interactive map that lets you teleport, this would’ve been an absolute chore. I don’t like using the map like this but in big worlds like these I’m very thankful it exists.
Unfortunately a big world also comes with a big problem of not knowing where you’re needed next. There’s so many oddly shaped keys and puzzles missing ornamental pieces that it’s extremely difficult to keep track of where the bit you’re carrying goes or where to even begin looking for the piece you’re missing. I do greatly enjoy that you don’t solve everything right away, you’re presented with puzzles and conundrums right at the start that you don’t necessarily solve until much later in the game. But if you put the game down for any amount of time then chances are pretty big you’ll forget where there are even puzzles left to solve.
I ended up relying on the feature that tells you, on the map, where there’s stuff you can do right now. It feels a little bit like cheating but towards the end, when you’re cleaning up all the left over puzzles and you’re not sure what goes where, it was practically necessary. A page in the journal that kept track of every puzzle or area where you still had stuff to do would’ve gone a long way but ultimately it’s an unavoidable problem of games this size. Even old adventure games suffered from this and it hasn’t been solved yet.
Speaking of solutions: puzzles. They were… okay. Sadly they weren’t particularly challenging and mostly consisted of true and tested stuff that you see in most HOPA. It’s been too long since I played another Five-BN game but I’m fairly confident that if I played them back to back, a lot of them would seem really familiar. A lot of this is unavoidable since it’s such a competitive genre and some puzzles never really lose their edge, like the Towers of Hanoi. Or simple jigsaw puzzles that may have been done a million times but never quite lose their appeal, at least to me.
Still, a few more challenging puzzles wouldn’t have gone amiss and I did actually run into a problem with one of the puzzles where I couldn’t figure out the combination and yet the game insisted I had seen the combination elsewhere. I found one half but not the other so I don’t know if I missed something or the game missed something. Either way, with some smart abuse of the puzzle and the walkthrough I got past it none the less. So the puzzles were a bit of a mixed bag, some good, some bad and some pretty standard stuff.
But sometimes I wonder if it’s really the puzzles that are easy or if I’ve just played too many puzzle games at this point. That said, I still think my solution of variable puzzle difficulty shouldn’t be too difficult to implement.
Except for that boardgame one… that was truly awful. Never do that again, Five-BN… never. It wasn’t even a minigame!
But if the puzzles left me a bit cold, the hidden object scenes were the direct opposite. Although perhaps a bit too few, what was there was in a league of its own. Some people don’t like this style of hidden object scenes but I absolutely adore them since it makes more sense to me. Just like in the last game, instead of just looking for a random list of objects, each object simply leads to another one and then another one until you find the last object which is the one you want.
For instance, the goal of the scene might be to get into the safe or to blow up a crumbling wall or something similar. So maybe you start out finding a knife which you use to cut open a sack in which you find a switch which you use to trigger power to a lamp which allows you to find a sawblade in the shadows which you put in a saw which you then use to saw a padlock. Sometimes it’s just one big, long chain and other times there’s multiple chains that need to be completed to get the final item.
Point is, this is great and I love it and I wish more companies did it this way. Some companies might do one or two in a game but I don’t think there’s any other company that does it for an entire game. So that’s a definite plus for Five-BN.
And, of course, they all look fantastic. They use lighting very effectively in this game and play around with a lot of color though I would’ve liked to see more different colors. Especially in the hidden object scenes which had a tendency to be a bit drab. Luckily the environments more than make up for it though I realize I might not have chosen the best screenshots to show this in a varied way. The floating islands was easily my favorite though once you leave the first area you’re treated to a wide range of environments and that was pretty sweet too.
Everything from snowy landscapes, grassy fields, dark and wet caves to ruins make an appearance in this game without ever feeling forced. Perhaps it does diminish the sense of scale a bit when you walk so easily from place to place but it still felt great.
Oh, and the cutscenes are stunningly good for a HOPA. This, people, is why I want to see more 3D in HOPA games. Cause it works and looks fantastic. That water animation when Susan poured water for the horses? Oh, holy crap, I was thinking “Damn, that is some water animation.” More of that, please!
One complaint I do have about the graphics, however, is that I didn’t like the design of the Naga. Technically that’s not really the graphics but rather the design but it felt fitting to discuss it here. And I can’t help but to feel like the developers didn’t particularly care for it either but had to for… animation reasons.
Looking at the concept art for the game, you can clearly see that the naga was far more reptilian, perhaps even draconic, than how she ended up in the final product, more akin to a mermaid than a snake. And that’s unfortunate for two reasons. For one, the more reptilian look was simply… well, better. More unique and it stood out far more than what we got instead. But more importantly, subjective opinion aside, the fact that two out of the four demon generals were half women, half creature was a bit boring. The harpy, first to revive, had already filled that niche so when the naga popped up it just felt like retreading.
Sadly, none of the generals ever really earns their “demon” title since they never do much. The naga just goes back to her lake, the rock monster (which I’ve forgotten the name of) pretty much disappears until the end of the game and the minotaur goes back to his castle and… sleeps, I guess? The only one to make any sort of attempt at being a menace is the harpy and most of that we’re told or we’re shown the aftermath. And even then she’s more of a nuisance than a genuine threat.
So I felt even worse for outright killing them. We were told they did a lot of horrible stuff but… we never really see it. The old adage “show, don’t tell” springs to mind repeatedly when playing this game. And we’re repeatedly told that their dwarven master is a really bad dude but, again, we never really see how and in what way he was the worst ever. Unfortunately this take a bit of the edge off the seriousness as you never really feel like you’re racing against time. Traipsing around the countryside feels like a leisurely stroll. And I definitely took my time after the little girl was kidnapped… just saying.
That’s despite the music working its absolutely best to get your mood all antsy too. As always, Five-BN knocks it out of the park with the music, it’s really moody and atmospheric, even more so than in their previous games. While that music you could listen to outside the games, this time they really work the best together. Don’t get me wrong, as I write this I’m listening to the soundtrack included in the Collector’s Edition and it’s fantastic. But when I played the game and heard the music, I remember them so much… more powerful? Emotional?
And for some reason the music makes me think of Star Wars. Did the composer for this game listen a bit to John Williams while composing? I wouldn’t rule it out, is what I’m saying. I mean, that’s a good thing, right? Being compared to John Williams? I mean, track 5 in particular, I can basically hear the emperor speak…
However… don’t let any of my criticism scare you away from this game. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… I criticize because I care. Just like last time, when I played Lost Lands: The Four Horsemen, it became a stark reminder of why I love HOPA as much as I do. While I want to see them grow and evolve, I still love them for what they are. And this game more than most. Little details like expecting you to look through the journal for answers, not always pasting the code on the lock and daring to have some more serious themes and characters that are flawed and… well, human.
It’s not perfect but perhaps one can question whether there ever will be a perfect game. All I know is that when Susan ran back towards the portal, I was half a milliliter of adrenaline from standing up and shouting “RUN, SUSAN! RUN!” It was a long game too. Or at least it felt that way. I don’t have any real estimate on how long the game was because I was so into it I barely registered that time was passing in real life. And I wish that was a joke. Others have clocked the game at about 5 hours but I dare say I spent six hours on it in total. Or thereabouts.
That’s including the puzzle mode you unlock by finding all the little figurines which was… just a blast. Even though the extras menu seemed to be glitched, there was still tons of content including concept art, music, extra puzzles and the like. Some of which was fun for the moment while others, like the music, will last a lot longer.
So whether you’re new to HOPA or a seasoned veteran, Lost Lands: The Golden Curse is very much worth a buy. Any fears I had of Five-BN not being able to measure up are… completely gone. I cannot wait to get my hands on more of their games. And it’s on Steam so you really don’t have an excuse not to at least consider it.