German developers, Thalion Software, emerged from the Atari ST demo scene, and unfortunately, their underwhelming 1993 release, Lionheart, exhibits the strengths and drawbacks you might expect given these origins. Whilst the finesse of the intricately detailed artwork, animation and special effects are enchanting – spectacular even – the game-play is repetitive and falls extremely flat.
So why are we here? Playing as Valdyn aka Lionheart I should say, not what’s the meaning of life? The jury is still out on that one I believe.
This being an action-platformer, the plot is a tad threadbare; the king’s arch-nemesis, Norka, has nicked off with a green gemstone known as the ‘Lionheart’, and without it the king can’t persist in his kingly duties because it must be waved at his subjects at a ‘showing festival’. Are you following this?
Our hero, Lionheart, is the mug tasked with the challenge of recovering the eponymous stone, thereby restoring peace, order, justice and all that malarkey. Clearly he has to be the one to do it because he shares the name of the stone, and fate, something, blah, blah, blah. Oh and to throw an extra incentive-shaped spanner into the works, his girlfriend, Ilene, has been captured and tarred with the Han-Solo carbonite treatment. Not to worry though, Lionheart can break the spell by finding a hidden amulet within the secret volcano level… which you didn’t hear from me because it’s a secret. Ssssshhhhh. It all strikes me as a bit ESOL to be honest.
Lionheart – looking a heck of a lot like Ron Perlman in Beauty and the Beast, or more disturbingly, the plastic surgery junky, Jocelyn Wildenstein – desperately wants to be Rastan, only with a campy He-Man/Lion-O amalgam as the protagonist.
Regrettably, Valdyn is certainly the game’s Achilles heel in that he’s totally ineffectual as a warrior we could believe capable of vanquishing the dastardly Norka who is intent on enslaving the Cat People. Mid-swing it’s as though he has a crisis of conscience, and can’t come to terms with the notion of actually inflicting any damage on his adversaries. Maybe he’s a dedicated pacifist, or his (lion) heart’s just not in it. Either way it likely doesn’t bode well for us!
Actually both his heels are of the Achilles variety – Cat People can’t swim (which is also the little-known sequel to ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ incidentally). He can paddle through a few feet of water without coming to any harm, yet if he’s entirely immersed for even a millisecond, he’s a goner. This must be a cat thing too; he sheaths his sword whenever you let go of the fire button as if he’s weary and planning on calling it a day. What’s that all about? You’ve got a long hacky-slashy expedition ahead of you yet chum, you may as well keep hold of your weapon. Part-timers! I don’t know.
Half the critters he faces attack at ankle-biting level so naturally your instinct is to use your leg sweep manoeuvre to dispatch them. Alas, it’s more of a fairy love tickle than the fierce, jabbing strike you’d expect; it’s so unresponsive you can lose several hit points in between launching it and landing a blow, and being thwarted by inch-tall bugs is about as demoralising as working as a fisherman in the Sahara desert.
By the same token his Fisher Price ‘My First Pen-knife’ – I mean mighty blade of steel – is wretchedly minuscule so you have to be nose to nose with an enemy before you can take a stab, making you unnecessarily vulnerable to incursion.
Actually the whole control mechanism is clumsy and frustrating. The ‘hold down the fire button and point in a direction’ scheme simply doesn’t translate well to a rapid-fire platformer, given that it seriously restricts your ability to react swiftly enough to take evasive action, or launch surprise attacks.
In Valdyn’s defence, he does have one clever trick up his slee… in his repertoire; the ‘battle strike’. If you jump above your target, hold fire and pull down on the joystick you perform an extremely efficacious aerial sword-plunge stratagem that will often slay an enemy in one fell swoop. If not you can pretend you’re playing Duck Tales on the NES and keep bouncing pogo style until they croak. It looks ludicrous, and there’s an entirely plausible reason for this… it is ludicrous.
The platforming aspects of the game don’t fare much better; some of them are so puny, precision jumping is required to make any progress at all, only you end up over or under-shooting them because Valdyn is such a blundering oaf.
Variety is the name of the game where accomplished platformers are concerned, so it’s promising to see that Thalion have made the effort in this department. In one level you have a tamed dragon at your disposal, transforming the game temporarily into a forced scrolling Agony-em-up shooter with a vertical range of motion exceeding most in the genre. It joins the ranks of Apidya in that your opponents are mostly of the low-tech, flappy caste, it being an olde worlde fantasy setting.
Nevertheless, the fun really begins when you get to ride the Tauntaun-esque Dinoroo (or is it a Kangosaurus?). If you’re hurtling along at break-neck speed and suddenly feel the urge to leap skywards to despatch an airborne baddy, Dino will stop dead in its tracks so as to remain in position to catch your fall and continue ferrying you across the terrain. It’s quite comical.
Enemy artificial intelligence leaves a lot to be desired. Often – and even in ‘Lionhard’ mode – the bipedal lizard baddies will take one look at you and jump down the nearest pit to infinity, and who knows where? I doubt it’s because you pose that much of a threat they’d rather face suicide than the wrath of your pen-knife, they’re just a bit thick. I’m not convinced they even know you exist, which is just plain rude. When I set about to kill an opponent I think it’s only common courtesy for your prey to pay some semblance of attention.
Likewise, early renditions of the muscley, dominator thug in a gimp mask, shin-high boots, budgie smugglers and tasselled gloves approach you menacingly, though seem very reticent to actually inflict a blow. I’ve seen his type before; there’s a guy who wears similar garb in the club I…
The first baddies of this breed you encounter are wearing green cloth, though as you progress they re-emerge wearing darker gear and put up a bit more opposition. I can’t decide if this is a karate, coloured belt situation, or they’ve just put a wash on.
The toughest ones to defeat are armed with knives and pull off a nifty Sonic-esque spinball manoeuvre. They appear quite threatening, yep still have to be whacked in the back before they’ll wake up and have a pop at you. Once poked into action they tend to jump over you, rather than at you. It’s not the most compelling technique I’ve ever seen to be honest.
The end of level bosses are a sight to behold, even if not especially challenging. There’s one that’s composed of disjointed fireballs held in formation by, what, the force maybe? The lolloping, undulating puppet-like way it shambles about is reminiscent of the Fireys from the Labyrinth movie. The animation is bizarrely unsettling in an inventive, entrancing way that will make you smile… and probably get you killed as you forget to actually defend yourself against its attack. Maybe that’s its real ace card; sweet, blissful death, mmm. Take me now, I’m yours.
Another boss is a kind of spiny, gnarled, boney praying mantis monstrosity of a creature that unleashes insta-hatch eggs containing vicious gribblies, and bat-insect hybrid cat-botherers. The airborne ones can be used to your advantage; inflict a few sword-slashes and they become stationary allowing you to use them as stepping stones to climb aboard their parent. This is a mechanic you’d be far more likely to see in a console game so it’s quite a welcome novelty here in an Amiga platformer. Similarly inventive, the mechanical dragon boss can be embarked, allowing you to despatch the operator and render it harmless. You’ll feel smug when you pull off that particular heist.
Nonetheless, my personal favourite has to be the muscley (everyone in this game is ripped!), blue goblin Honey Monster boss. He nonchalantly bunny hops in your general direction – not really at you – with his arms rigidly welded to his flanks, pauses momentarily, shrugs his shoulders – revealing they do actually operate independently of his body – and liberates his signature fireball. It’s as if ‘leg animator guy’ was available for commission, but ‘arm animator guy’ was all booked up until Christmas, so instead Thalion adopted this nailed-down arm compromise. It’s comedy gold genius in an absurdist ‘Yellow Submarine’ genuflection. I can’t fathom why the Honey Monster Shrugball (TM) isn’t already an internet meme of the highest order. Come on Amigos, make it so!
Technically and graphically, what Henk Nieborg managed to achieve is nothing short of otherworldly witchcraft. Rivalling anything else seen on the Amiga throughout its lifespan, Lionheart features breathtaking multifarious layers of parallax scrolling 3D backgrounds incorporating an immeasurable array of colours and sublime rainbow effects and vibrant copper bars, conjuring a convincing illusion of depth and immersion.
The game supports extra memory and two-button joysticks – and just because they can – Thalion have even gone so far as to implement a before and after copper colour graduation interlation switch you can toggle by pressing ‘i’ on the keyboard, allowing you to tweak the colour blending in the backgrounds to suit your preference.
In-game music was often a scant after-thought in the early days. If there was any space left on the disks at all once the code and graphics were in place, musicians might have been offered a few paltry kilobytes worth of scraps in which to work. In light of this, what Matthias Steinwachs accomplished in Lionheart is all the more extraordinary.
His compositions are a fusion of traditional orchestral and more contemporary synthesized pieces. Perhaps surprisingly, they blend extremely well with the primitive, low-tech world of the Cat People.
The former pieces are overbearing, heavy, and invoke a palpable sense of gloom and oppression, while the latter assumes a nimble elegance with a calculating aura. Combined they convey a deep sense of urgency and unease, foreboding, an unnatural order.
Punctuated by the blips and beeps of a data-crunching computer, the dramatic tension is broken suggesting mysterious forces are at work, that all is not as it seems. Are we being remotely observed by a deviant sorcerer manipulating a crystal ball? I don’t feel entirely in control, that’s for sure.
Given their notable demo-scene credentials you’d expect the game to go out with a pretty magnificent outro bang. It won’t leave you apoplectic like a shell-shocked cat caught in the headlights, but it is a loose-end-tying, competent and genuine conclusion. There’s none of that, “Conglaturation!!! You have completed a great game. And proved the justice of our culture. Now go and rest our heroes!” single screen of text nonsense. Well, there are actually two different endings; which one you see depends on whether or not you managed to find the Ilene-rejuvenating amulet of de-stoneification.
Post finale, the credits and shout-outs ramble on longer than ‘War and Peace’. Erwin Kloibhofer even acknowledges his parents for giving birth to him, thereby making the game’s creation possible, and you know I don’t think he’s joking; he is German after all. 😉
From Lionheart’s menu screen there’s an ‘info’ option you can select which leads to a pre-emptive anti-piracy warning explaining that if we steal Thalion’s games, they’ll be forced out of business, stop making them and we’ll only have ourselves to blame. True enough, they did go bust the following year, putting the kibosh on releasing the prospected follow up to Lionheart (fans will have to make do with Valdyn’s cameo appearance in Thalion’s RPG, Ambermoon instead), though some claim this had as much to do with their poor self-distribution network as the threat from piracy. It’s a thorny, convoluted issue with no black and white answers.
Many developers burnt this way could have been bitter as they bowed out of the scene. Not Thalion; instead they graciously agreed to release their games into the public domain to be freely enjoyed for all eternity. What thoroughly decent, upstanding chaps!
Despite his inspiring facade, Lionheart and I never really hit it off, and I certainly won’t be inviting him round for tea again. He drank from the toilet bowl, scratched up the furniture, ate my food and was then totally aloof towards me. The final straw was assassinating my canary in cold blood; he didn’t even have the decency to eat it, just toyed with it like a squeaky novelty chew. Awful dinner date all round really.
Thalion kicked off their games development voyage with the aspiration to create technically astounding titles. Mission accomplished! As a tech demo it’s second to none; had it been first to the punch, it could have shifted Amiga hardware by the boat-load in much the same way as Shadow of the Beast had done in 1989. As an action game, I think the Amiga can do better. By this juncture in 1993 there wasn’t a “whole lot more coming”, yet what was already out there blew Lionheart out of the water. If this is your cup of milk, try Turrican instead.
That said, matched thematically, a better game doesn’t really exist on the Amiga. What would the closest contenders be? Leander? Myth? The First or Second Samurai games? Deliverance? None were rated as highly as Lionheart, and certainly don’t share the visual panache.
In light of all its show-stopping flaws I can’t help ruminating that if Rastan had been ported to the Amiga, this game wouldn’t even exist. Failing that, what I’d love to see is a mash-up of the two; take Rastan’s vastly superior weaponry, authentic arcade game-play and control system, chuck them in a bubbling cauldron, stir in Lionheart’s mesmerising visuals and atmosphere, leave to simmer, then serve piping hot with a side-salad of ThunderCats folklore.