Dragon's Lair 3D

Review by Old Rooster
December 2002

Close to 20 years ago, I accompanied my two youngest sons to Aladdin's Castle, the local mall arcade, in order to observe, and then frustratingly/fascinatingly try, the latest and greatest arcade game—Dragon's Lair. After many quarters (the game brought in more than $3 million its first two weeks!), I yielded to the reflexes and strategies of youth. Dirk the Daring couldn't depend on me to rescue or slay anything! Little did I suspect that now, in my dotage, I'd be playing, enjoying, and even reviewing the latest incarnation of Dirk's exploits—Dragon's Lair 3D: Return to the Lair.

"You Can't Go Home Again" —Thomas Wolfe

Or can you? During the last four years, at least four of the creative geniuses behind the original arcade Lair have been attempting to recreate the fun and magic of their 1983 masterpiece—which is one of only three video games to make it to the Smithsonian Institution. Having created the first laser-disc coin-operated video game, Rick Dyer (CEO), Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (directors/artists), and Christopher Stone (composer) have brought their collective talents and energies to the task of bringing the exploits of Dirk the Daring to all major game systems, in glorious 3D. Their stated goal is to create a blend of interactive movie-like entertainment, with a rich musical score, all in a game one can control. With motion blending, cel-shading graphic rendering, 16 different animations for Dirk, 250 castle rooms instead of the original 40, new locations, monsters, and challenges, and, most importantly, full control over the actions of Dirk, Dyer, Bluth and company have brought honor and even a sense of love to their original masterwork. Yes, one can go home again, if one chooses to capture the spirit of the original creation yet also brings a sense of freshness and newness to the current production. Congratulations, Dragonstone Software (the team's new company); your labor of love has succeeded not only in evoking fond early memories of arcade playing, but also in providing current pleasure as a change of pace in the often pompous and dreary world of current RPG, RTS, and even adventure titles.

Personal disclaimer: Sounding very much like a fan with my enthusiastic review, I need to say that I neither work for Dragonstone nor am I writing out of some sense of gratitude because I received a free reviewer's copy. I bought the game at Circuit City, just as you might, and pen this admittedly positive appraisal with an objective and critical eye.

"Well, Looks like You're Here for Awhile!" —Princess Daphne

Following the abduction of Princess Daphne by the evil wizard Mordoc and his trusty dragon Singe, our bumbling knight-hero, Dirk, races to the castle to perform his mandatory rescue. Fortunately (although one sometimes wonders, given her screechy, demanding voice), Daphne has left behind an amulet that enables communication in the form of hints along the way. The castle is vast, filled with traps, monsters, 250 rooms—leading you through 15 levels of fighting, jumping, puzzle-solving, trap-avoiding action on your way to Daphne, who talks badly but looks like she just escaped from a Hugh Hefner party! She even sings a new rap song in tribute—"He's My Guy!"

It's a pleasure to find the PC version (Xbox also available now; PS2 and Gamecube a bit later) designed with care and thoughtfulness, taking into account not only the power of the PC, but also the multiplicity of options available. My P4, nVidia3 system had no problems running Lair at the glorious maximum setting of 1600x1200x32; yet one can also play the game on a PII 300 with a 16 MB video card. Not only are video and sound options plentiful in the menu, but also mouse/keyboard combo can be configured to your liking, as can a joystick. I found the mouse/keyboard best, using the mouse for direction, left button for fighting, right button for forward movement, arrows for other movement, and space bar for jump. This comfortable setup worked smoothly 90% of the time.

"Run, Dirk, Run!" —Daphne

Lair 3D is no Ghost Recon, nor does it intend to be. Using a third-person, over-the-shoulder, 360-degree camera view (first-person "look around" is available), we play as the peculiar yet likeable Dirk—fighting, rolling, jumping and often running on his inexorable path to Daphne. Some thinking is involved, mostly on how to avoid a pitfall, slay a difficult monster, or enter a room without "dying." In that regard, Dirk has unlimited lives, and you will be returned to the scene of your demise when you meet your colorful death. Further, there is a quick save, as well as regular saving anytime! Thank you, Dragonstone! That's one of those PC potentials we're glad they placed in the game.

There's only one difficulty setting for Lair, which is fine, since Daphne gives what amounts to a tutorial during the easier early levels, with challenges not ramping up 'til a bit later in the game.

Although control of Dirk is mostly accurate, there are times when some complexity is required (a running roll) or pinpoint precision is needed to reach a swinging rope, which can be frustrating. But this is often the case with "platform jumpers," and part of the fun is having the patience and doing the planning to finally succeed after several trials. I never needed more than four attempts to reach a goal.

Extinguish Singe's Flame!

Starting simply, armed with only his sword, Dirk will eventually earn a crossbow, with magic and flame arrows available. Along the way, he'll pick up keys, treasures, and health and mana potions. Dragon essences will be found and needed. He'll have to watch out for falling rocks and bookshelves, crumbling beams, electrified and sliding floor tiles, moving platforms. Monsters to be encountered include Cyclops Worm, Giddy Goons, Flying Books, and, of course, the Dragon. Dirk will learn the potential of quite complicated fighting moves, but I didn't often find these necessary. Evasion and feinting (not fainting!) usually worked quite nicely.

Dyer, Bluth, and company have not only modified and brought back some old areas from their original work, but also created much that is new. Levels similar to the 1983 Lair include Swinging Ropes of Fire, Castle Sewers, the Main Hall, Spiral Stairs, Bells and Ropes, Rolling Balls, the Room of Fire, Robot Knight, the Lizard King, and, of course, the Dragon's Lair itself. Since Lair 3D is six times larger, there are many new room and level additions, as well as new monsters.

As regards the newness of Lair 3D, Don Bluth has been personally involved in all artwork, and it shows! I can't speak to the technicalities of cel-shading, but, as intended by Dragonstone, you really feel like you're playing and interacting with a cartoon. Bluth has commented (interview on the CD) that he feels the "colors and effects are far amplified beyond our original work," and I wholeheartedly agree. The backgrounds sometimes suffer a bit in comparison, but Dirk and the other characters are wonderfully depicted.

Finally, we have one of the highlights of the game—the musical score. Beginning with the tuning up of the 70-piece orchestra at the outset, the soundtrack features over 90 minutes of original work by Chris Stone. The themes range from mystical moments, to creating a sense of danger, to pleasant interludes as Dirk bumbles along his adventure.

Speech (deliberately grating) is fine from Daphne (Dirk only grunts and exclaims), and ambient sounds are satisfactory, even a creaking door when accessing the menu!

Put your quarters away—the Lair is back!

Game reviewing is an interesting task. While playing and taking notes, I deliberately won't look at other reviews, but I do browse a bit after my rough draft is done, largely to make sure I've not left out some important feature or characteristic of the game. To my surprise, Lair 3D has received some negative press. I think of myself as rather critical, sometimes cranky in general, but some folks have really been picky about this terrific title. It's like they approach it to find what's wrong, much as my wife does with my wallpaper efforts, rather than look at the whole work. "Don't examine that little mismatch in the upper left hand corner of the ceiling, dear; rather, look at the glorious impact of the colors and design as you enter the room—please!"

So, too, with Lair 3D. Look at and praise all that's right; don't nitpick the few problem areas. Dragon's Lair 3D is a magnificent tribute to the 1983 coin-op Lair and a highly entertaining game for today's players. It offers a simple, almost relaxing format of fighting/jumping/adventuring set in a huge and vividly colorful castle. Our hero, Dirk, can be controlled smoothly and effectively, and the entire ambience, from music to level design to creatures, is involving and, most of all, fun! What more can one ask from a video game?

Note: The Xbox version apparently will be the first fully 1080i high-definition video game. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Dragonstone Software
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: November 2002

Available for: Game Cube Windows Xbox PlayStation 2

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System Requirements

PII 300 (PIII 800 recommended)
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
16 MB video card
700 MB minimum install

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