Everyone loves dragons, right? What is it about these mythical beasts that so readily captures our imaginations? Nearly every culture in history has their own version: powerful, mystical, magical, creatures to be both feared and respected. Dragon lore spans the ages, regardless of geographical location or cultural sophistication. Our intrigue with them bears on the primordial.
So a game with dragons should be pretty sick, huh? Seems pretty obvious... except when it isn't. Lair is a game that came out as what was essentially a launch title for the PlayStation 3 back in 2007. The premise sounds awesome: you play as a dragon rider defending the nation of Asylia against foreign invaders. But sadly, this game is absolute rubbish in nearly every way and may well be one of the most disappointing experiences I've had as a gamer.
The basic story is pretty solid. Volcanoes seem to be randomly erupting all over the continent and the two nations who live there have gone very different routes in dealing with the catastrophe. Asylia is a beacon of culture and civility. The nation of Mokai, who live in a less hospitable area, rely on industry (in a kind of steampunk way) to survive. Naturally, they don't like each other much. They are even color coded: red versus blue (it's been done). You play as Rohn, one of the Asylian Sky Guard, who ride their dragons to protect the citizens below. In the beginning of the game the Mokai attack unprovoked, and the real question is why? There are a lot of political and especially religious undertones to the story. Conspiracy, betrayal, and intrigue lie at the heart, making you wonder about the motives and ideals of the rival factions. Don't worry though, nothing is ever really explained and the ending is ludicrous... but considering how bad the gameplay is, it's just hard to care.
Originally the game was touted for it's use of the PlayStation 3's shiny new Six-Axis motion control for the new controller. By moving the controller, you controlled your dragon in flight. I got the game mostly for the dragons, but I thought the idea of what is basically a flight simulator with dragons was really clever. Then I tried it... and it failed. Miserably. The rudimentary motion control stuff barely worked at all-it wasn't nearly sensitive or accurate enough. I kept thinking to myself over and over, "If only I could turn this crap off and just play the game with standard controls I bet it would be half way decent!" But about half way through there is a pretty massive difficulty spike and eventually I just gave up... something I don't often do (with games at least, even the bad ones). It was basically unplayable. The developers actually released instructions on how to play the game after the fact. That ain't good people. I just couldn't wrap my head around the fact that they didn't at least give you the option of turning off the motion control in lieu of basic analog controls.
Then it turns out, a long while later, they did. You can get a free download allowing you to use a more classic control scheme if you so choose. On a whim I decided to give Lair another go... and give it a chance to redeem itself. Well, I realize I'm getting a bit repetitive here, but it doesn't. You do still need to rely on the Six-Axis controls for some stuff (why they didn't just completely revamp it with Ace Combat flight controls I just don't know).
Of course, they had to go and do the flight sticks inverted... or normal I guess when you're flying a plane. In a cockpit, for those of you who don't know, pulling back on the stick causes you to go up, pressing forward makes you go down. This is all well and good, and there are plenty of people who swear by it, but it's the opposite of the standard shooter controls we have all grown used to. What bugs me though, is like the original mistake of only having motion controls, they don't give you the option to do it differently. Honestly, why not? Still, it's fine, just takes some a while to get used to it.
But even after practice they still don't handle nearly as well as they should in my opinion. Cornering with a dragon must be tough, I can only imagine, but it shouldn't be this tough. Flying is not nearly as tight and focused as it should be. It's more like flying an elephant. What's really confusing about this though is that even with the analog controls you still seem to pan too slowly. It's hard to get turned around once you over-shoot a target. Just trying to bank back around seems to take forever. This is only exacerbated by the fact that you have a completely ineffectual arrow that seems to want to point you in the right direction but can't seem to make up it's own mind. I realize I'm basically flying around in circles over my target, but is a mini-map too much to ask for? Maybe somewhere in the corner out of the way? Hell, a simple compass would have worked better. It can be very frustrating. By the end I learned the simplest way to do it is to fly off then pull back on the controller (motion control rears it's ugly head) like you're trying to rein in a wayward stallion to get your dragon to do a quick 180 degree turn.
Spitting fire all over everything is pretty cool, I'll grant it that, but aerial dog-fighting fails on it's own because once you lock onto a lock-on an enemy your dragon's fire breath will automatically target them. This seems odd... heat seeking dragon breath seems almost contradictory. But I guess the developers had so little faith in your ability to pilot correctly using their own bloody control scheme, they thought they'd throw you this bone. It's not like the slow camera panning and messy controls would actually allow you to properly dog-fight anyway.
But what if an enemy dragon gets a little too friendly in mid-air? Well, you can battle them close quarters if you want! Awesome! While it's pretty straightforward (you need to get the timing right), I found the controls didn't work terribly well here either. My dragon spent a great deal of time slashing ineffectually at nothing, like there was a momentary delay while the game tried to decide to do what I asked it to....
Easily the most fun part of combat is landing your dragon on the ground amidst the opposing army and letting him run amok. Those poor bastards. You can breathe fire, claw the hell out of them, or just eat them. This part is actually pretty enjoyable.
The issue here though is that often, for whatever reason, you'll have multiple tasks to complete at the same time during missions. So just when you think you can land your dragon and have some fun munching on the invading Mokai hordes, you'll receive a message (I think it's funny that they seem to have in-helmet radios at this point in "history...") telling you that your ships are under attack or whatever. Again, the lack of a mini-map and clearly defined objectives make this even more of a chore. It gets appreciably worse too as the game wears on and things get even more hectic in later levels.
But the biggest problem with Lair isn't even the barely workable controls, the disappointing story, or the poor level design... it's the camera. At times it seems to have a mind of it's own. You'll find yourself grabbing something or targeting an enemy and suddenly the camera will spin around. Other times you'll be able to drop some hapless idiot you picked up off the battle field and fling him into a nearby mountain, only to have the camera swing all over the place as if it's trying to get a lock on you again. It's disorienting to the point of inducing nausea.
One of Lair's original selling points was the fact that it looked pretty nice. Keep in mind that was by 2007 standards; the industry has come a long way since then. But having said that, it's still a bit of a weird mixture. The dragons themselves, the reason anyone would buy this in the first place, look suitably awesome. The cutscenes aren't bad, and what's more impressive is the lip syncing which is pretty impressive considering that a lot of teams still have trouble with it. But then there are some of the backgrounds and environmental effects which would have been par for the course way back on the original PlayStation. I mean, honestly, the lava looks like some kid's science project went wrong. The water effects are laughable. Particle effects? Forget it. It's a weird dichotomy, on the same screen you'll see dragons flying fast in all their glory past something resembling stacked cardboard boxes.
Then there are the technical problems that make everything else (the camera, the controls, the graphics) just that much worse. You'll constantly find yourself flying through stuff, making the camera go all wonky yet again. There are noticeable framerate drops and some of the worst screen tearing I've ever seen in a published game. Seriously, I'm surprised it didn't lock up on me all together a few times. This isn't even beta quality....
Lastly, Lair is very short. I beat it in an afternoon, and that was with a lot of time writing rude notes lambasting the crap out of it. Still, considering how broken the game was, that's probably a good thing. It's also never a good sign when you're thinking of all the things you'd rather be doing, like playing better games for example, or chewing on a broken light bulb, rather than finishing what you're playing. I kept saying to myself, "I just gotta get through this."
Originally, I probably would have given Lair a very low score, like a 3 or something, because the motion controls were so awful it was practically unplayable. With the addition of the analog flight controls it's a bit better, but after a while I began to realize even that couldn't save it. While I love the idea of a dragon riding flight simulator experience, this one just doesn't work. At all. In any way. I don't know if it's just the fact that I have a particularly fond affinity for these mythical creatures, but it was almost painful to see dragons reduced to this. It's almost like an affront to a cherished belief. I felt insulted. I try hard to find something positive to take away from pretty much everything, but this is one I really have to throw under the bus. Let me put it this way... I had more fun writing this review lambasting the hell out of it than I did actually playing Lair. If only someone else should come along and give it another try, it's an untapped resource! Dragon riding, come on! Ah well, I guess we'll have to make due with Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Score = 4.3 / 10