It’s not easy being a hero, especially when you’re stuck inside an action and strategy mix where the fate of your people lies on your shoulders. Such is the basic premise of Lornsword: Winter Chronicle, the first game from developer Tower Five.
Founded in 2017, Tower Five is a French studio comprised of ex-Creative Assembly staff. Having worked on the Total War series for several years, the small team is now setting its sights on a different kind of strategy game, once again embracing merciless army battles but with a story-based focus and an ingenious twist to it – but more on that later.
The historical accuracy is thrown out of the window, giving room to a fantasy-based setting where anything is possible. Even dying and coming back to life repeatedly.
A Hard Day’s Knight
The arid landscapes that introduce us to the world of Lornsword take me back to an era when the term real-time strategy wasn’t yet coined. It was Westwood Studios’ Dune 2 that made it mainstream and successful, with its endless war over the precious resource called spice.
While Dune 2 and even the Warcraft series are comparisons that aren’t entirely out of place when referring to Lornsword, they aren’t exactly the most fitting either. If there is one game that fits like a glove into the action and strategy design that Lornsword uses, then its name is Spellforce. Both games place you in the shoes of a fearless hero, commanding armies in a fantasy world where your goal is to constantly raze the enemies’ base camps to the ground.
My first hour with Lornsword wasn’t particularly noteworthy, as I wasn’t sure of what it was trying to be – is it a top-down story-based action RPG or a real-time strategy game stripped of any fancy bells and whistles? As it turns out, this was a lengthy tutorial showing players the fundamentals of the game’s hybrid genre. Sticking to it was the best that I could have done, as Lornsword slowly unravels its secrets and reveals layer after layer of intricate concepts and a tangled web of ingenious battle mechanics.
Unlike other standard real-time strategy games, Lornsword prioritizes using a controller instead of your typical mouse and keyboard combo. This unusual approach takes some getting used to, but soon you’ll find yourself dashing through enemy lines and expanding your headquarters without worries, as it becomes second nature. It’s an action-based control system that ditches the often cluttered and laborious point and click control system in favor of a seamless approach.
Your general is remarkably tame when it comes to slashing his enemies with his sword, but he learns more than a couple of tricks during his journey. Without spoiling too much, I can say that running will soon become a thing of the past, a burden that only regular humans must deal with. Sunknights such as your very own Corun Lan Ka prefer to resort to blinking, skipping short distances and thus being able to get to places that are out of reach to the common soldier, such as small islands. This action consumes stamina, as does instantly teleporting to your headquarters or raining fire from the skies on top of your enemies. This is infinitely more powerful than your puny sword, but it won’t be enough to change the tide of battle all by itself.
Lornsword doesn’t leave fog of war out of the equation but puts a spin to it. Instead of terrain that slowly reveals as we explore, you have an ability called far sight. With this you can see remote parts of the map, checking your buildings and seeing what your men are seeing. This way you avoid spending time running or blinking to a place where nothing substantial is happening.
Real-Time Sword and Sorcery
A great leader plays a large role in a battle, but he is nothing without his army. This is where the real-time strategy aspect of Lornsword comes into play. Your general can build and upgrade structures, adding fortification or turrets, and ultimately choosing what soldier specialty a building should focus on. All of this is done via an intuitive and incredibly simple switch system – each structure has a few ground switches and you simply activate the desired one.
Altars are crucial in Lornsword, acting as portals to a full-fledged world of elemental beings and spirits. Using the d-pad you can summon the different types of guardians pertaining to fire, water, stone and air. From stone golems to fire archers, thunder elementals or water priests, among others, these are not to be underestimated, as their might on the battlefield is second to none. Obviously, this is where gold comes into play, as each new tier requires a larger amount of your valuable currency. The returns are absolutely worth it, however, so don’t hesitate to upgrade any structure if you have the means to do so.
Summoning any group of elemental soldiers is another action that will drain your stamina. You will often resort to this tactic as these creatures are an undeniable force of nature (pun not intended), but it will hinder your movements in case you need to make a quick escape, for example. Returning to your headquarters and collecting those shiny orbs will reinvigorate both your health and stamina, so you need to get used to the continuous back-and-forth, either by foot or teleportation.
No good general would feel complete without a group of trustworthy men willing to die for the Emperor. As soldiers complete their training, they wait for your orders. You can give them a couple of basic commands using each building’s flag: the orange flag tells them to wait until they complete a hand of seven before marching on; the black flag orders them to defend the area, and lowering the flag orders each soldier to march and attack as soon as he exits the garrison. Always be on the lookout for the waystones spread across the battlefield as these mark the path that your soldiers will relentlessly follow.
But leaving these men to their fate is a bad move; you’re wasting strength in numbers. With a simple click you can gather up to 15 soldiers who will follow you everywhere without questioning – you can release them with the same ease, which makes them suddenly attack any enemies close by. Amassing a large army and unleashing it simultaneously with elemental soldiers can make all the difference when it comes to raiding enemy bases, especially those that have several guard towers and a fair number of warriors.
Nonetheless, the Zerg Rush strategy isn’t a given here, as you have to chiefly deal with resources such as gold and food. Gold allows you to upgrade structures while farms increase the number of houses that you can build. Losing the mines will decrease the pace at which you earn gold, but losing the farms is equally dangerous as you won’t be able to build any structures beyond the specified cap. Sporadically you’ll be confronted with varied objectives, including defending your headquarters for 30 minutes or destroying a camp in a limited time.
After slaying a few enemies and wildlings, you start to uncover the web of intrigue where nothing is as it seems. Nonetheless, you have your orders to follow and your leaders to obey. Suddenly, Lornsword turns from a linear game into one where you get to choose the mission that you want to tackle next, complete with a dialogue system that seems to work as a disguised difficulty setting – going with full forces or choosing a smaller, stealthier army is one of the examples.
Everything is Better with a Friend, Even War
One of Lornsword’s highlights is the option to play with a friend in a drop-in and drop-out cooperative split screen mode. This takes me back to bygone times when online gameplay was still a thing out of sci-fi movies and couch co-op was all the rage. This is the best way to experience Lornsword, putting the emphasis on player coordination and shared tactics, as the gold and food resources remain the same throughout, as do the enemy numbers.
Developer Tower Five is testing a PvP split screen mode that is bound to make it into the game if it’s as fun as they are expecting it to be. I think this is vital for the game both as a selling point and for the sake of its longevity, but I’m under the impression that online connectivity would significantly boost its appeal when it comes to a certain segment of players.
Visually speaking, Lornsword is clean, sharp, mostly functional but it can also be quite pretty in places. The top-down perspective is perfectly suited to the strategy elements and the tiny characters are nicely rendered and smoothly animated – above all, their ranks are easily discernible when you know what to look for. I do have an issue with the running animation, including the main character, as it seems too robotic and unnatural, as if it was simply a matter of fast-forwarding the walking animation. I did enjoy the little details including the pixelated trails that every unit leaves on the sand and snow (there is also a pretty forest environment), as well as the splashes of blood and the bright flashes from spells and fire.
Lornsword feels oddly familiar despite its clever mix of genres, and it’s all the better for it. It is heavily story-based, with a tale that feels rich and complex, and the control scheme is ingenious and easy to grasp. It’s not quite on a league of its own, but the clever mix of action RPG and strategy elements surely contribute to a freshness that is equally gripping and challenging.
Lornsword is now in Early Access and is out later this year on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.