Good Old Reviews – The Lords of Midnight
Editor’s Note: Good Old Reviews is a series that also appears on The Escapist.
Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight takes more than a few cues from The Lord of the Rings but uses them to craft a unique strategy experience as deep and epic as anything seen in the War of the Ring.
It’s just hard not to look to back on the founding days of gaming and not feel admiration for the people who looked at the medium and tried to make it into more than it was.
If I had to pick one thing that I love most about older video games, it would probably have to be the tangible sense of ambition driving them. This isn’t to deride modern games or the people that make them. It’s just hard not to look to back on the founding days of gaming and not feel admiration for the people who looked at the medium and tried to make it into more than it was. Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight is one such game, working within the confines of limited technology to produce an experience of almost unbelievable depth.
Centered around the War of the Solstice, the game follows the efforts of Prince Luxor as he fights to defeat Doomdark the Witchking who, in a completely unforeseen twist, is trying to conquer the world. What this translates into is guiding Luxor as he recruits allies and accumulates armies to combat Doomdark’s hordes and sack his citadel of Ushgark. Alternatively, the player can also use Luxor’s half-Fey son Morkin to sneak into Doomdark’s frosty domain and the fabled Ice Crown, the destruction of which is an instant win. So yes, we are dealing with a complete rip-off of The Lord of the Rings.
As rip-offs go however, Lords of Midnight is probably at the top of the class. You wouldn’t think so at first glance. In fact, if you were just watching the game it would probably look like little more than a lot of wandering around simplistic and same-y looking terrain, occasionally fighting monsters and avoiding battle more often than engaging in it. Beyond that shallow surface however is a deeply layered strategy experience that will have you laying out long term goals, managing limited resources and making some genuinely tough calls as you juggle the dueling objectives of a fairly desperate war.
Make no mistake, this game will kick your butt more often than not. In fact, in the entire time I spent playing it, I don’t think I came close to beating it militarily even once. Where constant defeat might have frustrated me in another game however, Lords of Midnight is one of those nice titles where defeat just feels like part of the learning process. And the lessons you learn will be many.
Make no mistake, this game will kick your butt more often than not.
For instance, while you can win the game by conquering Doomdark’s citadel, he can turn the situation around and beat you by capturing your tongue-twisting capital of Xajorkith. Its defense isn’t something I gave proper attention to in a lot of my early sessions where my strategy could pretty much be summed up as “move fast and hit hard.” On one occasion in particular, I’d just finished recruiting my ninth or tenth lord. Feeling confident I gathered my allies together and charged gloriously into battle against the nearest enemy army. To my credit, it was a fight we won. It just didn’t matter much because two turns later Doomdark’s main force captured my capital and won the game.
I followed this up, of course, by going too far in the other direction, committing too many of my men to defending Xajorkith and leaving my offensive forces too weak. I’m sure at this point you’re expecting me to say that victory lies down some middle path but even that’s not necessarily true. While the AI guiding Doomdark’s forces isn’t the most complicated, it doesn’t just do the same over and over again. Each new game will see his armies attacking a variety of strategic points and shifting between different (albeit simple) strategies. Countering them, in turn, requires you to actually think and respond strategically to events rather than just looking for some surefire method of winning.
The game can, admittedly make this difficult at times. While the 2013 re-release (I can’t speak for the 1984 original) does provide a map that documents your exploration and keeps track of the location of minor enemies as well as your own units, it doesn’t provide any indication as to where Doomdark’s armies are. What this means is that sometimes you’re stuck making decisions based on incomplete intelligence. Some players will undoubtedly find this frustrating. For my part though, I actually kind of liked the limits. Was it sometimes frustrating to make a bad choice because I didn’t know all the facts? Of course. But it also added a lot of weight to my choices and forced me to leverage my past experiences in ways that other games frankly don’t.