It was when I was on my dragon, twirling between giant pillars, mere feet above the ocean, battling a five-story tall coral snake that I realized just how disappointing Lair is. Up until that point, I could let most of what I had experienced slide. Sure that was the fourth of a mere fourteen levels, but the others were surely just warming me up for the 10-gallon jug of awesome that Factor 5 was about to dump on me with this epic battle. Instead of a cinematic struggle for the ages, capped by my glorious victory over what could have been an unbelievably cool boss fight, I ended up spending a good forty minutes trying to kill that damn reptile, slinging my controller left and right, working up a serious sweat and a bad case of frustration.
If Iím not having fun while on the back of a dragon battling a giant sea snake, then thereís really nothing else the game can do for me.
The rest of Lair was equally anticlimactic, with massive battles and gorgeous landscapes mauled by a dipping framerate, pop-up, confusing objectives, erratic cutscenes, and a control scheme that seemed intent on driving me mad. The potential of Lair is obvious: a game involving epic sky battles and massive land engagements while on the back of a dragon is gold no matter how you look at it. Itís also that same potential that makes it so disappointing.
Factor 5 isnít a new studio, nor are they new making hits: their Rogue Squadron series were extremely popular and well received on the GameCube. This isnít the Factor 5 that had everyoneís jaw dropping whenever they first fired up Rogue Squadron and blasted a few Tie Fighters out of the sky for the first time though; this is the Factor 5 of Rebel Strikeís mind-boggling bad character portions. I donít know what went wrong there and I donít know what went wrong here, but gone wrong something definitely has.
As war erupts between the Asylians and their ancient kinsmen, the Mokai, Rohn must saddle up and go off to combat with his fellow Sky Guardsmen. Once united by religion, the Divide, a series of volcanic eruptions, separated the two peoples. Since then, the Mokai have come to advance in science while the Asylians have evolved into a cultured people that are slowly turning to religion. Mistrust and envy cause the people to turn on each other with both nations going to war with one another. A mixture of creatures and early machines are set off to collide in a final battle for supremacy.
No, the story wonít blow anyone away, but itís completely serviceable. The religious zeal shtick is a little old, and even more so by its very attempt to be contemporary, but that can be overlooked because of the fact that there are dragons flying around and blowing up armored rhinos. A lot can be overlooked when dragons are flying around and blowing up armored rhinos. But Lair wants too much too often. As the Asylianís religious leader becomes more powerful, condemning the Mokai for their use of science and machines, clear problems arise in the story whenever the same machines are used by the Asylians. Despite both sides being at war with one another for some time, Rohn acts surprised to find out that the Mokai donít live in grass huts and eat their young. What? A people accused of being too reliant on science and machines are also supposed to be technologically backwards? And thereís the fact that the gameís fourteen missions fail to flesh the story out. Despite there being cutscenes all over the place, the story quickly ramps up with characters doing things more akin to fitting their stories within a time limit than anything else. There is also the missed opportunity of a relationship between the player and their mount. Panzer Dragoon did this wonderfully, and itís a shame that the care shown in the cutscenes isnít nurtured into an element beyond that of ĎOh, Rohn really digs dragons.í But missed opportunity is a strong theme in Lair.
It is pretty obvious to anyone that has read any post-release coverage that there is a problem with the controls; and thatís because there is. Instead of giving players the option to use the analog sticks to control the dragon during flight, that, the most basic and obvious method, is restricted to ground combat with the tilt function of the sixaxis being used for flying. I can see where Factor 5 was going with this, and it makes a lot of sense: using the controller as if they where the reins is an interesting approach. The problem is that the controls just donít respond as they should. Not only that, but the controller and player are asked to do some pretty trying tricks, like tilt the controller while tapping one button to fly faster and another to fire, though not too quickly because intervals between shots are parallel to shot strength, all while making sure youíre level with the sensor so that the dragon doesnít inadvertently soar up or down. There is also the fact that jerking the controller up causes the dragon to speed up while doing it harder causes the dragon to do a 180, which is often confused for one another; itís never fun trying to get the drop on a pursuing enemy and end up slamming into the side of a mountain. When it comes time to shake the controller, often representing the dragonís struggle to rip something out of its base, you really have to work for it. With Wii games, exaggerated movements are part of the fun, but in Lair they are part of the design. Be prepared to sweat. This isnít about me not taking the time to master an exotic control scheme either, but about a control scheme that just doesnít work as intended and was poorly thought out.
The problem of control is further exacerbated by the poor camera angles, confusing cutscenes, and the timed sequences. The camera often has problems following the dragon as it scoops down to pick objects up, circles a target, or gets near larger solid structures; at times the camera will actually go into a mountain, under water, or just zoom past the player. Targeting itself is messy, with inopportune objects being locked on to, or opportune targets released, and the camera jerking to follow suit. The cutscenes, used to convey objective information and updates, are so erratic that not only will some objectives not be told but sometimes cutscenes interrupt other cutscenes, all while the action continues on without pause. Trying to go after something and being interrupted by a jarring transition to a scene of a friendly being destroyed and then quickly is both very disorienting and sloppy. The fact that instructions arenít always given is an oddity since not following them means repeating portions that can be pretty tiring, so it would seem proper form to make sure I donít have to do another set of reps if I didnít screw up myself. In one case, I was told to maul a group of battle rhinos, so I landed and proceeded to smack them. After losing, I restart the level, but this time I get the instructions to dash towards them and rip off their armor. That wouldíve been helpful the first time.
The timed sequences are also problematic, despite being very cool. When it comes time to go toe to toe with another flyer, Rohn can slam into the side of another dragon, but thatís often not enough and a fight will ensue. Dragon brawling is broken by the fact that the dragon models will sometimes not move for a bit, frozen in their initial fighting poses, and that the system of blocking and quickly clawing will kill anything within a few seconds without much need for strategy or concern; but I do love the idea. Sometimes Rohn has to get a little messy, and here there will be directions that pop on to the screen Ė e.g. ďMove the controller left.Ē Ė where, when followed, Rohn will jump on the back of another dragon and do a variety of moves, often involving him bashing the enemy rider and stabbing the dragon. These are cinematic and can be really exhilarating, but sometimes the controls just donít respond to movements. The coral snake boss battle took so long because the game just didnít seem to register any motion - ďI am going left!Ē Ė during such sequences. The fact that the instructions after death donít help, the coral snake portionís amounting to nothing more than telling me to dodge the attacks at the right time (Thanks.), the fact that I canít press anything to get any sort of response left me feeling a bit helpless.
The level design also contributes to the control problem. There are several levels that just donít give the player enough room to maneuver. If weíre to assume that a dragon canít turn on a dime, then I think itís safe to also assume that cultures built around their mounted warriors would have planned areas and strategies taking the size of the beasts into account. When things get chaotic and there are projectiles flying everywhere with dragons and giant mantas filling the skies, the dragonís view needs to be engaged so that enemies are highlighted, which aids in better understanding areas, because that is really the only option due to the fact that there is no minimap. The lack of a minimap makes things navigation confusing because enemies often come from areas that need to be reached and there is no other way to find those spots other than using the dragonís vision, aside from a token compass mechanism that has an arrow pointing in the general direction of an objective. Even when the mechanisms do work as they should, there are levels that just donít deliver. I want to have fun, not slam into the side of a canyon.
Technical performances aside, two of Lairís strongest aspects are its visuals and its sound. The look may not be original, but it is certainly appealing, and the detail (e.g. segmented shoulder armor bouncing when Rohn walks) and the grit make for a very compelling look. Screenshots look impressive because the art direction is great and the dragons are menacing without looking fake - and the game isnít moving, but, again, slowdown and pop-up aside. The audio is really the star here. The voice actors did a great job with a so-so script and the soundtrack is very impressive, picking up the slack whenever the other elements falter. The soundtrack should be released separately because it is just that good. Itís a shame that the same canít be said for the rest of the game.
I donít dislike Lair for trying to do something different, particularly because itís not too different in this Wiimote-enamoured world, but I do fault it for not being competent. The game is heavily flawed and very short, clocking in at about 8 hours, and had it been better I certainly wouldíve been enticed to replay it for more prestigious medals and unlockables Ė one can never have too gold medals or pieces of concept art Ė but thatís just not going to happen. I do hope that Factor 5 takes another shot at the series, because I can see a revamped sequel being an amazing game. As far as the original goes, itís just a shame.