Developed by Mike Singleton. Originally released in 1984. Re-released in 2013.
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.
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.
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.
For instance, there was one occasion where I encountered a large enemy force pushing their way toward an allied citadel. My first inclination was to cut and run. It was early in the game and I didn’t have that many troops on hand. Taking a look at the map however, I realized how badly things could go for me if I let this army run amok. The area surrounding the citadel was home to several valuable lords whose men I’d be needing if I was going to stand a chance in the long run. Put shortly, if they died, I’d be screwed.
Reinforcing the citadel with what soldiers I had, I set off to quickly recruit the nearby lords before the enemy captured the fort and put my poor defenders to the sword. It was a move that I probably wouldn’t have made earlier on. With a bit of experience under my belt however, I knew where to go and more importantly, that the risk itself was worth taking. Did I wind up winning the war in that session? No. In fact, I’ll fess up and admit that I still haven’t even after a week of trying. The fact that I still want to keep trying however, should serve as ample evidence of how engrossing the whole experience is. Consistent defeat might be my current status quo, but it comes with this tangible sense that I’m learning more and getting better with each new attempt.
Sadly, the game’s complexity doesn’t extend to combat itself, which at its best is a bore. On the one hand I’m fine with this. The meat of the game, for me at least, wasn’t the actual battles but the preparation and maneuvering to make them happen. Even so, I will admit to wishing the game had done more to portray the fights beyond the text-based numbers games that they come across as. In the end, it’s not really that big of deal. The Lords of Midnight is far more about racing against time than it is a about Return of the King-style cavalry charges and Helm’s Deep defenses. Even so, when the rest of the game is about swift movement and clever maneuvers, it just doesn’t mesh well to have to spend several turns reading through almost identical text boxes describing your clashing armies whittling each other down.
I also wasn’t the biggest fan of Morkin and the “quest” path to victory. I will grant that the game is better for having this option and that it would be a lesser entity if it hadn’t been included. It’s also just nice to know that when your armies fall or Luxor dies that you still have some scant hope of victory. That said, it just didn’t do it for me. I’d start a game with the intention of winning that way and I would inevitably get bored with guiding this one guy across the countryside. I’ll admit that there were moments of suspense, especially when one of the armies actively hunting Morkin would rear its ugly head, but overall it just wasn’t as interesting to me as the larger conflict being led by Luxor.
Even if that element struck me as a bit lackluster however, The Lords of Midnight managed to be one of the most engaging strategy titles that I’ve played in a long time, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. If you can get past some of its old school trappings you’ll find a game that captures the “just one more turn” addictiveness of a turn-based strategy title along with The Lord of the Rings‘ well defined sense of desperation and doom. It’s well worth GOG’s $5.99 asking price and, in my opinion, more than worthy of the nostalgia that many gamers maintain for it.
Come back next week for my review of Advent Rising. Also feel free to PM me with comments, suggestions and review requests!