In Japan, role-playing games were a rising trend ever since the release of Dragon Quest in 1986. Though it inspired many artists throughout the decade, many of these bestselling titles, including Dragon Quest itself, failed to catch on overseas. This changed in 1990 with the international debut of Final Fantasy, notable for being one of the first JRPGs to fare better in North America than in Japan. To keep this trend going, the company behind Final Fantasy, Squaresoft, decided to localize the series’ fourth installment to coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s Super NES console in 1991. The result was a critically lauded commercial hit in both the East and the West. A boost in popularity for console RPGs ensued, inspiring more people to experience a genre that, up until then, was primarily enjoyed by a comparatively small niche of enthusiasts.
The success of Final Fantasy IV inspired many artists to provide their own take on the genre. One such group was the Japanese developer Neverland. The company was founded in 1993, and they launched their debut title, Biography of Estpolis, shortly thereafter. For the North American localization, it was renamed Lufia & the Fortress of Doom after one of its central characters. The game proved popular enough that the publishing company, Taito, entertained the idea of creating a port for the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), but the closure of their North American branch in 1995 caused the plans to fall through. Before that moment, there were a few advertisements for the port, one of which claimed its release date was delayed until spring of 1995, claiming “[it would be] worth the wait”. Furthermore, European enthusiasts never got a chance to play the game. Would the game they missed out on indeed be worth waiting for?
Playing the Game
One day, a floating island appeared in the sky. It was claimed by four mad gods known as the Sinistrals. Representing destruction, chaos, death, and terror, their names were Gades, Amon, Erim, and Daos. The structure situated in the center of the island was dubbed the Fortress of Doom, for it served as their base of operations. People gathered their strongest warriors to slay the Sinistrals, but they were all-powerful, effortlessly crushing anyone foolish enough to oppose them. In humankind’s darkest hour, four heroes emerged to combat the overwhelming threat. They succeeded in vanquishing the mad gods |– but at a great cost|.
Ninety-nine years have passed since that fateful battle. One of the hero’s descendants is enjoying time with his childhood friend, Lufia, as he overhears a group of people staying at the local inn. They claim that monsters have attacked the nearby kingdom of Sheran. When he and Lufia go there to see for themselves, both the city and its castle have indeed been decimated.
As they rescue the survivors, a powerful being claiming to be Gades confronts them. Though the hero puts up a valiant effort to hold him off, he is easily defeated. Realizing that the era of peace has reached its end, the hero sets out on a journey along with Lufia to retrieve his ancestor’s sword so they can triumph over the Sinistrals.
Lufia & the Fortress of Doom begins in media res, though in a twist, the characters you control at the start are not the protagonists. Many games, especially RPGs, allude to battles or conflicts that happened in the distant past on which the current story’s foundation is built. Lufia & the Fortress of Doom goes a step further by allowing you to experience these important events firsthand. Though you’re made to fight the primary antagonists right away, it cleverly serves as a tutorial for how the rest of the game is played. This is because the four heroes start at high enough levels that none of the enemies – including the Sinistrals – are a match for them. Theoretically, it’s possible to lose, but even somebody who has never played a JRPG in their life has a high chance of winning.
Every step your characters take in the titular Fortress of Doom or any subsequent hostile area has a chance of triggering a random encounter. During your first one, you will learn that combat is turn-based, though it deviates slightly from the standard established by Dragon Quest and the Famicom Final Fantasy installments. Specifically, you’re made to input actions for characters individually rather than combat operating on a round-by-round basis. Once you’ve issued a command for a character, they will eventually carry it out, and whichever other actions that are set resolve in the interim – if any – will do so. Otherwise, you will be required by the game to input an action for the next character in line. In general, the agility stat along with the weight of a character’s equipment determines when a character can act and how frequently.
The interface has is cross-shaped, and holding a direction while pressing “A” will select a different action. If you press “A” without holding a direction, the character will attack with the equipped weapon. Holding up accesses a list of magic spells they know. If you’re unsure what they do, you can press the “X” button while highlighting one to get a description. Holding left will access the inventory, which is shared by the entire party. Holding right will cause the character to defend, reducing the damage they take in exchange for doing nothing else that turn. Lastly, holding down will have the character attempt to flee from battle, making it an ideal choice if the situation has turned against you. Only one character needs to do this successfully in order for the battle to end.
When you select an enemy to attack, you must keep the targeting system in mind. Lone enemies can be selected for an attack in a straightforward fashion. Should you find yourself facing multiple enemies of the same type adjacent to each other, things become a little trickier. If you highlight the group with the sword icon used to select targets, it will begin to flash. If this group of enemies is selected as a target, the character will attack one at random. Magic spells function differently. Depending on their properties, they will target a single enemy, an entire group, or all of them at once. You will know how they function by how the staff icon responds. If the icon is solid on multiple enemies, it will damage them all.
When the game begins in earnest, you’ll find it plays mostly the same as it did in the opening. However, from that point onwards, the game will not pull any more punches, and you would do well to know your characters’ roles.
Accompanying the hero on his journey are three companions: Lufia, Aguro, and Jerin. The hero is an all-around versatile character. He learns some of the best healing spells in the game at early levels and is the second-best fighter with solid offensive and defensive abilities. Lufia is weak, but learns some of the most potent offensive magic spells in the game. Aguro is incapable of using magic, slow, and has horrible magic resistance, but he is physically the strongest character by a significant margin. Finally, Jerin is a little stronger than Lufia and can equip bows, which are capable of hitting all enemies within a group at once. Both she and the hero are excellent healers. Any battle won will award the conscious party members with experience points along with gold. In the event that you lose, you will be sent back to the last place in which you saved with half of your money deducted.
Anyone versed in JRPGs at this point may have noticed that I ended up describing the basic conventions of the genre with my assessment of the gameplay. The hypothetical question that would arise from reading this likely concerns how Lufia & the Fortress of Doom differentiates itself from its contemporaries. In all honesty, it doesn’t really. It’s not bad, but it does come across as an entry-level JRPG through and through. Only a small number of personal touches were contributed to prevent it from completely blending into the background. Because of this, a savvy enthusiast can predict where the game is going at any given moment.
Though Lufia & the Fortress of Doom is a competently made game, there are a few things about it that damper the experience. The most apparent problem is that the random encounters are far too frequent. Unlike a majority of JRPGs, you could potentially trigger one immediately upon entering a new room. This is especially bad because the dungeons are so labyrinthine, you’ll likely forget where you’re going if a battle drags on for too long. I do like how the dungeon displays in the background of the battle screen so that the player has a higher chance of retaining their bearings, but the level design is almost uniformly convoluted to the point where this courtesy is moot.
One reason I can say this game has terrible level design is because a majority of the dungeons are nondescript caverns. Invariably, your goal when exploring them is to either emerge on the other side of a natural barrier or to find an item to advance the plot. When it’s the latter, you have to exhaust every possible path in the dungeon until you find the one treasure chest that houses it. The chest you’re looking for is indistinct from all of the other ones, so the only way to find it without a guide is to open every single one. This presents a problem because the dungeons contain a large number of chests, turning the proceedings into a guessing game that can be interrupted at any second by an ill-timed monster attack. There are also tiles capable of teleporting the party to another area of the dungeon when stepped on. Occasionally you’ll find switches that change where they lead. Finding and testing them needlessly drags the process out even more as you run from one end of the dungeon to the other when you realize it didn’t teleport you to the right room. This would be mind-numbingly tedious if the dungeon had distinct scenery with which you could easily pinpoint your current location. As it stands, the only difference between these cave systems are the color palettes.
Another issue I have with the game concerns the battle system. Though you input actions for characters individually, they are not always carried out right away. This might lead to several situations in which you issue a command to a character only for them to get incapacitated before they could carry it out. This would be nothing unusual in a round-by-round combat system, but it doesn’t work in one that’s meant to operate on an action-by-action basis. The engine is not horribly flawed, but there the dissonance between selecting commands and the order in which they actually occur means that it takes a lot of time for to get properly adjusted to it.
When it comes to the characters themselves, I admit that they’re balanced fairly well on paper. However, in practice, the hero and Aguro will likely have the greatest damage output. The reason for this concerns the fact that magic attacks aren’t as potent as physical ones. They’re decent in the beginning of the game when you lack means of attacking more than one enemy at a time, but the biggest threats tend to have high magic resistance, tipping the scale in favor of physical attacks. By the end, the magic users will likely be limited to healing and buffering the party’s stats in the few boss fights that exist.
A subtle problem concerns the spell’s names. In a typical JRPG, one would expect spells named “Poison,” “Stone,” and “Dead” to be offensive spells. In Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, they are used to cure poison, restore a character’s mobility after having been turned to stone, and revive a party member respectively. Moreover, there are spells that don’t have an obvious function such as “Fake” and “Trick” which increases the party’s agility and a single member’s attack power respectively. Plenty of RPGs have a unique nomenclature such as Phantasy Star IV and Treasure of the Rudras. The key difference is that those games use entirely fictional words to name spells whereas Lufia & the Fortress of Doom uses common English words. This can get confusing, though I give Neverland credit for allowing players to look up what a spell does before using it.
Though these grievances are irritating, once you have them all under control, any semblance of challenge suddenly dissipates. Ironically, though perhaps fittingly, this is the game’s biggest problem. Completing the game is a matter of recruiting all four characters and making sure they’re all at high enough levels. For random encounters, all you need to do is launch attacks every round while occasionally stopping to heal. These tactics don’t work on bosses, but as long as you take a slow, methodical approach, they don’t pose a real threat unless you get particularly unlucky. The endgame is appropriately difficult, but by that point, it’s too little, too late.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers.
It has now been established that the gameplay doesn’t put many unique spins on the genre. However, a veteran will know that gameplay is only half of the equation when it comes to assessing a JRPG. The other half would be the plot. It was indeed primarily through this genre that artists began to care more about crafting a storyline more advanced than “save the princess”. As Lufia & the Fortress of Doom came out in the wake of Final Fantasy IV, often considered the catalyst for this paradigm shift, one may question if its story fares better in hindsight than its gameplay. Unfortunately, my answer to that inquiry is the same: it doesn’t really.
Lufia & the Fortress of Doom could be said to possess a three-act structure with a story beat signifying the end of each one. The first involves finding the surviving heroes of the battle that occurred ninety-nine years ago. The second is spent searching for the Dual Blade, the sword used by the hero’s ancestor. Once the sword is in hand, the final objective is to kill the Sinistrals. An RPG with a grand total of three objectives would inevitably stretch the storyline thin, so in between these events are subplots that gradually get you closer to achieving them once completed.
Though this wouldn’t normally bear commenting on, as many stories feature overarching goals the protagonists must fulfill, what passes for subplots in Lufia & the Fortress of Doom amounts to a series of fetch quests which pad out the length of the game to the extent that it constitutes a majority of the experience. If you think it sounds interminably repetitive and unengaging just from my description, I can assure you it’s even worse when playing it. One of the worst examples is when you need to give a king an outstanding meal in exchange for an important item in his treasury. The protagonists must then risk their lives traveling across two deserts and spelunk in a random, unnamed cave just to obtain the key ingredient for the dish.
When the requirement itself isn’t ridiculous, there’s a good chance that finishing one of these inane adventures will cause the goalposts to be moved. In one village, you must rescue the character who will become your fourth party member from a horde of demons. After emerging on the other side of a cave system and arriving at the shrine she has been taken to, the monsters capture her anyway, forcing you to go through a tower just to the north.
There’s another point where you need to find materials to upgrade your ship so that it can submerge itself underwater. After getting all the necessary materials, which involves exploring four cave systems that are all connected, you’re informed the doctor who was to work on the ship has been abducted by pirates. This requires you to go all the way back to the island chain you just left so you can attack the pirates’ fortress. It’s nice how the game gives players a teleportation spell relatively early on, though even with that at one’s disposal, it’s still annoying. It doesn’t help that there is no in-game world map, which makes traversing the seas daunting as it’s interrupted every thirty seconds with a random encounter.
Though the plot is mostly banal and uninteresting, there are a few things about it I genuinely enjoy. Lufia & the Fortress of Doom appears to have taken more cues from Final Fantasy V than Final Fantasy IV, which was more directly responsible for the JRPG’s explosion in popularity. Namely, the four protagonists banter among themselves quite frequently, lending a lighthearted, friendly sense of comradery. It’s not uncommon these days, but it was fairly ahead of its time for characters in a video game do engage in this kind of dialogue. In another interesting touch, your characters respond to certain NPCs. Usually, they exist only to deliver a line for the player’s benefit whether it’s to build a world or convey important information, but this occurs even if they’re not important to the plot.
Perhaps my favorite aspect is how the big climatic battle that took place ninety-nine years prior to the true beginning is not only depicted onscreen, it’s also a playable sequence. This isn’t just to establish the backstory either; when Gades returns, it could mislead the player into believing that the heroes must journey to the titular Fortress of Doom and defeat the four Sinistrals just like their predecessors did. Most of the game operates on this premise, but in the final act, it’s turned on its head. Shortly after receiving the Dual Blade, it’s revealed that Lufia is actually the reincarnation of Erim. Her power over death is what revived the other three gods, and she even appears to side with Daos once the latter fully restores her memories.
The way the situation pans out effectively instills doubt in the player. Not only are the heroes’ levels likely to be lower than those of their predecessors, you only have three of them to fight Gades, Amon, and Daos. Even knowing who she is, Lufia does side with the hero in the battle against the Sinistrals’ combined form, but there would be a great amount of uncertainty leading up to that moment for a player experiencing it blind. It’s an interesting case where the endgame simultaneously mirrors and serves as an antithesis to the opening. The juxtaposition is masterfully executed compared to every other plot point in the game. It’s enough to make me wonder if the developers started off with this idea only to run into trouble coming up with material to meaningfully connect the two endpoints.
Drawing a Conclusion
Of all of the games I’ve reviewed, I don’t think there’s a single one I would have a more difficult time recommending than Lufia & the Fortress of Doom. To clarify, it’s not because the game is particularly bad. If that were the case, I would simply dissuade readers from playing it. Instead, the primary issue is that recommending Lufia & the Fortress of Doom carries with it a peculiar catch-22. Because the prologue of this game contains a major spoiler for its direct successor, Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, the most advisable course of action would be to play the latter first. However, in doing so, the player would be treated to one of the stronger JRPGs in the SNES’s library. After having finished it, this hypothetical person would be all but guaranteed to find Lufia & the Fortress of Doom a dated game that barely sticks out from its competition. Therefore, one’s choices for approaching this dilemma are to play Lufia & the Fortress of Doom first, thus ruining how its superior sequel ends or skip it, rendering it all but inaccessible when granted the knowledge that such a quality alternative exists.
I realize this is an odd assessment because this is more of an observation of how much better the second game is rather than a critique of the original itself. Although I’ve encountered similar situations in the past, and I try to write reviews in the context of the subject’s release, this is a rare instance where looking into the future was unavoidable. It’s not just that the sequel is a better game; it actively makes delving into Lufia & the Fortress of Doom arduous no matter how one were to go about doing it. At the end of the day, I feel that the most pragmatic thing you could do is to get the most out of the better game. Play Lufia II first, and if it gets you interested enough in this game, by all means, try it out. If you find you’re unable to see it through to the end, you can rest knowing it would not have been worth the effort.
Final Score: 4/10