Years and years ago, I spent an inordinate amount of time playing wonky shareware RPGs. These were things like The Chronicles of Aethra, which weren’t necessarily the most balanced or well-designed of games, but which were nonetheless huge and expressive works of love. They swept you past all of the problems with an enthusiastic cry of “Oh, but look at this!” and it was very, very easy to spend a lot of time in their company.
Lords of Xulima reminds me a lot of those days. It’s a bit broken, a bit silly, ludicrously hard, and in desperate need of more work, but it’s strangely more-ish nonetheless.
Two caveats. First, this is an Early Access build, so I’m pretty sure that the fine-tuning it needs is something that the devs are planning on. Secondly, I’ve played it for around six hours, so take that into consideration. Things might improve later on! Or they might not.
Lords of Xulima plonks you firmly in Standard Fantasy World from the start. Protagonist Gaulen has been chosen by the gods to travel to the mythical land of Xulima, where he has to liberate their temples and save the world. Accompanying him are five adventurers of your own creation. You make your characters, you wash up in the shores of Xulima, and then you’re off.
Visually and mechanically, the overworld is extremely reminiscent of King’s Bounty and Heroes of Might & Magic. You view the world from an isometric perspective, and there are all sorts of things to find and click on, from treasure chests to collectible herbs. Monsters are visible on the map, usually blocking off routes to treasure (and particularly hard enemies are placed in the path of areas you’re not meant to go to, yet) and walking near to them starts a fight.
Battles, on the other hand, are closer to something like Wizardry or Might & Magic. They’re a first-person turn-based affair with everyone getting actions depending on their initiative, so swifter characters might attack two or three times before the lumbering ogre with the giant club gets another go. Positioning plays a role, too, with characters and enemies only able to attack particular foes depending on where they are.
All of this expands rather beautifully. I spent awhile wandering around trying to work out where to go next, occasionally battling roving bands of goblin-alikes and ambulatory mushrooms. I explored every nook and cranny I could find, inhaling treasure like some sort of medieval vacuum cleaner and snatching up herbs like a kleptomaniac druglord. I found and disarmed traps through a Minesweeper-esque minigame, picked locks, and slew my foes in a hail of arrows, steel, and arcane bolts.
Then I was summarily executed by three ravens. Three fucking ravens. I can only assume they’re made of guns based on how quickly they murdered my heavily-armed band of adventurers.
That’s where we get to the “a bit silly”, and also the “ludicrously hard.” Your quest begins with your world-saving party equipped with rust-tier weapons and absolutely no armour at all, and early on you’re going to be fighting small groups of goblin-alikes and – because this is a fantasy RPG – rats. Not giant rats; those come later. Just regular rats. As you might expect from my aforementioned encounter with the corvids: yes, the rats can eviscerate you.
First order of business, then, is to get your hands on some better equipment. Unfortunately, you have two other concerns: one is that the asshole guards at the first town will charge you a tax every few in-game days, and the second is that you also need to buy food.
Thankfully, this isn’t food in the Dungeon Master sense; characters don’t have their own “hunger” bars that need to be topped up by dragging apples onto them. Your party automatically uses supplies as you move or rest, and the game keeps track of how many hours of food you have left. If you rest for eight hours, your party gets full health and mana back; if you rest for 24 hours, even the fatally wounded are fine again.
The problem is that you’ll pretty much need to rest after every fight (or two, if you’re lucky) to make sure you’re in good condition for the next battle, and this very quickly drains your supplies. And supplies are expensive. This means that scrounging up enough money to buy food, let alone a shiny new battleaxe, is a quest of heroic proportions.
There are workarounds, thankfully. Said starting town has a farmer with a bad back who will happily pay you to harvest his regularly respawning crops for him, although you can also just hang onto them and convert them into a day’s worth of food. (Which is akin to the decent herbs system – collecting a certain number of a certain type lets you convert them into skill points, or permanent boosts to stats, or whatever. It’s quite neat.) Nonetheless, money is really hard to come by, and unlike Divinity: Original Sin you can’t just make your way in the world as an amateur art thief.
You need to rest after each fight because each fight is hard, and going into a fight in sub-optimal condition is a really bad idea. Enemies are relentless, and can inflict huge amounts of damage and a ridiculous number of debilitating status effects. On the one hand, this forces you to prioritise enemies and strategise appropriately – have your archers pick off that mage, say, and then focus on the front-line grunts. On the other hand, it can feel unbelievably unfair, particularly when that goblin mage acts more often than your party does, apparently has no limit on the number of spells he can cast, heals and buffs the warriors, and then starts stunning your entire party with one spell. My mage can freeze a single target for two in-game seconds, and gets to act once every half-hour!
As a more concrete example, I’m currently banging my head against a roadblock of a fight. The map screen helpfully tells me that the fight is “balanced” – which I think means “these enemies are about your level, so it should be an even fight”; it goes up through Difficult, Challenging, Titanic, Impossible, etc. The fight is against two spiders.
Other than the ability to poison my party members so heavily that they will lose half of their hit points in one turn, the spiders attack two or three times each before my fastest party member gets a second turn. Evasion isn’t an option because they also spit webs, and while my super-sneaky thief has an evasion score of 25, that can be brought down to -40 in three web attacks – and webs hit more than one person at once. One of the spiders has 120hp, and my front-line fighters are dishing out maybe eight to ten damage in a successful attack. It is hard.
Problematically, I’m not quite sure why this is so hard. Lords of Xulima is incredibly opaque about its systems; while it tells me I have a 70% chance to hit, doing 7-9 damage, it doesn’t tell me why. I don’t know how armour or evasion modify the rolls. I know that levelling my Swords ability with skill points gives me an extra +5 chance to hit, but I don’t know how big a difference that is.
It’s possible that I’ve got an awful party composition and I should’ve taken different classes. Or maybe I got unlucky on the shop’s stock, and so I’m woefully undergeared because I haven’t been able to access the tier of weapons I should now have. Maybe I should’ve prioritised better so that I used less food, and thus had more money for gear. Maybe I upgraded the wrong stats (although, again, the game’s opacity on what they do didn’t help much here). Or maybe this “balanced” fight isn’t actually that well balanced. I don’t know, and I don’t really know how to find out. I’m just sort of muddling my way through.
And yet, muddling through Lords of Xulima is still strangely enjoyable; I’ve been periodically going back to slam my face against that fight. It’s a basic game, certainly – you wander around, accept quests, punch monsters, and get loot; it doesn’t quite have the relative complexity of even Might & Magic X: Legacy – and it’s infuriatingly, frustratingly hard, but it’s also quite Old-School RPG.
Like I said, Lords of Xulima is Early Access so there’s a good chance a lot of this stuff will be ironed out. If its systems are made a bit more transparent, if some of the randomness is toned down a little, and if combat is made just a teensy bit less arse-bleedingly lethal, it’ll be a decent throwback to the older, more erratic days of unexpected shareware gems. This needs too much fine-tuning for me to recommend the Early Access build to most, but it’s certainly one to keep an eye on.