Review: The Lords of Midnight

No joke

All joking about graphics aside, you totally want this as a poster, don’t you? [I really do. -ed.]

From the start, Lords of Midnight tells you exactly what sort of game it wants to be through its main menu. “New game?” Nay, traveler, you’re playing a “New Story,” and one where your desire to play well will likely run up against your desire to play dramatically. “Sure, I should probably hole up in this keep until reinforcements come, but wouldn’t it be more cathartic if Lord Shimeril rode out into the field, outnumbered 10 to 1, and went down in a bloody blaze of glory?” This game has, like, four colors, by the way.

Lords of Midnight is the iOS version of a 1984 ZX Spectrum title of the same name by Mike Singleton (sadly, recently departed). In it you play primarily as the Moon Prince Luxor and his son Morkin, alongside the various lords and other assorted royalty of the land of Midnight. The evil Witchking, Doomdark, has bent the power of the magical Ice Crown to his will, and is using it to support his armies in a bid to conquer the land. At the risk of mentioning a [certain fantasy author's] most famous, hobbit-y work in every fantasy game review on the site, let’s just say the similarities begin and end with the set-up.

As Luxor, you can use the Moon Ring to recruit troops to your cause, with the eventual goal of marching on the heart of Doomdark’s land and capturing his main keep. This is a win condition. As Morkin, you can sneak your way into Doomdark’s land, steal the Ice Crown, and destroy it, cutting off the Witchking’s power. This is another, largely separate win condition. Lords of Midnight asks you what sort of tale this is going to be: a large-scale, battle-heavy story of warfare and strategy, or a more personal account of a… well, let’s just friggin’ say “fellowship,” escorting Morkin to the Ice Crown.

Sean Bean would make for a fantastic Lord of Shadows.

Or both, if you want. (The manual for Lords of Midnight suggests this is the true, “epic” way to play the game.) But, it’s not as simple as it first seems. Recruiting a large enough army means banding the scattered lords of the land together, while simultaneously defending the de facto capital city of the Free Peoples’ lands. And gathering lords necessitates just straight-up walking to them with one of your followers and being all, “Hey.” No carrier pigeons here. Luckily, banding together lords and their attendant armies is handled easily, with one of the few intuitive design choices in a title that often flirts with clunkiness.

On the Morkin side of things, breaking into a highly fortified tower is hard when your character doesn’t receive the benefits of RPG-style progression, and can (read: probably will) get killed by a pack of wolves only a few steps outside of the safety of the Forest of Shadows.

And that’s not even accounting for the (shudder) Ice Fear. The Ice Fear is the evil magic radiating from the Witchking’s Ice Crown. Doomdark can aim it at certain areas of the map to frighten and scatter the people of Midnight, or even turn them to his cause (and your only way to gauge this effect is to check the character you’re playing and see if they feel a little cold or scared). But, the Ice Crown also has its own interests at heart (hey there [CERTAIN FANTASY AUTHOR]), and will divert more and more of this magic at Morkin the closer he gets to accomplishing his task. Meaning that the closer Morkin gets to victory, the easier it is for the armies of the Free to fight the armies of Doomdark, but the harder it is for Morkin to travel, as his companions become increasingly affected by the Ice Fear. (Morkin himself is half-human, half-fey, and as such can resist this witchery.)

And the capital of Kumar is? Anyone? Anyone? The Citadel of Kumar. Lots of you missed that one on the test.

Lords of Midnight is about setting individuals against the wider backdrop of war. In fact, the game is so dedicated to making sure you get that you are Luxor, it even incorporates the ability to play as different characters into the story. Lore-wise, we’re told the Moon Ring is actually letting Luxor look through and control the actions of his subordinates and son.

Except maybe Lords of Midnight could use a few more gamey elements. Sure, it’s nice that everything we see in the game is from the viewpoint of a character in this story. But it’s hard to tell whether the sometimes-finicky movement mechanics and clunky map interface are necessary hurdles that come from playing a war game from a series of first-person perspectives, or whether they’re just poor design decisions in a game that—let’s be fair—hasn’t changed much since ’84.

Still, despite it’s limitations, Lords of Midnight does story-based, large-scope, high-fantasy warfare better than most titles I can think of, iOS or otherwise. Sure, during my first few playthroughs I wasn’t exactly sure if I was having that oft-fetished “fun” experience. But the moment I exited the game, I could hear a voice whispering in my head. “Go back… try again… put on the ring… the precious…”

Yeah, navigating by landmarks isn’t exactly what you’d call… “possible.”

And so, after chastising my inner mind-voice for being totally unoriginal and kind of annoying, I returned. Refining my strateg-no, wait, polishing my script. Act I: Gathering the Lords. Act II: The Death of Lord Blood. Act III: Crossing the Downs of Mirrow. Act IV: Last Stand at Xajorkith. Act V: Shit, Wait, I Think I Screwed Up. Act VI: Yup.

Where other titles might confuse a complexity of minor trifles for true depth, The Lords of Midnight astounds with its concise, dire objectives. It’s grand strategy on the edge of a knife. Destroy this totem, win this battle, defend this city, keep this guy alive. That’s the treatment. How you fill out the first draft (and, inevitably, the second and third and fourth and fifth…) is up to you.

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Pocket Tactics Rating

4 Star Rating

4/5 Stars