A few PC Zone scans back, I mentioned spotting an advert for Sierra’s The Last Dynasty which grabbed my attention due to the high 90’s cheese factor. The game itself is part adventure game and part Wing Commander clone which certainly sounded intriguing so I picked up a copy and have been playing it the last couple of days. The Wing Commander factor justifies a quick review on here I reckon so here it is.
The Last Dynasty came out in 1995 and is actually a Windows 3.1 game which uses the forerunner of DirectX, WinG. It still runs in Windows 98 thankfully provided you set the desktop to 256 colours. I did have some issues with joystick support but there is a patch available on the web which fixes that issue. The game was published by Sierra and developed by Coktel Vision who had been acquired by them at this point.
The plot is fairly simple if needlessly difficult to follow due to some extremely odd editing and pacing in the generous doses of FMV. You play the son of the ruler of a galactic empire of some description. 20 years ago, this was attacked by a bad guy going by the unlikely name of Iron. To keep the ultimate knowledge that your Dad was guarding safe, it was stuck into you and your brothers brains, split in two with either half being useless on its own. You were then sent away to Earth for safety living in obscurity with your father’s loyal squire for protection.
Now 20 years later, your brother has been captured and his half of the knowledge extracted. A spaceship turns up to rescue you from an enemy attack and you then get to meet up with Dad (briefly) and lead the fightback using your expert fighter piloting learned through simulators back on Earth.
This space combat is done in SVGA but with prerendered sprites as in Wing Commander 1, 2, etc. It all looks rather nice with the use of sprites adding some welcome detail to all those spaceships compared to what mid-90’s 3D was capable of. The flight engine has been simplified somewhat from your usual space sim with the computer controlling your speed leaving you to concentrate on steering and shooting. You can switch this feature off but I stuck with it as it doesn’t detract from the gameplay especially. The controls are odd with the decision being made to use function keys for all the commands you’ll be using. God forbid they chose keys that are actually next to each other. So you’ll be using F11 for afterburners, then swapping to F1 to select your lasers, then it’s up to F6 and F7 to cycle through enemies. It works but pretty much anything else would have worked better.
You can use mouse control, which is playable but a joystick is highly preferable. You will only be piloting the one ship but you do get access to 4 different weapons throughout from the basic laser, through missiles, rockets and mines. The rockets are particularly fun being something like the nuke weapon from the Special Ops expansion in Wing 2 except much easier to use and much more deadly. You can take out many enemies in one shot with these things if your enemy is flying in close formation and this is required in one particular mission.
The combat is quite good fun if sometimes a little strange. There were times when I’d turn my ship but whatever I’m turning towards didn’t move on my radar despite it being miles away so I had to turn in another direction instead. Trailing ships once you are on their tail works well though with the enemies often spinning and pulling various manoeuvres to get out of the way. There don’t appear to be any collisions in the game and I literally flew through a planet at one point. The engine also cheats here in that there is a maximum size for a sprite so it stops getting larger as you get closer and then swoops away when you eventually fly past. I get the feeling there was some general jiggery-pokery going on with the engine and that it wasn’t exactly a full 3D environment.
The combat missions have a large dose of strategy in them and some play quite like puzzles in the sense that you have to work out the correct path through them to succeed. This can be a little frustrating if you run into an impossible situation not realising what you did wrong to create it. I enjoyed this part of the game on the whole though. It interjects FMV during the missions to move the story along or show ships blowing up and there was a clear intention to keep everything as cinematic and action packed as possible. I wouldn’t for a minute say that the story is well told but there is no delay between transitions so it’s unobtrusive and adds to the games universe such as it is.
After doing a handful of these missions, you get to land on a space station where you are searching for a clone of your brothers ultimate knowledge so you can destroy it. This section of the game fills up CD #2 and plays like Myst with FMV transitions as you move around the station. I’m not a fan of Myst it has to be said although I don’t have an inherent problem with first person adventures. This section looks OK but it is desperately in need of more narrative and explanation. You can’t examine items or anything else for that matter to see what they are. Hotspots are often tiny so you can know what you need to do but miss out on it because of the arbitrary hotspot you haven’t found. Part way into this section I gave up on it and just flat out used a walkthrough. Having seen some of the puzzle solutions this was quite definitely the right call. E.g. you pick up a canister (which has no more description than that) which you have to drop into a fish tank to create poison gas (while wearing a space suit whose seal you have fixed in order to get rid of some guards. I had no idea the canister had poison in it or any reason to mix it with water had I known. I didn’t know that the seal on the space suit was bust either for that matter since I couldn’t examine my inventory and the interface was poor enough that using the seal took several attempts before it actually worked. Making it through this part of the game would have required trial and error which simply isn’t fun. Another complaint would be that large parts of the base being are extremely similar looking corridors. You have all this FMV, why make everything look the same. Some labels on doors would have helped at the very least. Mazes full of identical twisty passages have been the bane of adventure games since the very beginning. I should mention that you can swap back to the space sections and the adventure part at will if you wanted a change, not that I ever did.
Once the ultimate knowledge is dealt with, it’s back to space combat again and the best missions of the game. The plot continues to weave around and is frankly ridiculous. The general tone reminds me more of The Last Starfighter than anything else except much worse. It quite definitely doesn’t take itself seriously but the attempts at humour are often embarrassing. It’s all fun if you like B movies although this would have to be rated D or E. Make it to the end and you will have previously rid yourself of the ultimate knowledge unknown to Iron. You hand yourself in to him, he tries to transfer the knowledge into himself only for the process to backfire when it’s not there. This means that I become the ultimate knowledge myself giving me the superpowers to disarm the enemy and become a hero. None of this makes any sense of course but you shouldn’t be expecting that by this point in proceedings.
The Last Dynasty is an entertaining attempt to combine a couple of genres which masters neither but has enough heart and humour to just about get away with it. It doesn’t manage to create the movie like atmosphere it’s going for but with a walkthrough ready if you need it, a good time can still be had. I kind of wish that the adventure game section had been dropped and the time spent on polishing the space combat if I’m honest. The two parts of the game didn’t gel together and the Myst section while competent was too obtuse. I’d have been all for twice as many combat missions instead. I do like a bit of 90’s FMV but the movie parts were really quite odd. I got the impression that half of them were missing and it should have been a 4CD game but they decided to save a few quid and edit everything to death. I’m not going to go as far as to recommend The Last Dynasty but it was good enough that I don’t regret giving it a go.