Unusual gameplay and impressive presentation drive this original game, but some pacing and control problems keep it from greatness.
Lock's Quest is something you don't see every day on the Nintendo DS: a non-licensed, non-sequel game with polish. It takes place in a world where a mysterious substance called "Source" is used by a talented guild of "Archineers" to build structures and weapons. Lord Agony is an evil archineer, hell-bent on conquering the kingdom. Lock is a young archineer with a mysterious past who joins the fight against Lord Agony, but he gradually learns that the war is more nuanced than it seems. The original story is told through standard dialogue scenes (which cannot be skipped) and attractive movies that look similar to the opening cinema for Wind Waker.
There's nothing quite like the gameplay in Lock's Quest, but it draws inspiration from the tower defense genre as well as classic strategy games like Rampart. There's also quite a lot of action, albeit the indirect kind. A typical round of gameplay is divided into build and battle phases. In building mode, your character disappears, leaving an empty battle field and a grid on which to place structures. The goal is usually to defend some key item or character, but you only have a couple of minutes to get everything in place. Walls, turrets, and traps are placed onto the grid with the stylus, and there are tools for rotating and removing structures. Turrets become stronger if placed next to walls, and there are also helper units that can increase range, automatically repair, etc. There are a few broad strategies possible, but you'll probably find an effective plan and stick with it through the entire game, since enemy patterns are so predictable. There’s a time limit that’s unnecessary and occasionally troublesome, since the finicky "snap-to" controls don't always make it easy to set up your defensive perimeter.
In the battle phase, you move Lock around the map by tapping on the spot where he should go. He doesn't have a weapon, but Lock can still attack enemies as you tap on them. Special attacks allow him to inflict status effects on enemies if you correctly solve a mini-game on the touch screen. Lock can also repair structures during the battle phase, but if a turret or wall is completely destroyed, it can't be rebuilt until the next build phase. As Lock attacks and repairs, the super attack meter fills up, and these powerful abilities can turn the tide of battle once unleashed.
Since most of the game takes place during the battle phase, the problematic touch screen controls are worth further analysis. The path-finding works well… until enemies show up. A somewhat more direct method is to hold the stylus in the direction you want Lock to move; he'll get stuck on obstacles, but at least you can move around them more quickly. It's too bad the developers didn't include some option for direct control, as neither stylus input method works perfectly. Combat itself can also be frustrating, as Lock will sometimes just walk up next to an enemy rather than start attacking it. Enemy sprites stack on top of each other when they crowd together, so it's impossible to tell which one Lock will actually attack. Even repairing walls could use some improvement, because there's no obvious visual cue to show whether Lock is repairing the correct structure, and sometimes he just walks behind a turret instead of fixing it.
The game makes a strong first impression with its wonderful sprite graphics. The characters and environments are detailed and expressive, with great animation and a clean, colorful look. The music is also very nice, particularly during story scenes, but the battle song grows tiresome over the course of the game.
Unfortunately, the gameplay suffers the same decline. Lock's Quest has some of the worst pacing I've seen in a long time. The story takes forever to build momentum, and I found myself forgetting characters by the time they re-entered the plot. It's a real shame, because the characters are compelling, and the story becomes truly fascinating around its half-way point. It just takes way too long to get there. By the time the story grabbed me, I was already sick of building and battling. That is largely due to the fact that each map hosts four or five consecutive rounds of build/battle. It makes sense that enemies would attack in waves, and that Lock would want to shore up the defenses between those waves. My complaint is the lack of variation in these waves; it feels like you have to fight each battle over and over. I don't know if this pattern is an honest attempt at adjusting the strategy gameplay, or a cynical attempt to stretch out the adventure with repetitive filler content, but either way, it's a tempo disaster.
The truly sad part is that Lock's Quest is just a few design tweaks away from being a fantastic game. All the ingredients are here, but the overzealous chefs at 5th Cell screwed up the recipe. Yields: about five hours of play before all but the most patient gamers will get bored. (Reviewer's note: I played for much longer than that, against my better judgment.) There's a cool story to be revealed if you can force yourself to keep going. Lock's Quest is certainly not a bad game, but it’s definitely disappointing in light of all its great assets and originality.