Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: Dragon Crystal

Rogue-like RPGs are notoriously difficult, and while they can be infuriating, many have an oddly addictive quality that will make tomorrow, yesterday. Designed to keep the player coming back time and time again for another shot at victory, Dragon Crystal is one of these games, and it wouldn't surprise me if the developers grew up torturing small animals.

There is no story to speak of in this game, at least, none that I know of. I haven't actually made it to the end, and for anyone that has, I salute you. As stated, it's a rogue-like, meaning you travel from map to map, defeating enemies, picking up items, and in general, trying not to die, because when you do die, that's it. Game over. Back to square one. Do not pass go. Players may spend an hour or more playing, just to lose it all.

Why bother playing then?” Some may ask, and it's not an unreasonable question. These types of games have been known to drive even the calmest of gamers to the brink. It's like building a house of cards, but once a sense of real progress is reached, it all falls apart. That's a big part of many rogue-likes, randomness. Complacency is a player's biggest enemy in Dragon Crystal. Never underestimate just how long a string of unfortunate events can be.

First of all, each map is randomly generated. The game starts our nameless protagonist in one of many rooms, which have a combination of items to grab and enemies to kill. The map is covered in grayed-out sprites which, when approached, either disappear to reveal the path or come into color to mark walls. My first time playing, I found myself backed against a wall surrounded by enemies with nowhere to run as I futilely attempted to cut a path to safety using a dinky dagger with nothing more than a cloth robe (which doesn't actually add any armor points) to protect me. There's also an egg that follows the player around, and will hatch and grow as the hero's level rises, turning into a dragon(ite). It doesn't attack, and can't die, but it serves the vital function of protecting one of the player's sides, always saving a space to move to. 

Dragon Crystal is like chess, but the board is much larger, the cpu has the standard set of pieces, the player's just a lowly pawn climbing the ranks, and for every single player action, the cpu simultaneously makes a move, with every single piece. Everything is on a grid, and for every step taken, the board shifts. Some enemies match player movement 1:1, some remain stationary, others move multiple spaces or randomly teleport. Attacks are performed pressing the d-pad in the direction of an adjacent enemy, then they return the favor, while others attack from afar or move. For every level grown, the hit point stat rises. I recommend killing everything possible, from the uninspired blobs to wizards that shoot confusion-inducing magic, completely randomizing the d-pad inputs, turning it into a game of pin the tail on the donkey.

It may sound helpless, but there are ways to combat these seemingly impossible odds. Players can beef up their hero with items found in rooms. Multiple types of swords, armor, books, staves, potions, and rings are randomly placed throughout the maps. Swords and armor increase power and armor class, while books, staves and potions can be used for different effects, including hp recovery, random teleportation, powerful elemental attacks on the enemy, and what seems like dozens of others. Rings can be equipped for sustained effects, like gradually restoring hp or reducing magic damage. Adding to the tension of never knowing if the next room's mob will be the last or if the next piece of armor turns out to be cursed and consequently significantly weaker and irremovable without a bless book is the fact that the names of everything but swords and armor are hidden. Instead, it'll read “Pink Pot,” “Silver Rod,” etc. The name is only revealed after use, so it's a good idea to use a duplicate in a safe situation to learn the effects. There's nothing worse than being surrounded by a mob bleeding hp and having to blindly use an item hoping it'll turn the tables.

In addition to equipment and items which can also be thrown for varying effects, bags of gold and food can be collected. After every six steps, actions, or a combination of the two, one point of food (max 100) is used. If it reaches zero, hit points will be drained instead. After death, gold can be spent to preserve the character's level and equipped items at the time of death. The higher the level, the larger the amount of gold needed to continue. Without this feature, the game would be virtually impossible. It's too random to not have a continue function. In Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer for example, there is no continue function, but the levels are laid out so you know you can make it to the next one if you just find the portal. In Dragon Crystal though, this is sometimes literally impossible. A few times, the game started me in a room with no exit. With no items to warp me to a random location, I had no choice but to reset or starve to death. At other times, the portal to the next level was in a room with no entrance. I played this on the 3DS virtual console, so I used a save-state for the sake of this review. I had one shift book left, and saved before using it. The room I needed to get into was only a tiny percentage of the entire map's area, and it took at least two dozen attempts before I got lucky.

The ability to continue saves this game. It elevates it from broken to playable, but entropic. For the sake of seeing more of the game I used a save state, but if I ever make it to the end it's going to be the old fashioned way, and only after it's thoroughly kicked my ass. 

Update: It's been brought to my attention that the scenario above doesn't leave the player trapped. There are points in the wall that can be broken through by attacking, so the game isn't as brutal as this review may have made it seem.
Find Dragon Crystal on ebay | Amazon

Released: 1992-12-22
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: SEGA


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