Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dragon Knight III

Elf / NEC Avenue
Super CD-ROM

This was the final stop I made during my experiences with the Duo's glorious Dragon Knight trinity, and I'm happy to say that the journey ended in fine fashion. DK3 is a third-person RPG, whereas its predecessors are first-person dungeon crawlers. This change in style made me a little apprehensive coming in, but the game turned out to be excellent.

Random battles occur frequently, but the fights play out extremely quickly and reward you with lots of gold and experience points. The combat system is very user friendly, and the opposing army comprises a great mix: DK2-style girl-fiends are accompanied by cool-looking dragons and ghosts and whatnot. Both the ladies and the monsters are animated, and there are gorgeous backdrops for the rumbles.

There are also fun fights to be had with crazy boss characters.

The designers essentially took the best elements of the first DK's scrums and the second DK's duels and put them all together to present fast, great-looking, rewarding combat scenes.

Not to be forgotten are the cool tunes that play during those battles. In fact, all of the game's tunes are good, with one of the best numbers coming at the very end: as you go around visiting friends, a ROCKIN' victory track (the work of T's Music) celebrates your accomplishments.

Also very appealing are the visuals outside of battle. The artists went with attractive light colors and pastels in lieu of the gritty browns and grays prominent in the previous episodes.

They also paid a great deal of attention to little details. Your party members' appearances change when they don new pieces of equipment--a minor element, perhaps, but one that always makes for a neat inclusion.

In addition to the wonderful aesthetics and sweet combat, DK3 delivers an abundance of effective comedy. Takeru (the hero) gets jumped during the opening moments of play...

...and is forced to wander around the first town in a hapless, naked state.

That's just the beginning of Takeru's bumbling and stumbling, as the crazy antics continue up to and all the way through the entertaining end-credits sketch. The game isn't all about silliness, however. As is the case with DK2, the climax is shocking and exciting.

One of the best parts of the DK3 experience for me was revisiting towns I'd first traveled through in previous episodes. DK2 is one of my favorite games, so returning to the town of Phoenix and catching up with old friends made for a very merry time (kind of like when you get to romp through the realm of the first Ys in Ys IV, just to give you an idea if you're an Ys fan--and you'd better be).

Along with recruiting old allies, you'll need to enlist the assistance of some cool new characters... you deal with your evil adversaries.

And, of course, there are the girls!

DK3 doesn't provide enormous dungeons, taxing puzzles, or a super-long quest. But it does present great battle scenes, lots of humor, pleasing aesthetics, and a fast-paced adventure that should leave most everyone satisfied.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dragon Spirit


Considering that Dragon Spirit, tame as it may be, allows players to control a fire-breathing beast capable of growing two additional heads as opposed to the usual spacecraft or fighter jet, it’s easy to understand why some people found it appealing during an era in which the 1942 brand of vertical shooter was prominent. But when also considering what was right around the corner for the sub-genre, with Compile in particular just about ready to get its act together, it’s equally comprehensible why, to put it bluntly, few people give a damn about this game anymore.

To witness Dragon Spirit in action is to observe a number of neat concepts being spoiled by poor execution and lackluster presentation. Actually, "lackluster" is generous; the game is ugly as hell, with scenery so unsightly it ruins what otherwise might've been solid stage concepts. Take Area 5, which throws you into a narrow cavern containing razor-sharp crags that move in and out intermittently. Things can get pretty tight here, especially since there are some cunning creatures patrolling the dusky grounds. But when all is said and done, you probably won’t recall the claustrophobic feelings and close calls that you experienced--no, you’ll remember the boring brown interior placed atop a horrifyingly putrid green-brown canvas. To be certain, caves are supposed to be somewhat dreary and shadowy, but this "artwork" is revolting and disgracefully amateurish.

The game plays very slowly and, thanks to the stupidly large hitbox, is often annoying. Area 7 requires that you launch an assault on an enemy fortress. Again, there’s little room to maneuver within the narrow halls, especially with the resident bevies of bats, toads, and “living statues" attempting to eliminate you. It should make for a pretty intense scene--right? Unfortunately, with your dragon flying slowly and your enemies moving slowly (even the projectiles they shoot seem to struggle just to make it across the screen), the scene becomes more tedious than exciting. Imagine, if you will, an SNES shooter handicapped by the type of ludicrous slowdown that the system was notorious for. That’s the level of speed that Dragon Spirit trudges along at--but there is no slowdown at work here.

But amid all this criticism of the visuals and gameplay, let's not forget to give the audio its deserved shellacking. Strings of quiet notes form unassertive melodies that seem to have been included simply because some form of audio was required. I have no idea why people are so fond of this soundtrack, as most of it sounds very plain to me, and the high-pitched garbage in the seventh stage constitutes one of the most irritating chip tunes I've ever heard.

As horrid as it looks and sounds, Dragon Spirit could've been a genuinely memorable adventure had it featured some solid stretches of inspired action. But even its boss battles are plagued by problems that nullify their potential. Specifically, enemy leaders are way too easy to take down if combated with a powered-up dragon.

Outside of those forgettable fights, the gameplay largely consists of dropping “bombs” on ground-based foes. This routine of making precise drops while avoiding slow-moving shots becomes dull rather quickly. When Dragon Spirit does decide to place its focus on shooting and weaving, it becomes an easy affair, particularly if you happen to be in “mini-dragon” form.

Yes, Dragon Spirit does have its interesting elements, and your dragon’s ability to shrink when the appropriate icon is obtained is one of them. Of course, a tiny dragon makes it even easier to avoid the slow-moving projectiles and dim-witted enemies, though I will say that the very last stretch of Area 8 (a spear gauntlet followed by a scythe-tossing boss) is a good challenge.

Everything actually does come together for DS in Area 6, as a little emotion is injected into the aural experience, not to mention that the icy level is really rather pretty.

Surely, this shows that Dragon Spirit's superficial shortcomings can’t simply be attributed to its age. It achieves excellence when it wants to--it just doesn’t seem to want to very often.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dragon Saber


This vertical shooter is a heck of a lot better than its plodding predecessor, Dragon Spirit. I had my doubts when I first powered it up, as I felt a disturbing sense of deja vu due to its visual style (the animation, specifically); but before long, Saber proved it has much more going for it in virtually every area than its overrated forerunner. While its animation is indeed similar to Spirit's, its graphics on the whole are much, much better. Stage 4's flower patches work because they look good, a concept unheard of in relation to Spirit. Stage 6's tight ice caverns are reminiscent of Spirit Stage 5's laughably basic and ugly rock mess but are much nicer to look at (not to mention that the action is more engaging, and the level design, more interesting).

You can tell that far more effort went into boss design this time around. There are lots of "big and cool" baddies to duel with here, and you get a number of new attack types to utilize against them.

And the soundtrack is far more assertive and attention grabbing than Spirit's (which some dub "legendary" but has always been considered by me to be less than stellar).

But while Saber is wonderful compared to Spirit and pretty good in its own right, I wouldn't quite rank it among the Duo's elite verticals. Just like Spirit, it makes players deal with a stupidly large hitbox. People who play a lot of shooters develop a feel for where their ship/creature/whatever is in relation to everything else, but the DS beasts, with their enormous wingspans, toss that feeling right out the window. And the journey is a stretched-out affair at nine levels; some strips and bosses end up being throwaways. Stage 5, a "speed run" segment that the game's mechanics simply aren't suitable for, comes off as a sloppy mess.

And I really don't think we need both a fire-snake boss and an ice-snake boss, especially seeing as how they employ similar sets of maneuvers.

So "good but far from perfect" is the verdict on Saber. It's a shooter worth checking out, a must if you enjoy its predecessor.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Somer Assault


Ever the iconoclasts, the folks at Atlus presented Turbo players with one of the more intriguing characters ever to appear in a video game. The hero of Somer Assault just happens to be a crafty battle-slinky, one who's going up against a rather ill-intentioned sorceress. Quite the clever evildoer, the no-good villainess recruited the mighty, malicious representatives of the zodiac symbols to help her carry out her despicable plans.

The Somer Assault adventure is divided up into twelve mazelike levels, each of which concludes with a showdown between your slinky and one of the zodiac warriors. The odd little hero is hardly defenseless as he flips and flops his way through each stage: he can fire off shots at various angles (the direction that your bullets fly in is dependent upon the position that our flexible protagonist is in while blasting) and nab icons that will grant him invincibility, extra cannons, and additional speed. There are various contraptions contained within each level that can help or hinder your efforts at exploration, including teleportation blocks that warp the slinky to distant locations. While you’ll encounter a fair share of hostile creatures, the main challenge will be solving the mazes before the time you're granted runs out.

In keeping with its astrological theme, Somer Assault requires you to enter your birthdate whenever you begin a new game. When you encounter the boss creature that represents your zodiac symbol, you’ll receive quite a "birthday present" (a veritable smorgasbord of power-ups). Obviously, your journey will be a lot less strenuous after this encounter; but considering that the day you enter determines when you'll receive the present, putting off the party for a while by entering a late-in-the-year date is basically like upping the level of difficulty.

Somer Assault appealed to me instantly, as it's both exciting and refreshingly original, and it just doesn't get old. The mazelike levels are enjoyable if simplistic; the novelty of playing as a slinky never wears off; the music is nice; and the graphics are appealing enough, with some pretty backdrops here and there.

Of course, the game reaches its highest points of excitement during the dramatic zodiac-boss encounters. The bronze giants look great and perform some awesome (and lethal) attacks, and the grim music that accompanies the fights is excellent.

SA is definitely a fun game, but there are a few things I would change about it if I could:

The exchange between the slinky and the sorceress at the beginning is quite entertaining. I would've liked to have seen more such exchanges take place.

I wish Atlus had made the levels larger and dropped the time limit so that players could explore the labyrinths and find secrets at their leisure instead of racing against a clock.

More regular enemies would've been nice, as there are very few and they're mostly meek. Some cooler weaponry (so that the slinky could evolve into a true beast of destruction) would've been awesome as well.

The battle with the evil heads at the very end seems out of place and unnecessary. The fight with the Mimickers that takes place right before it would've made for the perfect final encounter.