Dragon Force is Working Designs' first fantasy-themed strategy RPG for the Sega Saturn. Although it wasn't met with a lot of hype when it first arrived, Dragon Force's combination of beautiful art and graphics, excellent sound, and near-perfect gameplay quickly pushed it into the strategy RPG limelight. To this day, it remains arguably the best strategy RPG ever released in the US.
Dragon Force takes place on the continent of Legendra, a land steeped in the legend of its near-annihilation at the hands of the dark god Madruk years ago. Only through the efforts of Harsgalt, a powerful dragon, was Madruk stopped. With the last of his energy, Harsgalt managed to put Madruk into a deep sleep long enough for 8 heroes to be born. These 8 heroes are the only people in Legendra capable of destroying Madruk once and for all.
In Legendra's present, the 8 kingdoms on the continent are at war with each other. As the player, you get to choose which kingdom you wish to play; the circumstances surrounding the war vary slightly depending on which kingdom you choose. As the monarch of your choice, your objective is to subjugate all of the other kingdoms in Legendra in order to unite the land (and, therefore, the 8 heroes) and stop a possible revival of Madruk.
As you can see, storyline is the weak point of Dragon Force. The take-over-the-world premise of the game's plot isn't exactly a fresh idea, and even though the plot goes significantly deeper than that, it never reaches the level of complexity, intensity, or emotional strength that games such as Lunar, Langrisser, and Final Fantasy do.
All in all, though, Dragon Force does have an above average plot. With over 100 playable characters in the game (hereafter referred to as "generals"), character development is obviously going to take a backseat, but what's nice is that Working Designs manages to instill a distinct personality into each general in the game through their pre-battle trash talk. WD's translation in Dragon Force is commendable as well; although there is less dialogue in Dragon Force than in the average RPG, WD makes the sparse dialogue flow pretty well, though a significant amount of the trash-talk responses match the initial taunt poorly. As usual, WD does an excellent job avoiding spelling and grammatical errors throughout the game.
Dragon Force's key strength is in its gameplay. Out of all of the console strategy RPGs that come to mind, Dragon Force is best compared to Ogre Battle and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games, even though it isn't that much like either of the aforementioned games. Dragon Force's gameplay is split up into two main phases: the preparation phase and the map phase.
In the preparation phase, the player can bestow awards upon generals (thus allowing them to command more troops), search for items within the kingdom, repair castles damaged during battle, consult with allied generals and recruit captured enemy generals, and perform a host of other kingdom management activities. Players can take their time during the preparation phase; there is no time limit.
The map phase is where all of the action takes place. In the map phase, players can organize their generals, recruit troops (each general can command up to 100 troops), and deploy their generals (in groups of up to 5 generals) to explore towns or invade neighboring castles. The map phase is played out in real time, and a battle ensues when one of your general units encounters either an enemy unit or an occupied hostile castle or an enemy unit attempts to take over one of your castles.
When a battle begins, the opposing unit picks a general (and his or her troops) to fight you; you then pick a general of your own to counter. Once this is accomplished, you then select a starting formation and tactic as the actual combat begins. The ensuing melee is carried out in real time
During the melee, you can issue commands to your troops, fine-tuning your plan of attack as the battle wears on. Timely changes in your strategy can mean the difference between an overwhelming victory and a hard-fought defeat. If all of the soldiers belonging to both generals are defeated, you can then choose whether you want to fight the other general in a one-on-one slugfest. Whenever a general is defeated in combat, he or she is captured by the enemy.
I would venture to say that in terms of pure gameplay, Dragon Force is the best game I've ever experienced. I have never found a game to be as insanely addicting as this one. The Christmas that I received Dragon Force, I was up every night until about 7 in the morning playing it, completely unable to stop.
Although Dragon Force is the best-playing game I've ever played, it still does have some minor flaws. During the battles, I found the set of commands that you could give your troops to be somewhat limiting. It would have been nice if there were a few more different orders you could give your troops, such as being able to send them out in small groups at a time. Also, once you get the hang of it, Dragon Force presents very little difficulty. It doesn't force you to alter your strategies as you progress in the game; pretty much, if you find an effective strategy early in the game, it'll take you right to the end with minimal variation.
Dragon Force also contains a minor flaw in the preparation phases. In order to fortify castles or search for items, you have to command each general individually to accomplish the task. As you can probably guess, this becomes incredibly tedious once you amass over 75 generals or so. It would have been nice if Dragon Force included a command that allowed you to tell all of your generals to fortify castles or search for items at one time.
Dragon Force's control pretty much consists of moving an arrow around on the maps and navigating through menus. The cursor is for the most part very responsive, but I found it to be a little bit overreactive at times. In addition, the screen scrolling is a little bit clumsy in the maps, though it's excellent in the battles. The menus are very well organized, though.
Graphically, Dragon Force looks good, but won't really blow anyone away. The maps are colorful, but a little bit lacking in detail. The characters on the map screens are pretty unimpressive as well. In battle, though, the superdeformed characters, in particular the generals, sport a lot more detail and generally look good. Although the backgrounds in the battles aren't anything to get excited about, they are competently done as well. The spell effects are also pretty good; despite a general lack of lighting effects, some of the more powerful spells are quite impressive visually.
Dragon Force's biggest strength in the graphics department is its art. A fair amount of the storyline is told in anime stills, and these are extremely well drawn, rivaling some of the best that video games have to offer. The character designs are similarly impressive; I found many of the characters in Dragon Force to be aesthetically appealing.
Dragon Force is also very strong in the sound department. The sound effects are solid; your troops let out pretty decent battle cries out on the battlefield, and the spell effects are full-sounding, too. The relatively sparse voice acting isn't too bad either. Although it's pretty average by Working Designs standards, most of it is above average for US games in general.
Dragon Force's soundtrack takes a while to grow on you, but is very impressive nonetheless. The assorted map melodies (there's a different one for each monarch you can be) are generally pretty understated and slower than those of the average video game, but prove to be extremely compelling. The battle themes are more upbeat, and while they won't make anyone forget the Ys or Final Fantasy soundtracks, they hold their own quite well against those of most RPGs out there.
There are weaknesses in Dragon Force's sound, though. The wacky booing and cheering that accompanies your activities in the preparation gets really irritating pretty fast; by the time I played through about a quarter of the game, I already really wished that it hadn't been included in the game. In addition, the soundtrack, while excellent (as mentioned before), really could have used more songs. Because Dragon Force is a long game, the score got repetitive in spite of its quality.
Dragon Force is a masterful achievement, and gets my vote as the best US-released game of 1996. It also gets my vote as the best strategy RPG released in the US so far, narrowly edging out Shining Force III. Don't pass this one up.
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