When Sega announced that it was getting out of the console business earlier this year and discontinuing production of the Dreamcast, my initial reaction was one of sorrow. Simply put, I love my Dreamcast, and as a system, it never got the respect it deserved. After thinking about it for a while, I did at least see one silver lining in this particularly dark cloud-if Sega was discontinuing the Dreamcast, then games for that system were going to drop in price drastically.
My prediction has proven correct as you can now find many of the Dreamcast’s titles brand new for $10-$20. For games that were retailing at roughly $50 apiece originally, this is a game buyer’s dream. So, for the last few months, I’ve been scarfing up DC titles like there’s no tomorrow (because, really, there are very few tomorrows left for this console). When games are as cheap as $10, it’s not much of a risk-even if you hate the game, you’re only out a measly $10-which is like two rental periods at Blockbuster.
One of the games I’ve picked up for a fraction of its original cost is Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm (hereby referred to as Draconus in the spirit of brevity). A loose sequel to Treyarch’s PC game, Die by the Sword, Draconus is another D&D inspired hack-and-slash (or in this case, maybe cast-and-slash would be more accurate since magic does play a fairly prominent role in the proceedings) game in a fantasy setting. And while the old saw is that familiarity breeds contempt, I find something comforting in seeing these old game styles updated to today’s 3-D, 128-bit standards. Yes, there are some glaring technical problems with the game as a whole, but that doesn’t make the game any less fun.
You are Dragonsbane
When you first begin a game of Draconus, you’ll be required to choose one of two characters: Cynric, the stereotypical knight/fighter, or Aeowyn, the stereotypical sorceress. After making this decision, you’re plunged into the story.
The story isn’t much, honestly. It’s your classic tale about a world threatened by evil (which is ultimately a dragon and his minions). You’ll have to undertake various missions in order to find much needed items for your cause, to weaken the enemies’ defenses, etc. Truthfully, the story only provides a skeleton on which the developers hang the meat of the game: the hack-and-slash action. If you’re looking for a complex plot a la Xenogears, you’re bound to be disappointed.
Still, the story is decent enough. Before each mission, your ‘guide’ Stendhal tells you what you need to do, why you need to do it, and gives you a bit of history concerning where you’re going. The detail is fairly impressive, showing that while story isn’t an overly vital component of the game, the staff did still put a lot of thought into it.
At its core, Draconus is an updated version of the old 2-D side-scrolling beat-em-up games of the past. The title has a lot in common with games like Final Fight, only updated to a 3-D environment and transported to medieval times. You’ll enter a level, fight hordes of enemies, fight a boss, then generally head to the next level. However, it also has several action RPG elements that make it something of a cross between an adventure game and a traditional action RPG.
As mentioned earlier, the game has a very episodic feel since the overall quest is broken down into 14 individual missions. After getting your assignment, you’ll be teleported to the area where the mission takes place. The environments are rich, expansive, and varied. One mission may have you running through a lush green forest while another will have you picking your way through an insect-infested underground cavern. Each area is large, intricately detailed, and easy to get lost in-unless you use your map regularly.
Pressing the start button will pause the game and bring up a menu. Choosing the map will show a semi-detailed overview of the current level. If you’re unsure where you need to go, consulting the map will help you out as well-the next place you need to be is always marked with a red X. Completed parts of the mission are marked with a green X instead. This is nice in that getting completely stuck is all but impossible. Unfortunately, it also gives the game a fairly linear feel-while the levels are huge, the map makes it so you can run directly from one place to the next, which eliminates the need to explore much of the landscape.
While traversing the countryside, you’ll encounter all manner of enemies. From goblin-like Krujen, mutant spiders, all the way through to the fearful Draconus themselves, there’s no shortage of monsters for you to battle.
Battling them is a relatively intuitive affair for anyone who’s played something like Diablo. One button slashes, one button blocks, one button jumps, and one button can cast spells or use an item. The triggers allow to you to strafe your enemy.
Fighting itself is slightly more nuanced than the standard hack-and-slash game-blocking is essential. However, unlike other games that keep your shield up as long as the button is depressed, Draconus automatically lowers your guard each time you sustain a blow. This may not sound like much, but it significantly increases the amount of button pounding you’ll be doing during battle.
Attacking can be simple or complex-depending on your style of play. Simply pushing a button can launch the standard attack. But, you can also put together stronger move combos by being in different positions and moving the analog stick in different directions while attacking. These skills will take practice to master, but they’ll make your journey easier.
There are two factors that affect battling in a negative way: the camera system and a somewhat clunky interface for the spells and items menu.
By far, the worst offender here is the camera. Draconus is presented in a third person view, with the camera situated right behind your character. When the camera stays in this position, things are generally good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always want to stay behind you, particularly in battle. The camera has the annoying habit of getting caught on parts of the environments, of switching views seemingly at will while you’re fighting (often making it so that you can no longer see the enemy closest to you), or just sort of gyroscoping around as you try to move your character and get your bearings again. It also has the tendency to do these things in the few instances where you’re called on to platform jump in the game-making those sequences far more difficult than they need to be.
The clunky interface of the spell and item menu is much less of an issue. Since you can only have one spell or item ready at a time, you may find yourself needing to switch while in battle. Doing this means you have to stop, depress the two triggers, then scroll around the wheel to find what you want-meanwhile, your character is getting pounded. It adds an element of strategy to the game, but the interface could have been designed in a way that made it easier to use during battle.
While the levels are fairly linear in terms of objectives (with objectives usually being firmly entrenched in the ‘find and fetch’ category), simply running through and completing the objectives will cause you to miss many of the wisps hidden in the levels.
Wisps are fairies that help you throughout the game. Red wisps restore massive amounts of hit points, blue ones give you a blessing. Acquire five of the blue wisps and you gain an additional power-up point at the end of the level-which makes finding the wisps vital if you want to be strong enough to finish the later levels.
Fighting battles doesn’t give you experience points, gold, or items. Instead, you essentially ‘level up’ after completing each level. At the end of each level, you’re granted one ‘point’, which can be applied to any of a number of stats-offense, defense, rank, or one of several magical attributes. If you’ve found five of the blue wisps, you can upgrade two stats.
Increasing rank makes you a more feared and powerful character, increasing offense will earn you newer weapons, defense gives better armor, and magic can give you a multitude of abilities. In this regard, the game is fairly customizable. While Cynric can use magic, you can beef up his physical attributes first and not actually use much magic throughout the adventure. The opposite applies to Aeowyn.
After each level, you have the opportunity to save your game to the VMU. You cannot save while in a level, but you can set marks. If you should die (and you will), you’ll be teleported to your last marked spot to try again.
Finally, a few words about replay value. While the game does feature two different characters, the missions are exactly the same regardless of which you choose. In fact, even the dialogue is exactly the same. Yes, there are some differences in fighting strategy and ability between the characters, but playing through a second time is just like playing through it the first time.
While the gameplay of Draconus is solid, the graphics are where the problems begin to rear their ugly head.
The environments are large and often breathtaking. There’s a high level of detail throughout-at least where you can actually see.
One of the most glaring problems with the game is that it’s too dark. Many levels take place underground, and there’s not a lot of light. Later levels in a dwarf mine are so dark that seeing what’s around you can be all but impossible. I spent thirty minutes looking for a switch, and as it turns out, I was standing right next to it-but the lighting is so poor that I couldn’t see it. The same thing happened with a ladder. Granted, making dwarf mines dark is probably intended to add ‘realism’, but if it makes it so that the gamer has to squint to see anything and gets a headache after twenty-minutes of play, it’s probably too dark.
If that weren’t bad enough, there are numerous instances where the polygon seams can be seen throughout the game. It’s a shame this is a problem-particularly when it seems as if it would be easy to fix.
It doesn’t end there, though. You’ll also notice some fogging, a little pop-up, some clipping (your arm or other body parts will occasionally disappear through walls and whatnot) and some really choppy frame rates at various points. None of these things is enough to ruin the game, but put together they take a title that could have been something really good and make it much more average overall.
Of course, not everything with the graphics is bad. Cynric, Aeowyn, and the various enemies are well animated, move well, and have a nice amount of detail. This is particularly true in the game’s numerous cut-scenes. These sequences are presented using the game’s graphical engine (no CGI here) and do a solid job of making you identify with the characters and get involved in the events.
And while most of the graphical problems seem to involve the environments, that doesn’t lessen how diverse and impressive they are. The wide range of areas you’ll encounter are not only diverse and unique, they also add a lot of atmosphere to the game.
While the general controls of Draconus are responsive, there are instances where they could have been improved.
The analog stick guides your character, and unfortunately, it’s a little too responsive in spots. This is particularly noticeable on those rare instances when you have to jump from one platform to another or navigate a narrow ledge. Adding the temperamental camera into the equation can make these sequences incredibly frustrating.
The other problem is that the buttons seem sluggish and unresponsive on occasions. Every once in a while there’s a slight pause between you pushing a button and the character carrying out the actions. This isn’t something that happened all of the time, but I did notice it at various points throughout the adventure.
The first thing I noticed about Draconus is just how little music there is in the game. Unlike a lot of other games, where music is prominent and in your face throughout the course of your journey, Draconus uses less music and more ambient noise to set the tone.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have music, it’s just that the music is used sparingly, and often blends nicely into the background of the game. The downside of this is that I can’t recall a single tune from the game-but I remember liking them when I heard them.
The ambient noise found in the various environments is quite good. Cross a high bridge between towers and you’ll hear the wind howl. Traipse through the forest and you’ll hear the soft sound of your feet on the grass. Waterfalls roar, explosions boom, and swords on shields resonate with the sweet sounds of metal on metal.
On top of that, Draconus is a game that is entirely voice acted-with excellent results.
The voices of Cynric and Stendhal are the best of the bunch-Cynric has just the right amount of smart-aleck inflection in his voice, which complements the macho dialogue perfectly. Stendhal has that older, distinctive and cultured voice that you’d expect to hear from a wizened wizard.
Aeowyn’s voice is also good, but since she says the exact same lines as Cynric, she doesn’t seem quite as believable-the sarcasm just works better coming from a burly warrior than a tiny sorceress.
The supporting characters are decent, but not quite on the same level of the main cast. A lot of the Krujen sound like characters from Sesame Street, and the larger enemies like goblins sound like regular voices ran through a modifier to make them slow and deep. The one exception is the elf Ansorin, who’s voiced by none other than George Takei. That’s right, Mr. Sulu does a voice in this game. How cool is that?
Overall, I had a good time playing through Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm. While the game certainly has problems (most notably in the graphics department), they don’t really detract from the overall fun of the game. Plus, when one considers that this was Treyarch’s first attempt at a console game, I think the results are pretty impressive.
If this game were still retailing for $40-$50 I’d have a hard time recommending it for purchase-it’d be a rent first game. However, since it’s now selling for $10 or so, I have no qualms about advising people to pick it up. It’s a heck of a lot of game for ten-spot.