Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
It hasn’t been that long since little known game developer Flight Plan released a game. Most of you reading this however, would probably have never even heard of their existence, but may have actually played their games thanks to Atlus USA. What I am referring to are the GBA Summon Night games that Atlus recently brought over to the US. In addition to the Summon Night series, they also developed the Black Matrix series of games, which may never see the light of day outside of Japan due to the series’ deep religious references that would definitely offend the sensitive religious community.
Dragon Shadow Spell is Flight Plan’s latest, and one game that may actually make it in English if people would take notice. Unfortunately, coverage of this strategy RPG outside of Japan is almost next to nothing; ironic, since in Japan, this very game received high review scores and the official site was so heavily trafficked that it went down multiple times a few days before launch. I guarantee you readers one thing, though. It had nothing to do with the reduced internet connectivity due to the Taiwan quake!
The setting of this game is none other then Earth in the year 2007, just under different circumstances. In this alternate present world, an ancient power known as ‘Matrix’ has been discovered and its study and use has spread throughout the world. ‘Matrix’ brings magic into the world, and with this newfound power that humans once believed to be pure fantasy, civilization has advanced to a new era. However, all good things come with a price. Following the discovery of ‘Matrix’, deadly creatures called Daemons have appeared and coincidentally, they can only be defeated by weapons created using ‘Matrix.’ These weapons are called ‘Matrix Gear’ and those able to wield them have come to be known as Variants.
The story begins with our main character Kaito fresh from his Variant apprenticeship and on his way to meet up with his older sister Tatuki. However, Daemons attack their meeting place and Kaito begins his first fight as a Variant. After meeting up with his sister and her companions, they proceed to investigate some newly discovered ruins under Tokyo that hold some of the mysteries related to ‘Matrix,’ and soon find themselves caught in a battle for their lives between the Uranos Alchemists, a shady organization seeking a legendary artifact called the Anima Mundi, and the ruin’s guardian, a Tarisman- a classification given to extremely powerful and ancient Daemons. Through this turn of events, Kaito begins a journey that will not only awaken the secret power within him but also change the very fabric of existence of the world around him.
Dragon Shadow Spell’s cast of characters is numerous and very diverse. Everyone has their secrets, motivations, and the best part is that everyone has a lot of development throughout the story and whether you get to see all of it as a player is entirely up to you! We have our main character Kaito, your typical 17 year old if not for the fact that he is the bearer of a very ancient and powerful force within him. There is his Dragon companion Suihi, who holds the key to Kaito’s power. There is also Kaito’s very protective older sister and seasoned Variant Tatuki, and Laika- another seasoned Variant. The cast isn’t limited to just them though, and as Kaito progresses through his journey, he will meet up with more potential allies as well as more fearsome enemies.
The game is told storybook style in chapters. Every chapter involves story scenes, main missions, optional side missions and naturally, many diversions. Kaito’s base of operations, not including the initial chapter, is the Phantom Ship. In between missions, Kaito can wander around the ship in Free Movement mode, and it is in this mode where Kaito can talk with his companions to bond with them, engage in optional battles in Heaven’s Gate, visit towns to gather information and supplies, play mini games, and of course select missions to undertake. Private Talk events with Kaito’s companions also appear after every battle, and though not compulsory, you’d be missing a lot of character development if you skip them. Many optional missions also add to the game’s story, and without giving too much away, how you answer certain question in the game and what actions you have Kaito do will eventually start affecting the way characters develop as well as the game’s final and true ending. Yes, Dragon Shadow Spell comes with multiple endings and your actions as Kaito will determine which one you will see.
The system used for character development is simple. After every battle, the experience gained will be added to a single pool for you to distribute at the post battle screen. This way, you won’t have to worry about the slower characters, who are unable to get frequent kills, being denied experience. The most unique system however, is through the use of characters’ ‘Matrix Gear.’ Every Daemon type monster defeated is absorbed, and the more absorbed daemons, the more optional skills available to learn are unlocked. These skills are purchased using Code, which is obtained when a character defeats a Daemon type monster. Skills can be relearned as many times as you want as long as the character has enough Code to do so. This system enables you to customize your characters with many possible styles. You can compensate for weaknesses, strengthen already inherent strengths, learn spells not normally learned by a character… the possibilities are endless!
Another noteworthy feature in battle is Party Mode. When characters build up enough BP they normally have access to their set skill pool, but some skills can only be used when in Party Mode. These skills either require a large amount of AP to use or require certain number of characters to be within range of a target. This naturally allows you to defeat strong opponents. Characters normally have 2 AP, but in Party Mode the AP pool is combined, allowing use of more AP demanding skills. AP refers to Action Points, and every action taken in battle consumes a certain amount of AP.
Enemies come in three sizes: small, medium and large. The bigger the enemy, the nastier it gets. The size also affects the number of squares they occupy and the bigger they are, the more party members they can attack. Of course, the bigger they get, the more areas you can attack them from, allowing more characters to attack. Attacking from behind obviously would do better damage then a frontal attack. In addition, the bigger an enemy is, the harder it is to take down, hence the need for Party Mode. Of course, the game will give your characters more means of Daemon slaughtering as it progresses, so you have many options on how you want to battle.
Control in Free Movement mode is simple. The square button has Suihi filling Kaito in on the current agenda, triangle button has Kaito donning a mask after unlocking the Masked Runner mini game, circle is to talk to characters and observe, and X is to jump. Simple is a blessing, however, jumping is a serious pain! Free Movement has platforming sections to allow Kaito to reach some originally inaccessible areas. However, the control for getting a jump right is ridiculous! Getting jumps correct requires precision; too little effort and Kaito misses his footing, too much and he overshoots! This gets frustrating if you are a completionist who wants to unlock everything.
Dragon Shadow Spell uses 2D graphics on 3/4 perspective. I am not exaggerating when I say that this game offers some of the most detailed 2D sprites and backdrops ever on the PlayStation 2. Character movements are fluid and varied. Major skills also feature a very detailed and sharp animated cut-in and certain scenes in the story are shown with animation. Playing Dragon Shadow Spell will make you rethink that 2D is for the last generation era and I am impressed that with such use of 2D sprites, the loading times for the game are quick and painless, taking into account how notorious Sony’s consoles have been in regards to memory for sprites.
Music in the game is splendid, utilizing very complex and emotional music. The battle music alone comes in more then a dozen variants and you’d be hard pressed to not find yourself actually enjoying Daemon bashing with such enjoyable music. I would highly recommend the OST when it comes out in March; just note that it may only be obtainable through Flight Plan’s store. Voice acting is top notch and Dragon Shadow Spell throws hours upon hours of voice acted scenes at you. The voice actors are really doing their best and characters match their voices so well that it gets eerie at times.
All in all, Dragon Shadow Spell is a top notch strategy RPG with its complex story, deep character development and an overall experience not easily forgotten! Let’s hope a publisher takes this title up for a US or European release for the sakes of those of you not so import savvy, as I will say that you’d all be missing out on a very good game otherwise!