Have you ever played a game that copied the superficial elements of a good game without understanding what made the game good? Well, here’s another:
Before I talk about the game proper, I’m going to rant about its soundtrack. You see, game music is a bit personal for me since it’s how I remember a game after I’m done playing it. Even if I had a negative experience with the game, like with Koudelka or Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, I can always play the game’s (good) music on my car or whatever and enjoy that. I can’t do that with this game because all of its songs suck! They all repeat just a couple bars with barely anything else done with the song, and if you hear something different that might signal a transition to another part of the song, it just loops back to the repetitive part. To top it off, some songs even reuse parts of previous songs, as if they weren’t repetitive enough. I haven’t heard a soundtrack this repetitive since They Bleed Pixels. Seriously, the Game Boy Mega Man II (Rockman World 2) soundtrack is better than this game’s soundtrack! I’d say that it sounds like the kind of thing you’d hear in a generic action movie to prevent a scene from feeling empty, but that would be an insult to generic action movie soundtracks. I admit that the opening track is actually pretty decent, but its short length decently foreshadows the rest of the soundtrack (it has to loop and play the first part again before the opening movie is over).
Anyway, this game is a hybrid of two genres. The first is a beat ‘em up game, but not just any beat ‘em up game: it’s the massive army sub-genre of beat ‘em up games that the sequels of Dynasty Warriors popularized (Dynasty Warriors itself didn’t popularize the genre because that was a fighting game). In other words, there’s a large map with multiple detachments spread throughout, and you have a set amount of targets in the crowd you have to defeat before moving on to your next mission objective. On top of your standard combo attacks and dodge rolling, you can also build up a charge attack that will stun enemies in a small area in front of you. You build it up simply by walking non-stop long enough, like the speed boost in the GBA Metroid games (there’s no run button [although you can jump, but it’s just another way to dodge since there’s no platforming in the game]). A couple missions in, you meet the dragon on the cover, and the protagonist threatens to kill it if it doesn’t make a pact with him (the dragon is chained on the ground at this point, so it doesn’t have much choice). This brings us to the game’s second genre: flight combat sim. These missions have you controlling the dragon as it flies around in an open arena, and you have to go around shooting down all the enemies. The enemies don’t come in waves; they come in groups, and usually just wait around a certain area of the arena, meaning you have to go to them. On top of being able to fire normal fireballs, you can hold the attack button down, then move the aiming reticle over enemies to target them, then release the button to fire out multiple guided shots that needlessly swirl around the enemies before hitting them, leaving behind distracting orange streaks in the process. You can also push the shoulder buttons individually to dodge to the side, or both at once to turn around instantly. You can also hold the X button to fly faster.
Also, after the first aerial combat level, you can ride the dragon in the more open parts of beat ‘em up levels, raining fiery death on your enemies. The downside is that archers become especially proactive while you’re on the dragon, and you get knocked off after only a couple hits (and whenever you land on the ground after dismounting the dragon, you’re stunned for a second, giving the archers even more time to shoot you again; I got Game Over from that, once). Also, some enemies are immune to magic, so you’d have to dismount anyway and take out those guys on foot.
When you start playing the game, one of the first things you’ll notice is how awful the camera is. For starters, the right stick doesn’t reorient the camrea like it does in literally every other 3D game ever. Instead, it just checks your flanks, and when you stop holding the stick, it goes back to looking in whatever direction it was before. Second, there’s no way to lock on to enemies, nor is there a quick way to center the camera. The closest you have is the guard button (L2), as this will turn you to face a nearby enemy, but I could never tell what information the game uses to determine who you face when guarding, except “which nearby enemy is the least of a threat?”. Seriously, I lost count of how many times the camera would focus on distant (inactive) enemies or enemies I had just killed and were in the process of fading away. Sometimes, it wouldn’t move the protagonist at all, even though there was an enemy right behind me about to attack. So, if neither the right stick nor the dedicated lock-on button are effective at focusing the camera to look in front of you, what is? Standing still. Yes, if you stand still, the camera will spin around until it’s facing the same way as you, and I don’t have to tell you how this would leave you vulnerable while in battle.
Oh, and as one more example of bad controls, you bring up the map by pressing R3. Yes, the button under the right stick is what you have to push to see where you are in relation to your mission objectives, because that isn’t awkward and unintuitive as heck! Oh, wait, yes it is. Seriously, there’s a perfectly good pause button on the controller for a reason! Speaking of, are you wondering what the pause button is used for that is so important that bringing up the map was relegated to the button equivalent of an afterthought? It’s just a generic pause screen that says “pause” and nothing more. Yes, never mind that bringing up the map also pauses the game, as well as brings up a little menu for checking stats and other things, we need a completely pointless secondary pause button to take precedence on the controller! Like, was there a double agent sent in to sabotage the game’s controls or something? Why would anyone consciously make that decision??
Moving on to the beat ‘em up combat: it sucks, too. You see, although individual enemies mostly sit around and wait a few seconds before attacking, and although you can knock enemies off their feet with one attack, enemy hit-boxes are surprisingly thin, and most of the combo attacks are either vertical strikes or jabs; very few horizontal strikes. Combine this with the bad camera, lack of lock-on, and the fact that enemies come in sets of 4-8, and any attempt at a head-on strategy will just get you mortally wounded if you don’t just get swarmed and killed immediately. You can try using dodge rolls, but you’ll just dodge into another enemy’s attack. You can try to stun one at a time until the whole group is down, but the bad camera combined with the thin hit-boxes means you’ll most likely miss most of your swings, giving the enemy ample time to stun you. Seriously, there have been times where I had a group down to one enemy who I stunned, but I couldn’t hit it since my attacks were going just barely to its side (and I couldn’t focus my attacks since guarding would make me turn around and face some other distant, inactive enemies). You have magic, but on top of some enemies being immune to magic, you can only replenish MP by hitting enemies with melee attacks, bringing you right back to the other strategies. Maybe the game is more clever than I’m giving it credit for and players have to employ different strategies for different enemies? Nope, there’s one strategy that works on all enemies: hit and run tactics. You see, enemy groups may chase you, but they only chase you up to a point. Once they reach that point, they’ll turn around and run back to their post. Combine this with the charge attack’s area of effect (as the charge attack is the only reliable attack you have), and you become almost unstoppable. The only problem with this strategy is that it makes the game incredibly tedious. Even though your target may only be one person in the group of enemies, you have to play it safe and use the charge attack to hit the enemies in front (if not the whole group) since, aside from being able to use the dragon when there are no archers or magic-immune soldiers around, literally any deviation from this charge-attack-and-run strategy will result in your untimely demise. There aren’t even any bosses for the beat ‘em up segments; it’s only the tedious massive army fights, and it’s like that for the whole game. Imagine doing the same ten second loop for 40 minutes, then doing it again for the next level, then again for half the game, and you can see why I hate this game so much.
On top of all that, there’s barely even any enemy variety; aside from archers (who only have one type) and mages (who only show up in two levels), the only variation with enemies are their size, HP, and attack power. Meet a new enemy? No you didn’t; it’s just the same enemy with a new coat of paint.
Ah, but surely the aerial combat portions are done better, right? Well, yes, they are (though that isn’t saying much). Because of the game’s targeting mechanic and the fact that enemy bullets move in a straight line, you can actually dodge enemy fire and hit them back! It’s incredible. The flying segments even follow a somewhat proper difficulty curve throughout the game (unlike the beat ‘em up levels, whose difficulty is a sine curve). However, bad decisions rear their ugly heads in these parts, too. First, this part of the game has auto-lock on when there’s a moderately tough enemy nearby, but it will even do this if there’s more than just that one enemy. In other words, you might want to kill the weaker enemies first, but you’ll have difficulty doing that due to the camera focusing on something else. This problem is exacerbated in the maze level: the game likes to auto-lock-on to an enemy behind the wall instead of the enemy that can actually shoot at you, and there’s no manual way to change the lock-on. Plus, at some point in the game, the flying sections introduce homing bullets. Imagine a projectile coming right at you, then you dodge to the side at the last second only for the projectile to make a sharp 90 degree turn and hit you anyway. That’s what happens with homing attacks in this game. There’s really no sure-fire way to dodge them, especially if there are multiple enemies around that can fire homing projectiles. For the most part, I’d just get lucky and beat the level before my health could be drained completely.
Ah, but then we get to the boss fights. The first boss is a black dragon. On top of having to fight this boss twice (it has more HP and attack power the second time), it obeys normal dragon flying rules until you shoot at it, at which point it immediately turns to face you, at which point it will fire shots at you with no warning. On top of this, even if you use your guided shots, it will dodge most of your attacks anyway (you can see it leaving behind after-images and you can hear the swoosh noise of it dodging). There’s no trick to hitting it; you just have to spam shots and hope some of them hit. This is easily the hardest boss in the game since you really have to learn how it works through trial-and-error if you want to have any chance of winning (at least on the second attempt).
The second boss is the Wyrm, and the only reason this boss is difficult is because it has a hundred little baby wyrms flying around it, each one capable of shooting guided shots. After dying a few times, I suddenly realized that this was just an extension of the beat ‘em up segments into an aerial combat level, meaning the only way to beat the boss is with the same tedious hit and run strategy, just with guided shots instead of a charge attack. You might think that the baby wyrms would stay dead, but no: once you take away one orb of the Wyrm’s health, it and the remaining baby wyrms form a shadow ball, then burst out with the Wyrm having transformed into a glowing, transparent skull-ball-thing; shooting this thing once will cause it and the babies to go all shadow ball again, then burst out with a new set of babies before going back to the regular Wyrm AI. Also, it has around a dozen circles of health, so this fight will take a while.
Lastly, there’s the final boss. The first phase of the boss has it create a shield, then slowly create spawn points for guided missiles before finally launching them and deactivating its shield for enough time to be hit, like, once, before repeating the process. Since the final boss was the only one firing guided projectiles at me, I was able to figure out a somewhat reliable way to dodge them, at which point it became another “ten second loop for 8-10 minutes” battle. After this, the second phase of the boss has it creating giant purple rings that expand outward from it: if any one of them hit you, they deal massive damage. Although the rings disappear before reaching the edge of the arena, giving you a safe area, you can’t target the boss to use guided shots unless you’re close enough, and that means trying to avoid the purple rings. However, the purple rings come out seemingly randomly and without warning, giving you little time to dodge that which takes, like, 1/4th of your health per hit. Plus, if you die here, you have to redo the tedious guided missile part of the boss. After a dozen or so deaths on this part of the boss, it finally occurred to me: the final boss was motionless, and had no shield. In other words, I could just use regular fireballs! Of course, this meant I had to aim manually (and I’m pretty sure the fireballs fly above wherever the reticle points) and turn around after only a couple shots to stay safe, but stay safe I did. I suppose this game’s mantra is “the most tedious solution is the correct one.” The boss does have a third phase, but it’s just more purple rings (instead of all the purple rings being horizontal, they come out at different trajectories), but they have the same safe zone, so it doesn’t matter.
I will give props to the game’s story, however. You see, the protagonist’s home country is at war with an evil empire, and a dragon from the empire killed the protagonist’s parents. They even have the empire kidnap the protagonist’s sister near the beginning of the game. If that wasn’t unique enough, it turns out there are seals (not the animal; wouldn’t want to be too original) around the world, and if these seals are broken, a doomsday weapon is activated that puts the world in great peril, and you’re never going to guess this: it turns out the empire is out to destroy these seals! Plus, there’s a character who starts off on your side, but gets captured and brainwashed by the enemy into fighting you. Can anyone even handle such creativity? Lastly, to top of all of this originality, it turns out that there’s a single, powerful entity who was pulling the strings, and this entity has to be defeated to prevent the destruction of all of humanity! Normally, I would have put such a surprising and original plot twist in spoilers, but I don’t want anyone to have to suffer through this game, even if it’s to experience the greatness that is this plot. Clearly, this game’s great, original, incredibly unique and not-super-generic-at-all-shut-up story gives this game a reason to exist. I just wish they had a part where the protagonist discovers the ruins of an ancient civilization that had created advanced technology, as that would have made the plot even more unique.
In all seriousness, there is one plot point that makes fun of how the player has to kill countless soldiers throughout the game with characters talking about how the protagonist is a bloodthirsty madman, and that part was quite amusing. However, the rest of the plot is the most generic thing ever, and I have no idea why so many people give it praise. Maybe Extra Credits should overanalyze the plot for this series like they did with Quintet’s games so I can finally see what I’m missing (that reminds me: I still haven’t played ActRaiser 2; I should probably get to that game at some point).
Overall, I don’t recommend this game. Even if you think you can get past the repetitive nature of the beat ‘em up segments, the bad controls and bad camera will ruin your experience instead. Plus, the flight combat parts become unenjoyable as well, even though they started off pretty good.
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LEFT UNCHECKED, MY STEAM BACKLOG CONTINUED TO GROW. I MUST FINISH WHAT I CAME HERE TO DO
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