Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara (PC)

I've always been a big fan of beat 'em ups. From the genre's early days playing the likes of Double Dragon and Bad Dudes to its renaissance in the 1990s where we were showered with hit after hit with games such as Streets of Rage, Final Fight, and legions of arcade classics, there's so much to like about these games. Capcom was the publisher to lead the charge with this, and they pumped out tons of beat 'em ups. My favorites from them were their games carrying the Dungeons & Dragons license.

Before this I'd never played a beat 'em up with RPG elements in it, or characters that played so uniquely to one another. The arcade versions of Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara received an absurd amount of quarters from me. What I would have loved to have had all those years ago, though, were the home versions of the games that came to the Saturn.

They were import-only, unfortunately, so I never got around to picking them up. When I finally started to get into importing games the Saturn D&D beat 'em ups cost a kings fortune, and I gave up trying to get them. Thankfully Capcom has finally decided to re-release them both, so people who missed out and don't want to sell their kidneys on the black market to buy a Saturn copy of the game can finally play it. It's a very worthwhile compilation to pick up as it retains all of the features that made the two games classic while also adding in a very good online coop system.

At the core of both games on this compilation are the typical game mechanics one would expect from a beat 'em up. March around, bash evildoers over the head, and collect things off the ground. Simple. What makes the games interesting is all the extras heaped onto this. There are things like a basic inventory system where characters can cycle through various ranged weapons and magically imbued items. On top of this, there are bits of gear that can be found like new armor and shield (these can even break over time). Then there's the ability to earn experience and gain levels. It's a very simple system, but it does add yet another layer of depth to the experience. With Shadow Over Mystara basic special attacks were introduced that could be performed by moving down then forward or down then up on the joystick, and then hitting the attack button. While these may sound simple on their own, their inclusion and how they mixed with a beat 'em up really elevated the experience.

In addition, the game has a number of different character classes to choose from. In Tower of Doom players have four at their disposal including an armored human fighter, a priest, a dwarf warrior, and an elven sorceress. With Shadows Over Mystara they are joined by two more characters: a rogue and a mage. All of these characters play in a specific way coinciding with one would expect from their respective class, and as such interesting combinations can arise. So, when playing with others character selection can make for some fun possibilities depending on how you and your friends decide to make your party. Bare in mind that I'm speaking on a much more broad, meta level here. The developers did not specifically design each character to have specific abilities that come into play with other specific characters.

Both games on the compilation have a fair bit of replay value. While this is often the case with beat 'em ups just for the joy of smashing things in the face, it's even better here due to branching story paths. While the main crux of each game remains the same, players will often be faced with choices on smaller events that happen on their journey. Perhaps they will stumble across a guard who escaped the fort he was stationed at because it was overrun by gnolls. Do you head straight to the fort and show those gnolls whose boss or do you go to the nearest town and get help? Whatever you choose will result in going to a different level, and there are lots of choices like this in the game, so there will be plenty of reason to go back and play again later.

Aesthetically Chronicles of Mystara stays true to the original D&D beat 'em ups in all their 1990s, sprite-filled glory. This is by no means an HD remake, do dismiss that notion from your mind right now. The closest the game does to even attempting to fancy up the visuals is through a few filters that the player can opt to have on, and they aren't all that impressive in the first place. In terms of sights and sounds, this is a very retro romp through and through.

Despite this, there are some modern day conventions that have been added. Firstly there are some unlockables that are purchasable by earning points rewarded through completing achievements in the game. Most of the unlockables are nothing special, consisting of large amounts of artwork. However, there are a few useful things like gaining the ability to regenerate health in-game, armor becoming unbreakable, and a few bonus game modes for players to fiddle around with. Second, the game supports online coop multiplayer. & The nice thing about it is that players can hop in and out whenever they please. There isn't any lobby system where people have to meet up before venturing forth. Just take a look at what games are in session and join whatever one tickles your fancy. The whole thing operates very smoothly, and when I've played online with others I've experienced hardly any lag or other technical hiccups. It's a very well put together function.

There's also a good amount of challenge in these games. When first starting out be prepared to die a lot. The enemies here can be pretty merciless, swarming players, and dishing out the damage. Boss fights in particular are well done, and take some time to learn their idiosyncrasies. The games both have unlimited continues, so if you still want to plough through the content you can. That being said, I can see some people not being keen on this function, though, and using house rules to limit continues, or challenging themselves to 1cc the game to make up for this.

Chronicles of Mystara is definitely a compilation worth looking into for both fans and strangers of beat 'em ups. It's a very well done entry into the genre. Is it the best? No, of course not. In the almost twenty years since these games have come out there have been plenty of other titles to come along and out do them, including one of their contemporaries, Guardian Heroes. It's still a very good, all together retro arcade experience well worth taking for a spin whether your someone like me who played it in the arcade and wanted an affordable alternative to what eBay sellers have been asking for the Saturn ports, or someone who doesn't play a lot of beat 'em ups and wants to scratch their itch for something in the genre. These games are definitely up there in so far as quality beat 'em ups are concerned.

( Check out the video review here if that's more your thing )

- Jeff Nash

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The Good:
- Several of unique characters
- Branching story
- Nice RPG elements
- Unlockables
- Online multiplayer

The Bad:
- Not an HD remake
- Graphic filters aren't very good
- Unlimited continues may be irksome to some people

Score: 8.0 / 10