Friday, May 3, 2013

Tea Time with Dragons' Descendants

Don't do it kid, night elves are jerks.
After enjoying Wine & Roses so thoroughly, another indie RPG offering from developer Craze (teaming up with fellow designer LouisCyphre) should be smooth and refreshing on the roleplaying palette.

This tea time, we review Dragons' Descendants, an in-development RPG where you can't quite shake the feeling that Nobunaga is going to burst through the wall at any moment, waving around a lightsaber pokemon?!

First Rule of Dragon Club: Interbreed with Humans at All Times

Dragons' Descendants cleaves closely to classic RPGs. Run through the dungeon, hunt down the treasure chests, defeat monsters in turn-based encounters, find cool things to equip, chug potions, wistfully consider your choice of a hobby. The interesting part is where the designers have chosen to elaborate on the classic mechanics, and where they've chosen to edit.

The players join a story that is already in progress. Jirou, an exiled prince, has decided he has atoned for his crimes and reenters his kingdom to present himself before his father. Along the way, he and his quickly-accrued party encounter trouble that spells danger for the entire country - a situation that is rooted in the nation's history and royal heritage. Not to spoil too much, but there's dragons and people are descended from them.

I'm surprised more RPGs don't have characters who join up with the reasoning of "you guys are a freakshow and I want to see what happens next."

Cutting into the middle of the action and drama is almost always a great way to immediately spice up a story that would otherwise take awhile to build up speed. Jirou seems like an upstanding, honorable young man. How did he bring shame to the family? His family doesn't seem to be evil and therefore prone to slandering fresh-faced young princes. His father voices a desire to reconcile with Jirou, and Jirou still holds his father in high regard. It also arms the authors with a giant bag of candy to sprinkle along the trail. Oh, this Dread Witch woman knows Jirou? She helped him out before and owes him a favor now? What's up with that?

Even if the old story-breadcrumbs trick wasn't in play, Dragons' Descendants would skate by in the writing department just on how immediately interesting its characters are. The player is very quickly armed with a party of six and each member has at least one line to quickly characterize them. The fancy officer seems stiff and formal enough, but two of the other characters whisper about him in the corner: they know he's only a minor noble, and he is in fact terribly tacky in ways that are not instantly apparent to the audience, from his too-flattering first name to wearing dress uniform at inappropriate times.

In fact, Jirou himself is the only one that's on the bland side. Being the protagonist has always been a draining experience for RPG characters.

Lol Nice Build Scrub

Dragons' Descendants puts a lot of effort into adding complexity to the standard RPG combat experience. The design gives players the burden of consideration in how to best build their characters. Judging from all the League of Legends references in Wine & Roses, it's safe to bet that there was some MOBA influence in the system choices here.

Aww, look at its little pudgy dragon legs. Who's a good little precursor of mankind? You are!

The usual list of RPG stats in present, but each character interacts with them differently. While you can be sure that Magic will make most magical abilities hit harder, that's not always true. Sample ability descriptions include "Jirou drowns his foes, dealing 60% of AGI as magic damage, plus 2% of his current MP per MGC point." and "Deals 20 physical damage plus 35% of Ren's ATK/MGC, 20% of his DEF/MDF, and 8% of his current HP."

Concerns of frightening off newbies with number-crunchy descriptions aside, copying MOBAs isn't a bad choice for classic RPGs. You're going to be spending a lot of time with a cast of characters, why not further differentiate them in combat? Your standard MOBA character has abilities that allow or encourage specific item builds, and come with some sort of identifiable gimmick that makes them unique to play. Having three to five different flavors of 'deal damage' with the only difference being element type is definitely more boring than a spell that has quirks. Not only does it liven up the 'equipping items' part of the RPG experience, it also rewards the player during gameplay for finding or forcing situations where you get to abuse an ability to its greatest potential.

If Dragons' Descendants continues to add party members, this also invites the player to find characters that best fit the situation at hand or have a play-style that they enjoy. In this brief tea time, I really enjoyed Camelia's game plan of power-ups and glass-cannon spell-slinging, but didn't find much joy in managing Faith's HP-centric abilities.

One can never be sure if they're smarter or dumber than the optimize button.

This is further enhanced by the game's equipment equivalent: passives. Each character has a unique passive and slots for different categories of items for further bonuses. Some items just offer a variety of stats, but still more have some unique effects. In most cases, who gets what equipment is obvious, yet there is room for scheming like "I'm giving my tank MP regen so he can cast his taunt more often, protecting my fragile party," compared to "I'm giving my tank more DEF and HP so he can be a walking juggernaut of uncaring beef." At very least, it's another area that Dragons' Descendants has room to grow in.

We can't Stop Here, this is Random Encounter Territory

If the monster encounters in Dragons' Descendants sneaked into another game, they'd be sub-bosses at worst. Heading to the battle screen is usually an involved process. Aside from a brief window in the opening, there's really no time that you can just blindly hit the 'fight' button and wait for your party to steamroll whatever is bothering you.

In theory, this is pretty cool. Though each area only has a handful of enemy types, they come in several configurations. The enemies are sufficiently different in their abilities that this is a great way to artificially extend enemy variety. Fighting three Enemy A with one Enemy B provides a slightly different set of problems compared to fighting one Enemy A, two Enemy B, and one Enemy C. Since the random encounters in this game are actually mean enough to take a chunk out of your team, if not trash it entirely, this nuance can't be ignored with button mashing. On top of this, some enemies just won't go down if you don't find the proper way to defeat them.

Things I learned today: explode small animals with magical nukes ASAP, they are always poisonous.

In the context of Dragons' Descendants, however, these Random Monsters of Taste and Consequence start to get annoying. Encounters are old school style: there's the battle music, stop what you were doing and head to the battle screen. This isn't really a problem by itself, but then the dungeon maps in Dragons' Descendants are pretty huge. There's a lot of empty space to cover if you want to explore and the player is definitely given incentive to do so. Aside from free items being way more necessary in an RPG that's actually difficult, some chests in the first dungeon prompted brief character cutscenes. Even if that only happens in the intro dungeon, a player is going to wonder if they're missing out on reading something neat by not thoroughly covering all available territory.

Once you enter that house from Ju-on, you're stuck with random encounters for the rest of your life.

These dungeons also lean to the graphically underwhelming side. A game doesn't have to have artfully sculpted, luminescent mushrooms growing out of the walls or black holes devouring castles in the background to be visually interesting, but it's nice to have something to look at when you're being invited to hike across a giant room to confirm that you didn't miss another chest. Generic or repetitive terrain twists the boredom knife. The environments did start to improve later on, but the sourness of lengthy random encounters combined with exploration remained.

I Cast Danger Zone for MASSIVE DAMAGE

Dragons' Descendants still has a ways to go and luckily the designers are still on the path. Along with a second storyline arc, they've also promised balance changes that will hopefully bring the random encounters into proper tempo with the map design.

Overall, Dragons' Descendants is an extremely enjoyable experience for people who really like to sink their teeth into a game's combat system. If you're the type that gets disappointed when you break a system, this game might prove to be a more durable chew toy.

Beyond that, Dragons' Descendants genuinely does have readable, purposeful writing that shows taste and skill on the part of its authors. Tea time's two hours weren't enough to get deeply into the story, but what was witnessed did inspire a lot of confidence.

Eager to get your ass handed to you by Attack Dog B? Download Dragon's Descendants here.

Want to suggest a game or genre for an upcoming tea time? Contact me at
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