Take a look at the character portraits in the screenshot below and see if you agree with me on something: they're clearly not from a game made in the U.S. I'm not saying they're bad; there's just something ineffably foreign about them, as if drawn with an artistic aesthetic that U.S. developers didn't have. Am I crazy? If not, what is it, exactly? It's driving me nuts.
|Outdoors in Dragonflight. My four characters' portraits are in the lower left and the commands are in the lower right. On the map, you can see a city and the road next to it, and various types of terrain.|
The portraits are just one way that playing Dragonflight is a somewhat foreign experience. Again, I add that I don't necessarily mean unpleasantly so--just that the combination of different graphics aesthetics, translated text of dubious quality, a new emulator, a weird combat system, and a slightly odd combination of an oblique and iconographic interface come together to create vaguely alien setting. The trick is to value such experiences rather than compare them negatively to more familiar U.S. games. If I practice this on European titles, it'll be less jarring when I start to encounter more Asian RPGs later this decade.
Dragonflight is the first RPG from Thalion, a German developer that specialized in Amiga and Atari ST games. The company had a reasonably prolific period between 1989 and 1993 before going out of business in 1994. Its only role-playing games are this one and the better-known Amberstar (1992) and Ambermoon (1993), which I guess take place in the same setting, though (judging by the screenshots) with a very different interface.
This game is providing my first experience with an Atari ST emulator. It was released for the Amiga and Atari ST in German, French, and English, but only for German in DOS. I also heard that the DOS version is buggy in a way that prevents winning the game, so it seemed prudent to try one of the others. After trying and failing to get it working in an Amiga emulator, I invested the time to learn the ST system and the Steem emulator. This will come in handy for a small number of games released solely for the ST. (If the screenshots seem inconsistent, it's because the emulator lets you size the window any way you want and I didn't figure out how to fix the ratio until late in this gameplay session.)
The game takes place in a land in decline. Some years prior, a war caused irreparable damage to an area of land called the Dragon Vale, the only place where dragons would birth their young. Following the war, some kind of spell fell over the Vale, no one could enter, and dragons disappeared from the skies. Since (much like in Drakkhen) dragons seem to be the source of the world's magic, their disappearance has caused all kinds of strife. As the game begins, four students of Pegana University, all orphans, have been given a quest by headmaster Dambrano: re-discover the old magic and find out what happened to the dragons.
|A brief opening cut scene.|
There is no character creation in the game. Every player starts with Bladus, a male human fighter; Rinakles, a male elf mage; Dobranur, a male dwarven cleric; and Andariel, a female elf archer. The manual's back story gives them all some light characterizations: Bladus is in love with his own physique; Rinakles is a bit absent-minded; Andariel is beautiful and in love with the woods; and Dobranur is given to drink and creative cursing.
There don't seem to be any attributes for the characters except hit points and spell points; I assume both increase as experience does. "Weaponpoints" and "armourpoints" are unexplained by the manual, but they seem to be a function of inventory rather than attributes. "Character points" serve as a karma meter; they are lost by fleeing in combat, attacking fleeing enemies, and other role-playing scenarios I've yet to experience.
|Bladus's character screen.|
The game begins after a brief address from Dambrano, who gives them all "stasis rings" (allowing for resurrection if they present them at a temple) and part of the "Great Map." He suggests that the party tries to find the other 11 parts and directs them to Benglur in the town of Brindil-Bun, who has another piece. After that, the party starts out in the middle of Pegana, with no other clues. Each character has 100 gold pieces, 100 units of food, and a torch.
|Starting out. Note how the houses are oblique, but the people and fountains are iconographic.|
The interface is almost completely mouse-driven, which I don't like. You can move with the numberpad, but none of the other commands seem mapped to keystrokes. The game window combines oblique-angle shots of buildings with more top-down iconographic shots of people and objects like fountains and trees. Commands are fairly limited. You can click on each character portrait to view statistics and inventory, and there are commands on the right side of the interface that change depending on context. In towns, you can cast spells, view objects, talk to NPCs, and knock at doors (the only way to enter buildings). Outside, you get options to cast, attack, board or exit a ship, enter a city or building, make camp, search, or save and load.
I spent most of this first game session exploring Pegana, buying equipment, and talking to NPCs. There's no day/night cycle in the game, but time still passes and consumes rations. I was down to 40 units of food when I finished mastering everything. I found two taverns, an equipment shop, Pegana University itself, a bunch of private homes, and perhaps 12 NPCs wandering around the village. Some of the private homes were locked; others were open and had NPCs.
|Buying more food in a tavern.|
NPC interaction is one-way, in the old Ultima mode, and consists of walking up and hitting the "talk" button before they walk away. Some NPCs have very brief responses, like "Greetings!" or "Get out of my house!" Others have paragraphs of things to say.
Some of them seem to be expecting some kind of answer, but there's no way I can find in the game or the manual to reply to them, except to show or give an item. Perhaps these questions are just meant rhetorically.
Buildings--which you enter by positioning directly in front of the door and hitting "knock"--all lead to menus rather than explorable areas. Returning to the university prompts a dialogue with Dambrano, who seems to be expecting us to return with spells.
I wasn't able to afford much more than short swords at the blacksmith's shop (there don't seem to be any class restrictions on equipment), so I equipped everyone and headed out into the wilderness to experience my first combats.
|Equipping items. At this point, I figured out how to lock the screen ratio.|
As usual, I'll save a longer combat post for when I have more experience with the interface, but at first blush, it seems original and odd. The party and its foes face each other on a side-view screen with a gridded tactical map in the upper-left corner. You select actions for each character, including moving one square, attacking, casting a spell, and defending, then watch them all execute (along with the opponents' moves) at once. Right-clicking switches between movement options and other options. At Level 1, each character has only one action per round, but I guess it can grow up to 9.
|The execution phase. I'm wounded by an orc as my various characters try to cluster around the foe. One of them is walking off the wrong way. I'm still getting used to things.|
If you don't have a ranged weapon or spell, you have to close with an opponent before you can attack, and you have to be facing the opponent. This is where I run into trouble. Movement options are to move left, right, forwards, or backwards, and to turn around, but there seems to be no movement option to turn left or right. This suggests there are only two squares from which characters can attack each enemy--from the front and rear. Characters adjacent to the enemy on the sides can't attack. Moreover, enemies seem to be capable of moving on the diagonal, but characters cannot. I feel like I must be missing something here, but I can't figure it out from the interface or manual. Help appreciated.
Whatever turns out to be the case with combat, the manual hints that I should use Bladus and Dobranur for their weapons (Bladus favors the sword, Dobranur the axe), Rinakles for spells, and Andariel for a bow. When I get to the point that I have spells and can afford a bow, it will be less important to have everyone able to melee attack.
Both characters and enemies can flee by moving off the screen, and the manual says that there is a "character point" penalty assessed for attacking fleeing enemies--another element which seems to be inspired by Ultima IV.
A few more notes:
- The main town featured a statue with a dedication to Gary Gygax. That was classy.
- The only sound in this version of the game seems to be relentlessly awful music, with no option to turn it off, so I've been playing with the sound on my computer turned off. This means I can't watch Mad Men during the boring parts.
- Full party death gives you a screen that suggests the possibility of resurrection--then dumps you back on the main menu.
|Yes. Yes, it is.|
- Moving overland is much like Ultima IV, where harder terrain like forests and mountains forces you to hit the movement key multiple times to walk one step.
- For some reason, the houses in town are all numbered.
|Is this like an address, or are you inexplicably showing me programming code?|
So far, the game seems inoffensive, but I haven't experienced any particularly strong innovations, and having to do everything with the mouse is horribly slow and annoying. Maybe it will improve; certainly, the character point system suggests a depth of role-playing still to come, I haven't investigated the magic system, and dungeon-delving promises a completely different interface. For the next post, I'll try to check them all out.