Pen and Paper Pugilism
Way back in the 90’s, the beat ’em up genre ruled the arcades. Gamers around the world spent countless hours and untold fortunes in quarters pummeling droves of street hoodlums in classics such as Technos Corps’ timeless classics Double Dragon and The Combatribes. However, while these games were undeniably addictive fixtures in the arcades of the early ’90s, it wasn’t until Capcom released the genre defining classic Final Fight that the beat ’em up truly came of age. The game’s gritty and stylish visuals and tight gameplay wowed gamers, pulling them into Cody, Haggar, and Guy’s fight to save Jessica from the evil Mad Gear Gang.
When you think of Dungeons & Dragons, I can’t blame you if the first thing you think of isn’t smacking a raving hooligan upside the head with a lead pipe, but there’s no denying the origins of Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara come from some lessons taught on the mean streets of Metro City.
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara bundles together two of Capcom’s finest beat ’em up classics, Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom (1993) and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara (1996). Previously only available outside of the arcades on the Japanese Sega Saturn, both games take the formula Final Fight perfected while at the same time integrating some interesting role playing mechanics to create something that while familiar, offers enough variety to please fans of beat ’em ups and role playing games alike. Players can choose from the typical stable of Dungeons & Dragons archetypes like the fighter, who happens to be the best all-around battler, the dwarf, who, while having little reach, delivers devastating damage, the elf, who is skilled in both magic and the sword, and lastly the cleric, who can use his magic to heal his allies, or turn the dead. Additionally, Shadow Over Mystara offers two new playable classes, the magic user, who, as the name implies, is essentially a mage, and the deft thief, who attacks rapidly and can use her skills to unlock treasure and detect traps.
Apart from the wide range of available playable classes, what really sets Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons titles apart is the wealth of elements lifted directly from the role playing games. After you complete stage you’re often greeted by a shopkeeper. Here you can spend your hard earned coin on a variety of weapons and potions to assist you in your next quest. Additionally, most stages offer you multiple choices for how to progress in your campaign. Should you venture into the mountains to destroy the monsters who have been ravaging a nearby town out their source? Or would you prefer to rush to the town and save them from the pillaging horde? The choice is yours, and each path offers its own unique stage to explore, treasures to loot, and menacing bosses to encounter. Also, in true RPG fashion, you have a running inventory you carry from stage to stage, granting you access to a stash of enchanted items to use in battle. Selecting items is a bit cumbersome in Tower of Doom, but Shadow Over Mystara remedies this issue with a fantastic inventory/spell wheel not unlike the one found in the SNES role playing classics Chrono Trigger or The Secret of Mana.
Tower of Doom, the first game in the Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara timeline, is still a fantastic example of a brawler. It’s a lengthy quest, easily clocking in at a bit over an hour. However, with multiple paths to choose from over the course of your adventure, the game offers plenty of reasons to come come back for more after you’ve vanquished the evil lich Deimos. As good as Tower of Doom is, Shadow Over Mystara steals the show. The game takes everything that made the original a classic and refines it. The controls are tighter, the combat faster and more fluid, and the bosses are even more impressive in scale.
While the gameplay is essentially true to the arcade original’s, developer Iron Galaxy has added some bonus features Chronicles of Mystara to spruce up these dusty classics. The game features a full HD facelift, breathing new life into those aging sprites. In addition to the visual upgrade, Iron Galaxy has added a new mode called House Rules. House Rules allows you to choose from a list of tweaks to customize your game, such as vampirism, which grants you health for damage dealt to your foes, or Unbreakable Mode, which gives your enchanted items infinite durability. These bonuses are essentially glorified cheats, but they’re a fun addition to the overall package, and they’re completely optional. Another new feature is the character visualizer UI, which tracks your progress through various challenges the game throws your way. Completing challenges earns you jewels which you can use to purchase bonus materials such as concept art.
While it’s fun to venture into the wilds of Mystara alone, beat ’em ups are always better with friends. Chronicles’ GGPO enabled multiplayer typically does a decent job of supporting the online melee, though latency can become an issue when three or more players join the fray. It isn’t generally enough of an issue to break the game, but when swords swing and spells fly the fantasy fight can come to a crawl. I’ve yet to experience this with just two players in a session.
Far more offensive than the spotty-at-times online multiplayer is Iron Galaxy’s decision to grant players unlimited credits. Sure, the game keeps track of how many times you continue, encouraging you to use less the next time you play through the game, it’s still disappointing that there is nothing stopping players from credit feeding through the entire adventure, cheapening the experience and making the adventure feel shallow. A simple option to add a set amount of starting lives would have been a welcome addition to the package, though in an era where limited lives is a thing of the past it’s easy to see how such an addition would be an afterthought.
Regardless of the spotty connectivity issues and infinite credits, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is more than worthy of a purchase for anyone who appreciates the beat ’em up genre, or just feels like bashing some gnoll skulls outside of the pen and paper realm. Both titles offer hours of fun to be had with their lengthy, branching campaigns and bonus challenge modes. Developer Iron Galaxy has put together a fine package that brings these timeless arcade brawlers into Western gamer’s living rooms for the first time, landing the game a solid 4 out of 5 enchanted joysticks.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Wii U, PC ; Publisher: Capcom ; Developer: Iron Galaxy Studios ; Release Date: August 22, 2013; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara purchased by Hey Poor Player.