Remember Panzer Dragoon? The game which for many people defined the Sega Saturn. This reviewer included. It’s the sole reason for my ownership of a Sega Saturn. Even the Xbox incarnation, Orta, holds a special place in my heart. More so than Halo and Halo 2 I almost fear to say. After a break of almost 10 years it returns in spirit in Crimson Dragon, from the same creators and composers. Amongst Dragooners, as they might be called, Crimson Dragon has been highly anticipated as the next generation of the revered franchise. This brings us to the question, is it?
Crimson Dragon’s core revolves around the well established base of an on the rails flight simulator. You fly around the environments and enemies on pre-determined paths while only being able to manipulate your position in relation to the camera to the left or right with the left thumbstick. Meanwhile with the right thumbstick you move the reticle around the screen to shoot the angry plethora of assorted nasties trying to kill you. There are several occasions during the game, and by several here we literally mean four, you’re invited into a freeflight mode which changes the function of the left thumbstick into pitch and yaw. So jarring is this change however the rarity of them is a blessing rather than a curse.
Traditionally the barrel roll is jammed in here too in order to allow for faster movement and nigh on immunity to damage and, that’s right kids, it’s in here on the left and right bumpers. So immortalised is the barrel roll in the collective conscience of gamers that the first time you do one you actually get an achievement. It’s also thrust into immortality in Crimson Dragon due to the amount of fire being thrown at you on-screen. Many times you’re left for well over 10 seconds in the early to mid parts of the game just barrel rolling left and right just to avoid damage while being unable to do any yourself. Might not sound like much but each stage only lasts 3-5 minutes. and usually you’ll have to do this a few times per combat heavy mission. Spending so much time avoiding damage you can’t actually deal damage is ridiculously frustrating.
That’s not to eternally damn the combat however. Be it massive flurries of homing missiles, balls of floating death or arcs of lightning tearing through opponents. Most fights flow very well and you’re given enough time to lock onto each enemy if your skill and chosen ability allows. Not to mention how incredible each attack from your dragon looks. The attacks though, especially at lower levels of your dragon, can be much weaker than they look until you level them up.
Levelling your dragon is done through two things. The first obviously is the experience gained from completing each stage as well as how well you do them. For example if you have five tasks and you complete each one at a C level you’ll get less experience than if you complete the level with B ranks across the board or even S. Added to the side of this is something of a meta game. You get items through random drops during the game and these can be fed to your dragon to increase their levels or grant them new abilities. It’s a shame that Gregg’s don’t sell LearnAFireball pasties. This aspect of the game is incredibly important and probably the most fun as you lead it into the next part of feeding. Evolution and attribute changes.
Evolution allows you to make your dragon look more impressive to its previous incarnation while strengthening it and attribute changes allow you to change between fire, light, void or wind. Both of these changes require items which drop during the game from either killing random rare spawning enemies or just from killing groups. Sounds a little grindy right? Well it is. Grinding in Crimson Dragon is almost necessary to keep yourself stocked on the items you need to evolve or to level up enough to be able to do the next mission. Even though the difficulty of the game was reduced just before launch it’s still not easy and going back to previous missions just to try to get a little more powerful is almost necessary at times.
There’s a hint of asynchronous multiplayer here too. Your dragon can be sent online while you’re not playing to help other people in their games by hiring them as a wingman. You of course can hire your own and they will assist you by attacking enemies both in front or behind you depending on where you tell them to go. They also open up a link attack which does massive damage to anything on-screen with each one depending on which dragon you take. A store adorns the game too allowing you to purchase packs of random items or revival gems for credits or jewels. On revival gems by the way make sure you stock up on them because you’re going to need them. Jewels are the micro transaction bit of Crimson Dragon which you can use to buy special packs or pay for dragons. It is however entirely possible to play the game without ever buying jewels as you can buy almost everything you need with credits or have them drop and you can obtain jewels by getting medals in missions.
In Crimson Dragon you’re placed into a toilet paper-thin plot surrounding crimson scale. While giving you a reason to care about the world and a place in the game, under scrutiny this woven tale about as much water as the stockings I wore in my drag queen days. The ending in particular has a flavour of the dafuqs about it. Not trying to stop spoilers here it seriously made no sense and confused the bejesus out of me.
No matter, you don’t buy this game for story. You buy it to ride awesome dragons and look at amazing scenery. It’s just a shame the amazing scenery doesn’t really come into view until the latter 3rd of the game and only has eight missions tied into it. The very final stage, which you’d think is going to be the greatest spectacle, may have an immensely impressive boss but the surrounding world is bland and beige. The lava lake and lost colony areas in particular are nothing shy of beautiful in their design but obviously don’t test the Xbox One in any way. This could happily with a few minor tweaks down happily run on a 360 or PS3.
The sound design overall is probably this games standout feature. The musical score is beautiful in both its flow and discord. No matter how frustrating the gameplay becomes hearing the score rush in to crescendo never fails to give your heart a satisfying surge of joy. The darkened beats of certain areas along with the orchestral flourishes of others never feel out-of-place and are perhaps Crimson Dragon’s greatest feature. Even the dragon roars and menu sounds are pleasing.
On reflection scoring this game is hard beyond comprehension for this reviewer. While seeing the return of the Panzer Dragoon series in spirit is nothing short of a delight, playing it brings frustration at the camera rushing in. It’s not always bad but often when you most need it somewhere it refuses to point in the right direction. The best way to see Crimson Dragon is as a brilliant little title to play for half an hour at a time but never as the main game to be playing at any point simply due to the frustration levels it brings. However a sequel really wouldn’t go amiss as long as the camera ran much better and the game made more use of the Xbox One’s impressive technology.