Sunday, February 17, 2008

Journeys of the Dragon Rider Review

Journeys of the Dragon Rider, developed and published by MistKeep Software.
The Good: Controls “feel” right, lengthy campaign with adequate mission variety, some mod support
The Not So Good: Aiming is difficult, no skirmish or quick battles, more explicit objectives are needed
What say you? A mildly entertaining combat flight simulation of sorts: 5/8

A stalwart being of fantasy-themed media is the dragon. We’ve seen fire-breathing heathens in countless books, movies, and video games, usually serving the role as antagonist against our intrepid hero. But what if that power could be wrangled for good? That’s the premise behind Journeys of the Dragon Rider, a game where you ride dragons (no doubt on some kind of journey) and undertake tasks that generally involve lighting things on fire. Really, this is a flight simulator where Cessnas have been replaced with flying beasts. Will this change in theme produce some memorable gameplay?

I’m willing to give a bit of leeway to games developed by small teams; in that sense, the graphics of Journeys of the Dragon Rider are decent. The environments are repetitive and generally bland, though the forest density is nice and the backgrounds look realistic. The best part of the graphics is the dragon models: they are highly detailed and well animated. Watching a dragon perform a roll or glide to a lower altitude is neat, and the animations are certainly plausible. Of course, not ever witnessing a dragon fly first-hand makes it hard to determine if the physics are exactly right, but they seem to be. The fire effects are unimpressive (just a glowing ball) and destroying an enemy unit is really underwhelming. The developer was trying to include a non-violent approach (which is commendable) to combat, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to see crispy dragons. Overall, the graphics look like one guy put a lot of effort into it (which is what happened), so I’m not going to bash it just because they don’t have the production values of mega-budget games. There are a couple of minor problems with the graphics, though: there is major slowdown when soldiers are rendered in the game, and the valley levels have a lot of dark shadows that makes it really hard to see. Still, the graphics are a good effort by a single person. The audio in the game is very understated, to say the least: maybe I am hard of hearing, but the default sound levels were so soft I thought the game had no sound. The sound effects are very basic (there are eight of them), so more varied sounds could have certainly been included. So by and large the presentation is what I would expect for an independent product.

Journeys of the Dragon Rider takes its cues from a combat flight simulator. During the somewhat lengthy 30-mission campaign, you’ll pilot your dragon through battles against other dragons and troops on the ground, in addition to races against the clock. This is fairly good value; being accompanied in almost every mission by AI allies makes you feel like a part of a larger conflict and provides immersion. The missions are quick (usually around ten minutes) so you’ll be finished with Journeys of the Dragon Rider in around five to six hours. Unfortunately, there are no skirmish or randomly generated missions, although you can dive into the complicated XML files to edit some of the campaign missions to create your own. Journeys of the Dragon Rider also lacks multiplayer, so the thirty campaign missions are all you get. Each individual mission gives you objectives at the start, but then does not display them during the game, either in words or indicated in the game world. The directions could also be clearer: I was stuck on the third mission for a while until I decoded what the description meant by “transport” (kill).

Movement is done with the mouse, with shooting mapped to the mouse buttons. Velocity is controlled with the Z and X keys; I would like to be able to use the mouse wheel, but the game doesn’t allow you to remap the keys. You can use either basic or advanced controls. Basically, advanced controls are more difficult because it makes the dragon have inertia (meaning you can’t turn as quickly) but it certainly feels more realistic. You can do some advanced rolls and loops that actual planes can perform, which becomes useful when you want to avoid enemy units. The controls of the dragon feel plausible, and that’s probably the most important part of the game. The user interface of Journeys of the Dragon Rider is minimal at best: there are speed and armor indicators but no aiming cursor. Your dragon will aim towards the center of the screen…well, sort of, since flying can throw the shots off-center at bit. This can make it difficult to hit enemy units if you are moving fast or changing altitude. I realize that dragons are generally unequipped with aiming sights, but it still should be easier to aim. Gameplay wise, Journeys of the Dragon Rider can be enjoyable if you are part of a large battle, swooping through the air and engaging enemy units. The AI units will use some of the advanced maneuvers if the difficult is increase, so they can provide a decent enough challenge. Really, Journeys of the Dragon Rider gets the essentials down and can challenge any combat flight simulator on the basic level, but the game lacks some key features that would separate itself from the pack. As an independently developed game, it is a commendable effort that provides several amusing moments at a budget price.

Journeys of the Dragon Rider has the basics of an enjoyable game, and it simply needs more features and more polish in order to become a more entertaining title. The dragons control realistically and the combat can get quite intense when lots of dragons are involved; this is the situation in which Journeys of the Dragon Rider shines. There are also some alternative mission types during the game’s 30 campaign missions, from races through valleys to assaults on troops and castles. The objectives should be clearer and displayed in the game and the game certainly could benefit from random customizable missions. Multiplayer could be a nice addition as well, though it’s probably not worth the effort due to a niche audience. Other than during the difficult missions or poorly written instructions, I had fun playing Journeys of the Dragon Rider as it provides some straightforward amusement. So if you’re looking for a different kind of combat flight simulation, you will find at least some enjoyment in Journeys of the Dragon Rider.