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December 22, 2014

Xbox One Review – Crimson Dragon (2013)

by Master Pillow

Crimson Dragon had such a long development cycle that it is a wonder that the final product was even released.  The game initially started as an Xbox Live Arcade Kinect title for the Xbox 360 but eventually morphed into an Xbox One digital launch title that dispensed with Kinect altogether in favour of the traditional control pad.  Many have deemed the game the spiritual successor to Sega’s cult favorite Panzer Dragoon franchise and, at first glance, this would seem to be true as the title features very similar art design seen through the environments and especially the dragons.  Still, will what worked for Panzer Dragoon all those years ago on the Sega Saturn still apply for modern audiences?

Crimson Dragon takes place in a fictional future where humanity has long since begun to colonize the universe.  One of these settled planets is named Draco and the story goes that the colonists soon found themselves beset by antagonistic local wildlife, forcing a long bloody conflict that only ended in a fragile armistice.  Compounding matters, the colony soon lost communication with Earth essentially stranding the humans on an alien planet without hope for reinforcements.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the armistice doesn’t last and as the game opens the human colonists find themselves under threat from a massive beast nicknamed the White Phantom and it falls upon the dragon riders to fend it off.

Crimson Dragon is a mostly on-rails shooter where players only have marginal control over their dragon mounts as the game funnels them forward on a predetermined path.  Enemies in various forms from the ground and through the air will frequently appear on screen and all the player really needs to do is to control the dragon to evade incoming fire while at the same time shooting back to destroy enemy targets.

The game does have a hefty adjustment period as the control scheme requires a bit more thinking than necessary as the dragon’s movements are mapped to the left analog stick while the aiming reticle is controlled by the right stick.  In the beginning, most players will probably struggle trying to multitask and it would not be out of the ordinary to see gamers mix up the controls and fly their dragons straight into enemy fire while shooting at empty air.

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Part of the problem doesn’t just plague Crimson Dragon but all on-rail shooters equally, in that visually it can become confusing because a player can be flying their dragon to the right while suddenly the entire camera shifts to the left since movement is pre-determined.  This can become jarring as the natural tendency is to have the screen shift in the direction that players are turning but that is frequently not the case in these types of games.

Crimson Dragon really betrays its Kinect roots in its mission structure as each level only lasts about 4-6 minutes in length.  This is about the maximum amount of time that any player could use Kinect controls without getting overly tired limbs but in the process of moving to a control-pad only system it makes this decision all the more curious.  There’s hardly enough time to take in the scenery before the stage is over and it makes the game feel as if it would be more at home on mobile devices like Windows Phone, Android or Apple IOS.  Indeed, those Windows Phone owners will already know that there is a Crimson Dragon side-story game available although, it doesn’t play exactly the same as its Xbox One brethren.

The game includes two RPG-inspired leveling systems one of which is meant for the various dragons and another one for the rider himself.  Experience is naturally gained through gameplay but certain specific items need to be obtained from stages to unlock special moves or in order to force dragons to evolve into more powerful forms much like a quasi-version of Pokemon.  It is always a blast to see the different ways in which the dragons can grow but once again there is a huge amount of grinding required to first unlock each dragon and subsequently to make each of them more powerful.

Experience gain is easy to achieve albeit taking much replaying of completed stages but obtaining these specific items can oftentimes be a pain in the posterior as the game is rather vague in describing how and where they can be found.  Indeed, the drops are basically random so it causes much frustration and once again artificially increases game replayability resulting in an abject feeling of a boredom.

Additionally, each dragon has a specific elemental affinity which it gains bonuses from, giving the game a bit more strategy since it requires players to pay attention to how the different dragons match up against the enemies within a particular stage.  Then again a gamer can simply not care and still finish the entire campaign by totally ignoring this system but generally it is just easier to try and match up elements so that the player is given a mild advantage.

One seemingly cool addition to gameplay comes from hiring wingmen to “watch your back.”  By paying some in-game currency you can hire various-skilled wingmen to help during missions and the old adage of having two players being always better than one applies.  The wingman’s AI isn’t exactly the brightest but at the very least, the presence of a partner means that enemies inevitably split their fire between two targets, a pertinent fact in the later difficult stages where things can get hectic.  Even a completely low-rated wingman can at least act as cannon fodder and it is a good tactic to hire one if the difficulty gets too intense.

That said these wingman are only temporary guns for hire and can only be used a set amount of times before they outright leave your company but in these cases you can just hire a replacement whenever you desire.  About the only real negative to this system is that some of the better wingman cost much coin to hire meaning gamers are inevitably forced to grind the currency adding once again to the tedium of replaying previously completed stages.

As mentioned before, the bulk of the game lies in playing through the on-rail missions but though they occur sparingly, the game also includes free-roam areas where players are suddenly given full control over the dragons.  These areas appear during boss fights and feature some nice creature designs showcasing massive beasts that provide a nice sense of scale and at least act to break up the monotonous on-rail stages.  In any other game this would be a great idea as it essentially means players can fly their dragons anywhere much like a regular airplane flight simulator.  However, in this game the opposite is true and these are simply the most aggravating moments of gameplay that will probably cause many to chuck their controllers through their expensive LCD televisions.

This is because the free-roam controls are poorly implemented, making moving the dragon a complete and utter chore.  The biggest culprit is that the game only allows players to control the speed of the dragon but it refuses to provide a simple hover mechanic.  Considering that these huge boss monsters have many weak points, what inevitably occurs is that players have no choice but to do flybys and take a few potshots at the moving target before circling around and repeating verbatim.  If you could just stop and hover these bosses would be felled in mere moments.

Making matters even worse, these free-roam areas are on a set timer, meaning players only have a strict time limit in which to hit and destroy all the weak points.  Considering the fact that most of the time spent is dedicated to just flying around in circles and one begins to understand how unnerving it can become to constantly buzz around while the clock runs down.  I don’t think most gamers will complain if they fail a stage due to lack of skill but when the biggest impediment to success are imprecise controls and a too-short timer, the result is pure rage.

Being originally an Xbox 360 title the game really doesn’t take advantage of the Xbox One’s considerable hardware boost and though it never slows down, the framerate isn’t anywhere close to maintaining a steady 60 fps.  It quickly becomes apparent that the title was quickly ported to the Xbox One as even the texture work is barely above what the Xbox 360 can handle.  The dragons look decent but much of their visual splendor comes from their art design rather than from a high number of polygons.  The same can be said for the environments and the various enemies which hardly look next-gen at all.  The stages are really a letdown as they feel incredibly barren and lifeless as the only objects moving are the various targets themselves.

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As per traditional game design the latter stages feature a few environments that certainly look more complex but the game never takes advantage of them and there are even a few areas where the on-rail movement tends to feel jerky with narrow tunnels and constant turning of corners.  This creates nothing but confusion as the screen becomes inundated with nothing but visual chaos from shooting enemies and the altogether hurling camera that throws itself around the screen as if some mysterious force had grabbed it by the neck and began to shake it to death.  Players certainly expect the difficulty to ramp up as the game naturally progresses but the cacophony of movement and copious amounts of on-screen items lead to nothing more than severe motion sickness.

At the same time the game has a dreaded IAP (in-app-purchase) system built in meaning that players are given the choice to spend real cash in exchange for different loot bags.  The better the grade of the bag the higher the cost but there is a greater chance of receiving a quality item.  While most gamers will scoff at this IAP system the level of scorn should be relatively low as all of the items can be found/bought through gameplay itself.  There really is no need to use hard earned cash on anything here unless one is either incredibly bad at the game and requires some health potions or is just downright impatient at the snail’s pace of progress and wants to jumpstart game progression.

Gamers generally hate these types of IAP systems and Microsoft really needs to ensure that each game that implements them really tries to strike the right balance of fairness.  Including this feature for those players with less gaming ability so that they can at least attempt to progress isn’t really a bad idea but let’s make sure we don’t have ridiculous instances where the prices are either too exorbitant or that inane items like Elder Scrolls Oblivion’s infamous horse armor are added that are clearly not worth purchasing.

There is some enjoyment to be had with Crimson Dragon as a twitch shooter but the title really plays the nostalgia card in virtually every aspect of its production to remind gamers about the Panzer Dragoon franchise.  However, all the elements that made Panzer Dragoon so venerated are virtually all missing or devalued in here.  While the musical soundtrack comes closest to matching the quality of the original tunes the game’s short stages, repetitive grinding gameplay and last-gen graphics don’t exactly excite especially on a state-of-the art new console.

If Crimson Dragon had been a mobile release on tablets or phones it might have made a much better impression as gamers would be more inclined to look past its deficiencies.  As it stands, the game is a mild diversion for Xbox One owners who have played all the first party launch titles such as Forza 5, Ryse: Son of Rome and Dead Rising 3 but it will quickly become nothing more than a footnote for video game historians to mention when asked as to which titles launched with Microsoft’s newest system.

** out of ****

Developer: Grounding Inc.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released US: 11/22/1013
Release EU: 11/22/1013

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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