Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara

DungeonsDragonsChroniclesofMystara

When gamers talk about classic beat ’em ups, games like Golden Axe, Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage are always the first to be remembered. Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons fantasy brawlers deserve to be on that all-time list as well. Now more than ever.

Both games in the set–Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara–are now available for download from your platform of choice (Steam, PSN, XBLA, and soon the Wii U eShop), and if you can cope with certain retro-game foibles it’s a compilation well worth adding to your digital library.

The two titles compiled in Chronicles of Mystara are brawlers that look and play exactly like brawlers used to look and play on coin-operated gaming cabinets back in the early to mid 90s: You guide your chosen hero through side-scrolling swamps, forests, and dungeons and hack up skeletons, demon hounds, owlbears and other beasts of fantasy lore until all stages have been completed. Tower of Doom, being the eldest of the pair by a few years, holds firm to this genre formula and feels the most antiquated, while Shadow over Mystara evolves greatly from its predecessor with a role-playing game depth rarely seen in games of this type even today, a whole two decades later.

D&D’s brand of beat ’em up dungeon crawling distinguishes itself from its contemporaries by incorporating more of an RPG feel, with heroes that level up, loot and equip new weapons and armor, and each offer different class-specific traits. In most brawlers character choice really doesn’t mean a whole lot. One character might move quicker while another character might have a longer attack reach, but except for appearances they all control pretty much the same way. That is not the case here, particularly in Shadow over Mystara, where the six classes – Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Magic User, and Thief—each bring a unique skill set and play style to the side-scrolling battlefield.

For example the Thief can double-jump, back flip away from danger, perform backstab sneak attacks, lob rocks at enemies with a sling, and even detect traps, a skill set that greatly contrasts the Fighter, who doesn’t have the greatest mobility but can pick up secondary weapons to dual wield for extra damage and is better equipped to withstand the punishment of fighting on the front lines. True to fantasy lore, the Cleric is the healer of the party, armed with a blunt mace that dishes out some nice melee damage, but for the most part calls upon holy magic to replenish health, buff offensive/defensive capabilities, and smite undead enemies with ease. Obviously the Magic User has the most limited physical attributes, and yet his mastery of element-imbued scepters and a fat spell book of fireballs, lightning strikes, ice storms, elemental summons and anti-gravity fields make him a force to be reckoned with.

Tower of Doom offers fewer classes (only four instead of six) and is far more basic in gameplay design in that each hero’s move set is essentially the same, meaning the game stays within an arcade beat ‘em up comfort zone. Three years between games clearly made a world of difference, because Shadow over Mystara shows vast improvements in every facet of its design. The combat is tighter, faster, and controls more responsively for one thing; by comparison jumping and attacking in Tower of Doom just feels slow while more advanced moves like sliding are far too complicated to pull off with regularity. Hacking through dragons and manticores is also more nuanced than simply moving left to right and mashing an attack button as the game incorporates special attacks that require mastery of button and analog stick combinations similar to pulling off hadoukens and sonic booms in Street Fighter. With the added depth of class-specific skills also comes the introduction of a real-time inventory wheel for cycling through spells, throwing weapons, magical rings and other looted gear. It’s not the most intuitive inventory UI ever created, but for nearly a twenty-year-old arcade game it shows how innovative and forward-thinking Shadow over Mystara actually was for its time.

What’s not so impressive is the old-school beat ‘em up hassle of trying to get your hero lined up on the proper plane so that your attacks find their place in the flesh of the kobold on the other end. It’s not uncommon to appear to be within striking distance only to have your slashes magically whiff while the enemy’s attack somehow manages to land and knock you back. More aggravating is how attacking and picking up loot are both tied to the same button, a design flaw that leads to many instances where your hero decides it’s a good time to pick up that gold coin on the ground rather than to attack the enemies swarming from both sides. (Greedy bastard!) Using the slide move allows you to instantly suck up all nearby loot like a vacuum cleaner, but the fact that you even have to worry about loot during the heat of battle is a problem. Fortunately the game doesn’t allow enemies to gang up around your downed body and land cheap hits as you get back up, a regular annoyance found in many vintage brawlers.

Cooperative play does mitigate the impact of these flaws since the enemies’ focus isn’t lasered in on a single player. Online or off, up to four players can form a party and proceed through the adventure together, which is where this game is at its best. So far online play over PSN has been stable, with only the occasional pause to account for host migration or new players jumping in or out of the game. Local play is also great, but unless I missed something couch co-op does not support drop-in/drop-out functionality. If a second player pauses and quits, he/she quits for everyone, and if he/she turns off the controller the game pauses until it has been reconnected.

Co-op is a key piece to the replay value puzzle, as are other modern features you wouldn’t have found in the era of mall arcades. Each game on its own only takes around an hour to complete, however secret areas and numerous forks in the road (do you take a boat to the next area or travel by land?) alter the level progression enough to make it worthwhile to replay each campaign multiple times over. Current game design standards have also introduced things like stat tracking, online leaderboards, challenges (kill X number of enemies, use special attacks X number of times, electrocute or light X number of enemies on fire, etc.), and a persistent player level feature that tracks your progress across both games and offers experience points and vault points as a reward for completing stages and side challenges.

With a stash of vault points, you can head into the Vault menu to unlock bonus content. The chance to wax nostalgic on old concept artwork, packaging images and flyer ads is great, but you’ll most likely want to unlock the ‘House Rules’ first. These House Rules allow the campaign to be altered with different gameplay modifiers, such as making it so that incurred damage depletes gold supply rather than health, or turning the game into a time attack mode where you start with a time limit of 30 seconds and earn precious additional seconds for each kill. Hardcore players will surely appreciate the Elimination mode rule which removes all credits and makes it so that a single death ends the game. But unfortunately there is no middle ground. Regardless of difficulty (there are four options), by default you are allotted unlimited continues, and there is no menu setting that I could find for customizing the number of lives.

Minor details aside, Iron Galaxy Studios has once again proven to be a master at retrofitting Capcom arcade games, incorporating the right balance of new features and presentation options (scan lines, graphics filters, simulated cabinet views, etc) to enhance the retro experience without mucking up the authenticity to the original source material. More importantly, these games are still just a lot of fun to play, Shadow over Mystara in particular standing tall as a top class beat ‘em up by any game design standard, past, present or future.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Shadow over Mystara holds up to modern standards exceptionally well
+ Compelling mix of role-playing elements and arcade brawling
+ Multiple paths through each campaign encourage replay
+ Extensive reward system and stat tracking
+ Co-op is a high-fantasy blast

Cons:
– Tower of Doom’s play mechanics feel old and clunky
– Attacking and looting use the same button, often confusing your intentions
– Local co-op doesn’t allow dropping out after dropping in
– No option to limit the number of continues

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN, also available for PC and XBLA and coming soon to Wii U eShop
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Iron Galaxy Studios
Release Date: 6/18/2013
Genre: Beat ’em up / RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-4 (local and online co-op)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!